When an 1895 Punch cartoon featured a Bishop asking a nervous Curate about how he found his boiled egg, the young man replied that it was “good in parts”. How that Curate with his breakfast egg perfectly sums up three days in one of London’s least accessible fair venues – Olympia W14. Olympia was opened nine year’s earlier in 1886 and the curate’s name was Mr Jones – maybe that was the cartoonist expressing Everyman.
No District Line to Olympia any more, so across two bridges to change at West Brompton on trains heading north of the capital, relief buses with unclear signage, a cancelled Overground service, ludicrous Tannoy announcements scripted by demented funsters all added to the japes from TfL. These complications made three return visits to Olympia three days to forget. How visitors to the capital managed is another matter, unless expensive black taxi’s or local hotels were their option. London has Western Europe’s worst functioning and most expensive transport system were my Tweets and Facebook releases. Many replied in agreement.
Once inside the Speciality Food Fair one was struck by how little proper food was there – you know what I mean, food you could take home for dinner. There was food as gifts, food as novelties, food for show, food for swanks and even food for food’s sake, all there in abundance as if it was a secular harvest festival for the manufacturers. Speciality foods that will ever find shelf space and be purchased with any frequency were a scarcity.
Whilst kicking off at these three days of frustration, why also is it that so many exhibitors not fully conversant with their products – especially those representing top end products which we know have wonderful stories to tell because we’ve taken the trouble to find out. Talk to those who grow, rear and make their products and all is well. Better than that because they are a joy and a delight. Have the seller even one step removed and one is most time met with question mark sur tête and product knowledge that neither astounds nor excites the visitor.
But like that curate’s egg, this fair was good in parts for those with the dedication of prospector and diviner. That links to eggs and Dinton Farm had a good story to tell. Experience shone through, as did the both-eyes-open approach of proprietor and farmer, Nigel Williams. Set over 400 acres in rural Buckinghamshire, his birds free range and are fed Conservation Grade cereals – and, Williams was quick to stress, no GM soya. These are real eggs for the Blue Collar Gastronaut. More on Dinton Farm another time – people who deserve shell-fulls of success.
Then comes Argan Oil pressed from the fruit of trees found around the magical town of Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast – picked and processed by Berber women.
“It takes 15 hours and 30 kg of fruit to produce just 1 litre of Argan Oil,” explained Dana Elmara. Said to be more ancient than olive oil – who cares because both are remarkable when pressed into the best – Argan Oil was at Olympia from Arganic (www.myarganic.co.uk). Long after the ‘sleb chefs have moved onto their next ‘new thing’, I predict we will have Argan Oil in our kitchens.
Among the first to endorse Argan Oil was old friend, enduring chef and New Zealander, Mr Fusion himself – Peter Gordon. That was +10/15 years ago – but a smite in the history of the Argania Spinosa trees of North Africa.
Rose petals have excited me ever since I first tasted rose petal ice cream from Maison Berthillon on L’Île Saint Louis (Paris) a hundred years ago. Tasting syrup, elixir, paste and preserve, made from Damask roses and rose hips grown a few miles outside Warsaw, was special. Rose petals pounded with sugar into a paste which is the filling for the most traditional of Polish doughnuts – children learn this at their grandma’s house. Rose water is one of the flavours of the Eastern Mediterranean kitchens and roses were used in the Tudor kitchen as well. It is possible to have it from Poland, 100% pure and for affordable prices. Rose Café is the name (www.rosecafe.co.uk).
Rice, grown by family businesses along the Po Valley, is special. Few of these family businesses fail to age their freshly harvested rice. A risotto made with fresh rice cannot be a good risotto as the essential al-dente finish will not be possible. My favourites are known to readers of these pages – Acquarello, Ferron, etc. I can’t yet speak for Riserva San Massimo because I haven’t cooked with their Carnaroli, but on packaging alone they deserve a place on a shelf near me.
