It is not a question of what to start with but, rather, from where to commence this epicurean expedition. Largely gone are the days of ‘a pie and pint at the local’, although herb-crusted Suffolk pig cheek, in a Melton Mowbray cold water pastry, with purple sprouting Lincolnshire broccoli on a bed of crushed and sea salted Shetland Black potatoes is somewhat nearer the mark.
Of course, you can still indulge in the traditions of a friendly Ploughman’s at most authentic British pubs but the times they are a changin’ and our formerly quite basic cottage pie, fish and chips and even the mildly exotic ‘spag bol’ (‘viande chevaline’ notwithstanding), while not disappearing completely, have become catering rarities that can be quite pleasant to partake of,
on occasion. Even a bowl of warming chilli con carne can now boast belly pork alongside the minced beef, red onions and other additions such as dark chocolate, tequila and even heavy ale in the recipe, so adventurous have our publicans become in teasing our tastebuds.
The simple fact is, since the economic collapse of 2008, a lot of pubs and eating establishments have closed their doors. Some of them forever. The resolve of the balance remaining has been shored up by recognition that they must enhance the consumer appeal, partly to achieve return business and a degree of loyalty, but also to display a greater sense of adventure, rather than being stuck in the mud of complacency.
We have all been affected by the era of the ‘celebrity chef’ and, while not all catering establishments emerge from clouds of blue funk, their No.1s and maitre d’s ‘effing and blinding’ through a typical service, there is no denying that most kitchens are run under pressurecooker conditions. When a sudden rash of forty covers appears, all of whom expect their meals to be served NOW and not one second later, it is inevitable that the steam will out. Think about that, next time you visit your local gastro-pub, or fine dining eatery, and things do not quite go according to your plan.
Of course, the telly is also responsible for raising standards and the cooking game has never been played on such a lofty field. There are always going to be major ‘fails’ in the heat of the galley but the ability to choose has never been greater and the range of different styles and international influences is also on a pinnacle that does appear to be refining and developing with a degree
of healthy consistency.
Selecting by food type
It all depends on what you fancy. Fish. Meat. Poultry. Vegetarian. While the French still turn up their noses at vegetarians, thankfully they are consumers admirably well catered for in the UK. Lincolnshire is truly the ‘garden of England’ for vegetables and there is scarcely one single type that is not grown in the county. While I did not want to short-circuit this story by recommending Lincolnshire eateries up front, I can tell you that the higher class restaurateurs in the county ensure that they obtain the best seasonal produce on their doorsteps without delay, often long before it reaches other parts of the UK. From celery to coriander, parsnips to potatoes and all manner of greens, the rich farmland of the east of England is a prime location. However, the tastiest King Edward and Maris Piper potatoes are grown in that most fertile strip of land between Blairgowrie and Aberdeen, in Scotland, and if you want to experience the best samphire, then picking it fresh off the beach on the Isle of Skye is guaranteed to make you desire it even more.
Actually, talking about geographical fertility, if you desire only the finest soft fruit, then look no further than Fife, Perthshire or Angus, as the strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, blackberries and blueberries are of premier grade. The Carse of Gowrie, the Valley of Strathmore and the Howe of Fife are the epicentre of the soft fruit trade in the UK and slightly longer production periods are making this region grow in importance.
Salt or freshwater
As a seafaring nation, we are never any further than seventy miles from the coastline and Great Britain is renowned for its shellfish, although there are some specific areas where you can take the following ‘best place for’ information for granted.
Cockles and mussels - English south coast, Dublin, west Wales
Oysters - Thames estuary, Essex coast
Scallops - south-west England, north-west Scotland (Loch Crinan)
Lobsters - Cornwall, Orkney Islands
Crabs - south Devon, Norfolk
Prawns and shrimps - north of Scotland
Naturally, you can find fresh sea fish almost anywhere in the UK, as our main ports of Whitby, Grimsby, Peterhead, Fleetwood and Lowestoft supply the nation’s chains and independents with North Atlantic, Arctic and North Sea stocks, all of which are sometimes injudiciously controlled by politicians. While cod, haddock and more recently mackerel have been described as ‘in short supply’ to UK customers, thanks to the afore-hinted quotas, other intriguing species, such as dab, coley, turbot, bass, brill, pollack, hake, monkfish, mullet, herring and sea bream, are not only edible but offer the necessary oils and vitamins that we all need in our diets. The more switched-on of the nation’s eating houses are turning slowly towards these alternative and more freely
Of course, freshwater fish are also very important and, since the Scottish salmon farming industry received its major shake-up a few years ago, health issues are now on a significantly better plane. I am told that carp (much beloved by eastern Europeans) is
highly edible but, having kept Koi for a number of years, to do so would be like consuming the family dog and I am not about to do that. I was provided with a recipe for carp once, which proposed attaching the carp to a wooden board, cooking over an open fire,
discarding the fish and eating the board. Operating to a similar principle as the marine stocks, the ‘best places for’ freshwater fish in the UK are as follows:
Salmon - Perthshire and West Highlands
Trout - Devon, Lancashire, Tayside, Deeside