Meet the Food Guardians

Food guardians.pdf - Jenny Linford

Food StoriesThese are exciting times for Britain’s foodscene. A new gastro-patriotism seesBritish food to the fore, from JamieOliver’s new restaurant chain, UnionJacks, serving ‘British flatbreads’ to aflourishing artisan British cheese scene.This new interest, however, owes a lot to work done inprevious decades to preserve our country’s threatenedfood heritage.Unlike France, where strict laws known as Appellationd'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) protect how and wheretraditional foods and drinks such as Cognac or Roquefortare produced, Britain’s food heritage has been protectedbehind the scenes by a varied assortment oforganisations, pressure groups and committed volunteers.The fashion for local and seasonal food on restaurantmenus means that today British fruit and veg are much indemand. “I credit Fergus Henderson of St John’srestaurant in London with changing how chefs looked atBritish vegetables,” says veteran restaurant supplierCharlie Hicks.“Before that the fashion was very much for importedproduce. Fergus came along and said, ‘You’re missing atrick guys’ and we started looking back at vegetables likeBrussels tops and purple sprouting broccoli which hadfallen from favour. His influence has been amazing. Wesell a lot of heritage vegetables now; chefs want oldfashioned,unusual varieties.”The richness of our traditional fruit and vegetableheritage is explored by Dr Toby Musgrave in his bookHeritage Fruits & Vegetables, a call to cherish ourkitchen garden heritage.“We work with around 290 volunteers who grow seedsfor us. Our work is all about keeping alive this diverseheritage. We’ve got runner beans with pods two feet long,purple-podded peas, while our flagship variety is thecrimson-flowered broad bean. We think of ourselves moreas a building society than a gene bank because we try toget people to grow the seeds. We want them out therebeing grown.”One of the highlights of Cornwall’s Lost Gardens ofHeligan ( is its flourishing ‘productivegarden’, filled with heritage varieties. “When theydiscovered the gardens and started to restore them, theywanted to take them to when kitchen gardens were intheir absolute heyday, which was during Victorian times,”says Nicola Bradley, productive garden supervisor.“We must have at least 300 heritage varieties here andwhat we grow gets used in the Tea Rooms. So many ofthese old varieties have great flavour. One of my favouritesis Veitch’s Western Express – a lovely tall pea varietywhich gets up to six foot high, is very prolific and vigorousand which tastes beautiful.”Preserved for ProsperityBrogdale Farm ( inFaversham in Kent is home to the National FruitCollection, one of the biggest collections of fruit varietiesin the world, owned by DEFRA and maintained as agenetic resource to preserve genetic diversity in foodcrops. Unusually for a genetic resource, it is also open tothe public, with the Apple Festival in October, completewith tours, tastings and apples on sale.“We have over 3,000 fruit varieties here, with aroundbreeds were brought in. We lost a lot of breeds. The lasttwo Lincolnshire Curly-Coated pigs went to slaughter inthe 1970s, while Norfolk Horn sheep were reduced tojust six.”Since the founding of the RBST in 1973, no othernative breeds of livestock have become extinct in the UK.“There’s a lot more interest in rare breeds nowadays,”says Claire, “and we have had some success stories withcertain breeds.” Today quality butchers, such as NathanMills The Butchery in London, are increasingly interestedin stocking meat from rare and traditional breedsbecause of these breeds’ superior flavour andeating qualities.Success StoryThe early 1970s also saw the foundation of the Campaignfor Real Ale, widely known as CAMRA( “It was originally called theCampaign for the Revitalization for Real Ale, which noone could say after a couple of pints,” laughs beer writerand long-time CAMRA member Roger Protz.“The reason for CAMRA’s foundation was that the1960s and early 1970s had seen a great spate ofturnovers and mergers in the brewing industry. Untilthen Britain had no national brewers, apart from Bass.Scores of regional breweries were being closed down ortaken over. We were losing the heritage of Britishregional beer, with big breweries switching to keg beer,processed, filtered and pasteurised beer, or lager.“Four men got together to found CAMRA and theytouched a chord at once. The first thing they did washave a big beer festival in Covent Garden and there were“There are individuals and organisations across Britain whosework we should applaud and be very grateful for”“I was aware that there had been a loss of our fruit andvegetable heritage,” explains Musgrave, “but I wasshocked at how high the level of losses had been.” Europehas lost perhaps 2,000 cultivars since the 1970s, while inAmerica it’s estimated that 96 per cent of commercialvegetable and fruit varieties available in 1903 arenow extinct.