The same is true of salume makers, Gigi of Modena. Their meats were high class with depth of flavour balanced with freshness that only comes when the meat has been carefully processed over the time of salting and drying. Pride of place was a grand Torta di Ciccioli (fried and pressed pork skins), made for restaurants in their region and now further afield. This is where the sensible meets the humorous head on and I squeaked with delight.
Culatello is special to Emilia-Romagna. It’s the prosciutto crudo for feasts and weddings, banquets and balls. This is the prized piece from the gammon – the correct and legal word for the rear leg of the pig. Forget those PR porkies told about animal behaviourists observing how pigs sit and rise to determine their least used leg. Culatello is the group of muscles in the middle of the hind leg and is cured without pressing. Most Prosciutto Crudo is pressed by tradition. Unpressed is to be sought after as it is most times a mark of extra quality. Culatello will cost more – obviously – but you will not be disappointed when you eat. Machine slicing is absolutely essential for optimum pleasure.
Salami featured too – one producer was there with salami with meat selected from the rare, heirloom Cinta Senese pig from Tuscany depicted in paintings dating back to the 13th century. These (left) are artisan made too – the paper wrapping is as traditional as the curing recipe. Food technologists would have a fit at the thought of paper in their stores.
“The word is that the white Alba truffles will be the best for many years this season. We have had good rainfall precisely when it’s needed to bring the white delicacies to forward perfection,” explained Monica Guarnieri as she came off an animated call from her truffle buyer at HQ in the Langhe (the area of rolling hills and woods around Alba).
Tartuflanghe is run by a retired chef and truffle master well known to my friend and colleague from Genoa, Roberto Panizza. As news came through, Roberto nodded in approval.
Tartuflanghe deal in fresh truffles – including the finest of all the black diamonds (the melanosporum – seen here) and the precious white Tartufo d’Alba variety – most if not all from Italian sources (Piedmont, Umbria, Tuscany, Marche). With truffles one must lean back on the experts to avoid disappointment – with some 36 varieties potentially available, only these two really pass ‘Go’.
Tartuflanghe’s range runs also to truffle-based products that, on sampling, had cred over the truffle oils we and friends so disdain in the Blue Collar kitchen.
Roberto Panizza comes to London as good as en-route to New York where he is staging a heat for the 2014 World Championships of Pesto alla Mortaio, the bi-annual event staged in Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale (www.pestochampionshipss.it). His tiny, but ordered, work station had him surrounded by fresh DOP basil, garlic from Vassalico, pine nuts (only ever Italian), sea salt from Trapani, DOP Sardinian Pecorino and 24 month old Parmesan – and EVOO from the Ligurian Riviera. Here he made fresh Pesto alla Genovese like the Master of Pesto he is. I learn something every time I watch Panizza at work.
Bravo Roberto, and I wrote as much on Facebook to amazing response from Italy, New York and Norway. Panizza is the man behind Pesto Rossi which features regularly in these pages.
Wales and Ireland made a good showing – cup cakes and chocolate animals aside. Pies from Bodnant, a place more famous for rhododendrons than meat and pastry when I grew up in Wales, that is now a Welsh food centre on a National Trust estate. Artisan cheeses made from cows and sheep grazing on Welsh pasture, Halen-Môn sea salt from Anglesey and Indian delicacies like vegetable filled pakora’s – well, the best ice cream around the Welsh coast was always made by Italian families who settled there since WW2.
Ireland always thrills. With Armagh now having IGP status for their Bramley Apples, so were apple juices and ciders on show. Potatoes of course were there in the form of the delightful enterprise of these last 10-12 years in Co Down called Mash Direct. Nothing fancy here, because freshness and quality are their USP’s – potato, carrot, swede, parsnip, beetroot mashed singly and in pairs, with the prize being ‘Champ’ – the Northern Irish speciality of buttery creamed potatoes and scallions (spring onions to most people, but scallions is the nicer name – and has me thinking of being called a rapscallion as a kid).
Green Saffron again caught my eye. Based in Midleton, Co Cork (the home of one of the world’s finest of all Irish whiskies), here’s a spice company run by the infectiously enthusiast chef, Arun Kapil. These people know spices and make some exciting and enticing dry blends and wet sauces. They also make an award winning Christmas Pudding with spices and fruits soaked in Irish Cider and Whiskey (not The Midleton, praise be). My godson worked with them, so I declare my interest. Green Saffron is going places.
