Gone are the days when serving exotic produce meant crossing borders, or even continents, to acquire it. Much of it is now grown - or has always been grown - right here in Britain. Emma White explains how
At the crack of dawn on Hurst Farm in Godalming, Surrey, the first of the Italian courgette flowers are being harvested for delivery the same day to caterers across the country. In Dorset, husband-and-wife team Joy and Michael Michaud are tending to their Mexican and Spanish chillies. On the South Coast, forager Miles Irving is pulling up his wellies and making ready to wade into the water for some Japanese Combu seaweed.
Such sights are not traditional British farming as we know it, but these products are in demand. While there will always be carrots and sprouts, times are changing and British farmers are branching out to offer a wider selection of fresh produce - items that need no longer be imported, giving caterers the chance to cut down on food miles.
In an age when protecting the environment matters as much as the dish of the day, today's caterers now have access to everything - from unusual vegetables, herbs and exotic mushrooms to truffles, seaweeds and wild flowers that are grown here in the UK.
Sicilian restaurateur Santino Busciglio has embraced the wider selection of fresh British produce on his seasonal menu at London's Number Twelve restaurant, to much acclaim from The Times food critic Giles Coren.
In his review last month, Coren said that the restaurant offered "classy Italian cooking without the air miles", adding: "Enchanting though it is when an Italian chef tells you how he waited for the speedboat to come in with the fresh sea urchins on some Sardinian shore last night, and then chartered a jet to bring it to your table in London for only a million and four pounds, not including service, it can make you feel a bit carbon-guilty."
As a Sicilian, Busciglio says that sourcing food locally and making the most of what is in season comes naturally. "I'd rather stick to produce grown in Britain than import it," he says. "We've got the land in this country, we've got the farmers with the know-how, and at last they're growing different things, giving us greater choice and better seasons."
Italian Cavelo Nero, or black cabbage, is among the vegetables now grown in the UK that Busciglio recommends. "It has a wonderful texture and tastes great in a winter soup," he says. "I've also tried butter spinach from northern India, a creamy, buttery vegetable with a tall leaf and a short stalk."
As well as discovering entirely new varieties of vegetables in the UK, Busciglio thinks it is brilliant to find so many types within types. "Beetroot has always been a great vegetable," he says, "but now we have yellow beetroot and Italian candy beetroot chioggia, which is full of iron."
As well as reducing the carbon footprint, buying local often means using products that are fresher, as Busciglio points out. "These vegetables are picked and transported to the caterer very quickly, much faster than a lorry travelling over France or Italy," he says. "The vitamins are still there, the colour is there and they taste better. I think it's great that a lot of suppliers will now tell you how many miles your food has travelled to get to you."
Richard Perton, product and buying director for supplier 4degreesC, agrees that the British fresh produce market has changed for the better. He says: "We supply Swiss chard and rainbow chard, which are a bit like spinach but with fleshy stems Chinese leaf from Lancashire wild rocket that used to be imported from Italy and is now grown in Essex plus the pointed green floret cauliflower Romanesco, which is grown in Kent."
Vernon Mascarenhas, managing director of supplier Secretts Direct, says that having access to locally grown vegetables allows caterers to buy produce that retains as much flavour as possible. "For example, we harvest about 250 courgette flowers each daybreak, when the beautiful golden flower is in full bloom, and deliver them on the same day," he says. "Italians cook the flower and stuff the baby finger-sized courgettes with seafood mousse or ricotta. Unfortunately, UK caterers still import them from the Netherlands - but by the time they arrive, the flowers have dried up and lost a lot of flavour."
French potatoes are another UK-grown product being snapped up by British chefs. Jeremy Ford, sector executive chef for contract caterer Restaurant Associates, has nothing but praise for Northumberland supplier Carroll's Heritage Potatoes, which offers 20 types of potato.
"The French ratte is a versatile potato that makes a fantastic mash or potato purée," Ford says. "We cook them in their skins to absorb the flavours. The French pink fur apple variety makes a great salad potato, but a lot of chefs don't like them because of their knobbly shape. I think the shape adds character - and they make great crisp garnishes."
At the Humber VHB farm in West Sussex, a selection of niche products - including Chinese pea shoots and 16 types of Japanese microleaf - are supplied to top-end restaurants such as the Ivy and Nobu in London.
"Fifteen years ago, we supplied pea shoots to British Airways, but they fell out of fashion. Now, though, the demand for pea shoots is back," says product manager James Seymour. "There are two types, young and old, and we grow the younger, softer shoots in glass houses on matting rather than soil."
But it's the microleaf selection that Seymour says has really grasped the attention of British chefs. "Centuries ago," he explains, "the Chinese grew the pea shoots in their homes, like salad cress, as it was the only place warm enough for them to grow. They are new to the UK but they've been in the USA for years, pioneered by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry Restaurant in Napa Valley."
Seymour says that the leaves, which include Red Mustard, Leaf Radish and Purple Shiso, and are distributed under the Wow brand, serve as a pretty garnish "but also deliver a huge amount of flavour". The Leaf Radish, for example, is used in sushi to wrap up the fish.