“There are individuals and organisations across Britaindoing this conservation and preservation, who I guessback then were considered a little bit eccentric,”Musgrave comments, “whose work we should now hugelyapplaud and be very grateful for, because they have saveda lot.”In Safe HandsOne such organisation is The Heritage Seed Library( founded by horticulturistand journalist Lawrence D. Hills in 1973 to protect theloss of vegetable cultivars. European legislation in the1960s and 1970s made it illegal to sell a seed varietycommercially that wasn’t on a national list. Having a seedlisted, however, cost money and so many varieties startedto disappear.“Lawrence Hills realised what was happening andstarted to collect these varieties,” explains Neil Munro,manager of the Heritage Seed Library. “He wrote a letterin The Times about what was happening and peoplestarted sending him seeds and that was the start of ourcollection. We now have about 800 varieties of vegetables.We can’t sell these seeds because these varieties are noton the national list, so people become members of theHeritage Seed Library and are given free seeds.2,200 apples. They’ve always been this country’s favouritefruit,” explains Brogdale guide Mike Austen, “When thefruit is ripe and I take people around they are alwaysamazed by the different flavours and the amount offlavour you get compared to modern varieties.”Visitors to Brogdale can also buy fruit trees for theirown gardens or orchards. “We do a lot of work with theNational Trust with their old orchards. If they have asixteenth century house, we can give them a sixteenthcentury apple tree.”The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale is animportant resource for scientific research. “It’s a wellrespectedcollection,” explains Dr Matthew Ordige of theUniversity of Reading, scientific curator at Brogdale.“We’re doing some cryogenic preservation as a back-upfor the live trees.“This involves collecting graft wood in winter when thetrees are naturally dormant, sectioning the wood into35mm sections with a bud, dehydrating them, takingthem through a controlled rate freeze, then storing themin liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees. We are also in theprocess of starting to conduct climate change trials, usingthe wide variety of genetic traits available in thiscollection.”The decades after World War II saw a loss of manynative breeds of livestock animals. “It goes back to afterthe Second World War when the government wanted toincrease food production rapidly,” explains Claire Bowry,acting operations director of the Rare Breeds SurvivalTrust (“Our native breeds feed well off grass and take longerto mature, so faster-maturing, higher-yielding continentalpeople queuing around the block.” Beer festivals, offeringpeople a chance to sample the huge array of beers onoffer, continue to be a hallmark of CAMRA’s approach topromoting real ale, as well as much lobbying andcampaigning on issues such as the amount of tax on beer.“We are to ale what the French are to wine,” saysProtz proudly, “We have our different ale regions. InScotland, where they can’t grow hops because of theclimate, the beers tend to be rather malty and sweetbecause they use less hops as they’re expensive. Welshbeer tends to be quite weak because of the power of thetemperance movement. In London you have very hoppybeers because of the proximity of the Kentish hop fields.In the Midlands beers used to be very dark and a bitsweeter because they were brewed for industrialorkers who wanted to replace their energy after a hardday’s work.”Protz is thrilled by the current buoyancy of the real alescene, with real ale the only growth area in a decliningbeer market. “You have to rub your eyes in almost totaldisbelief at what’s going on. The rise of the microbreweryis the big thing. There are almost 900 breweries now. Wehave as many breweries as we did in the 1940s.“To be clear though, the volumes are much lower.We’re drinking a lot less, but we’re drinking very goodbeer! When I go to the supermarket I notice young menin jeans at the supermarket checkout. Whereas a coupleof years ago they’d have been buying Stella, they’re nowloading up Fullers or other good beer. I speak from theinside, obviously, but I just don’t think there would havebeen this great revival of interest in British beer ifCAMRA hadn’t existed.”54 Great British Food

Great British Food 55

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