These are foods that deserve their place. Real food made with integrity, not the playthings and fantasies of the urbanite with rural leanings – or worse those that have travelled someplace, had a memorable meal or met a man in the market and then read a recipe book to develop a product of zero validity.
Prefixed words like Authentic, Pure, Farmhouse, Grandmother’s, Homemade, Inspired, Real, My and Simply were as prevalent as heat rash on labels and signage throughout the fair. It would be unfair to show pictures and I took none for that reason.
Walking the show for three days one is struck by the sheer duplication in sectors like tea, biscuits, preserves, chocolate, sauces and novelties based on a food theme. Maybe there is a chain of shops I’m yet to fall on that relish in stocking all this.
Am I also one of the last in town to wake up to the fact that Gin has made a roar back? Everyone is making artisan gin since Sipsmith took off from a new Chiswick distillery to be found in London’s better cocktail bars and restaurants. Often the temptation is to over-do the floral and, as a Martini drinker, I care not for that. A Northamptonshire farmer called Tom give me quite the tiniest of sips of his Warner Edwards Gin – so tiny in fact, I splashed it on my palms, rubbed many hands together and took in the delight of his gin nasally. It was as excellent as it was clean and distinct. Gerry’s (Soho), Fortnum’s and Harrod’s already sell it at £36 a bottle. On the top tier with Tanqueray Ten, Hendrick’s, Ketal and others, this gin from Kettering can hold its head up in the best of company.
Saving two of the best until last, I stopped by Queijos Tavares to remind myself how good and little known are Portugal’s artisan cheeses. Poor grazing is a place for sheep and goats – and it’s their milk that makes some of the country’s best cheeses. We see too little of the cheeses of Portugal likewise their cured hams (presunto) and mid-priced wines.
Smoked pork is another thing besides – I have called in traditional ways for smoked trotters, ears, cheek and snout. Feijoada comes first to mind (thank you food & wine writer, Marc Millon), but I’m drawn to go my own way with this splendid looking meat taken from a young Portuguese pig.
Couscous was on our table at No 19 on Monday night – but hand’s up, it was a pre-cooked variety. It’s a grain and technique that has so far failed to wow the British, but it’s day will come. Molini del Ponte is a Sicilian flour miller with good connections – Slow Food, Agricoltura Biologica, ancient grains and is known to Gustiamo based in the new York Bronx (www.gustiamo.com).
Sicily has a couscous festival each year at San Vito Lo Capo (near Trapani where the famous Sea Salt is harvested) – many gather on the beach and in the town for four days to watch technique and taste couscous made by cooks from the island and who travel across specially from Tunisia and elsewhere across the couscous eating world. I talked of how twice I’ve made couscous from scratch. “Now please, you make it a third time,” said the lady from Molini del Ponte.
Another time I will talk of Pane Nero di Castelvetrano, a Slow Food protected sourdough made with one of Sicily’s ancient grains. First I must visit Sicily again. It is likely easier to access than Olympia London.
With a fair that is so not London, why not locate to a regional centre in future – cheaper and easier for the visitor and more suited to the main audience of deli’s, farm shops, gastropubs and others looking for ideas.
I did find food amongst the ‘specialities’, if they have fresh shell eggs, why not speciality poultry, rare breed beef and pork, mountain and marsh lamb, heritage vegetables and fruit, artisan bakeries and food shops might stock and we might buy on a weekly basis. Someone said they go to other fairs. They don’t because such fairs don’t exist. It came down to eggs and my Facebook fraternity loved them.
More to come from scouting around. Why is Rochester famed for Ginger Wine? The answer is unclear but it’s written that Charles Dickens liked it when he lived in nearby Gad’s Hill. There’s a Navy connection too. Soon I go to source.
Now to close this reflection hoping for answers. Bravo to those who showed real food. Fingers crossed they find sales.