Elsewhere, fresh chillies from Dorset grower Peppers by Post have been helping caterers to add a Mexican flavour to their menus. As well as growing the Dorset naga - said to be the spiciest chilli in the world - the company offers eight other varieties including the poblano, Spanish fryer, tomatillo, Hungarian hot wax and the jalapeÁ±o. Owner Joy Michaud says: "The jalapeÁ±o are vastly better than the ones you'd find in a supermarket in terms of flavour and freshness."
Thomasina Miers, the Masterchef winner and owner of Mexican restaurant Wahaca in London's Covent Garden, is a Peppers by Post customer but has also recently underwritten an entire crop of serrano chillies at the Edible Ornamentals farm in Bedfordshire.
"I think it is a wonderful thing to be able to buy the chillies locally," she says. "The serrano chillies are an alternative to the jalapeÁ±o and have a grassy-fresh green flavour that transforms our table salsa," she says. "People can get too caught up with things being authentic when so many products are grown all over the world. I'm all for cutting down food miles."
If exotic mushrooms are your thing, look no further than Smithy Mushrooms in Lancashire, which grows nameko, shiitake and oyster varieties under carefully monitored polytunnels. "Our mushrooms have a lovely flavour and really hold their nutrients," says director John Dorrian. "They may be slightly more expensive than those imported from Japan, but they also haven't been sitting around for three weeks before they reach the caterer. Our mushrooms are fresh and delivered the day they are picked."
Truffles are another product of great interest, and Truffle UK cultivates Périgord black truffles and summer Burgundy truffles at a purpose-built facility in Hungerford. "Chefs are concerned about air miles, so it is good to be able to offer these truffles locally," says owner Nigel Hadden-Paten. He adds that this seasonal product is best eaten towards the end of the summer, saying: "The summer truffle has a nutty, gritty taste with a great texture."
Wild produce is the speciality of Kent-based forager Miles Irving, who says that a lot of tasty foods are often growing right on our doorsteps. Irving's company, Forager, hopes to reconnect with Britain's lost food heritage of wild plants, stems, roots and flowers, which he says have been here since the end of the last ice age and are part of our culinary heritage.
"Sorrel, sea buckthorn and berries from the sumac bush all make good substitutes for lemons, and grow wild in this country," he says. "The sumac berries are used as a spice in Mediterranean dishes. Sumac is imported and sold in ethnic shops, but you can find it growing naturally along hedgerows."
Seaweed is a product that Irving says is usually imported from Japan but that lies in abundance along British shorelines, particularly in Scotland and Ireland. Combu or kelp naturally grows fairly close to the coastline, and many people wait for the lower tides before "wading into the water and grabbing it". Irving says nori seaweed, also known as lava and classically used in lava bread, comes in thin sheets that are traditionally boiled for hours, then fried and served with bacon.
Herbs such as marjoram and oregano are still being imported, but Irving says there is "masses of wild marjoram growing all over the country". Wild garlic is grown in most counties, and can be used to substitute for the garlic bulbs commonly used in cooking.
Irving says: "Leaf garlic, garlic flowers and garlic with ‘bulbills', which grow under the flower, were used in old English cooking and can be used as a milder alternative to the common garlic bulb. There are nine types of garlic, half of which are grown native in this country. The garlic flowers look gorgeous and they vary in strength - one is mild, while another will blow your head off."
Varieties of fruit seem to be the only fresh produce that don't transfer well to British soils. "Undercover tomatoes are grown here, but you'd never get the same flavour as tomatoes grown in Italy," says Perton of 4degreesC. Busciglio agrees and says: "Fruit is always going to be a problem in this country because of the climate. I still struggle to find a really good tomato, and have imported baby plum tomatoes on the vine from Sicily."
Pastry chef Matt Owens of desserts company Zuidam says that while berries are widely available, and even mangoes are grown here for a few summer months, there aren't enough of them to provide a consistent supply for larger companies. "UK-grown fruits may be suitable for specialist instances and top-end restaurants," he says, "but larger commercial companies still need to buy abroad."
Undeniably, the British fresh produce market is evolving and, despite limitations with types of fruit, caterers can look forward to an ever wider selection of unusual breeds of vegetables, herbs and mushrooms. You could say we're at the tip of the iceberg lettuce.
- Carroll's Heritage Potatoes 01890 883060 www.heritage-potatoes.co.uk
- Charlie Hicks Greengrocer 01981 550309 www.charliehicks.com
- Edible Ornamentals 01480 405663 www.edibleornamentals.co.uk
- Forager firstname.lastname@example.org
- 4degreesC 020 8558 9708 www.4degreesc.com
- Humber VHB 01482 661600 www.humbervhb.co.uk
- Pauleys/Brakes 0870 600 2005 www.pauleys.co.uk
- Peppers by Post 01308 897766 www.peppersbypost.biz
- Secretts Direct 0870 300 3555 www.secrettsdirect.co.uk
- Smithy Mushrooms 01704 840982 www.smithymushrooms.co.uk
- 3663 0870 366 3000 www.3663.co.uk
- Truffle UK 01935 83819 www.truffle-uk.co.uk