“That Tom Kerridge owes me big time,” says James “Amos” Dewhurst, easing the flat cap from his head in the Town End Farm Shop and Tearoom in Airton, deep in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Amos, a 63-year-old local livestock farmer, accompanied by two sheep dogs, lest there be any doubt, is describing the financial effects of having Kerridge’s new series, Top of the Shop, come to the village.
“I’m not tight,” Amos says with some feeling, “but Kerridge made me spend more than I meant to.” The figure in question isn’t huge, only £4.25, but, as Amos points out ruefully, neither was the jar of chutney it bought. “It takes something to get a Yorkshireman to part with his money,” he observes.
Which is exactly why Airton, ten miles northwest of Skipton, at the head of Malhamdale, made such a good venue for Kerridge’s new show. The Michelin-starred restaurateur believes British food culture, under threat from ready meals and takeaways, can be saved by small producers playing to national strengths of artisanal skills, tradition and diversity.
Over seven hour-long episodes, Top of the Shop’s contestants, who come from all over the country, will do battle in rounds that cover preserves, pickles and spreads, sweets, drinks, baked goods, sauces, cheese and meat, before the winners meet in the finale. The judges are food writer and restaurateur Nisha Katona and artisan foods expert Alison Swan Parente – but, crucially, the contestants are also rated by how well their products sell in the farm shop. How would the people of Airton take to a range of products that encompass Devon fudge, gin-and-tonic marshmallow and boutique peanut butter?
“The villagers were direct,” says Kerridge. “They weren’t overly polite, going, ‘Oh yes, this is nice,’ and then walking away saying, ‘No, no, this is not for me.’ It was more like, ‘No. Don’t like that.’ Very straight and to the point, not like us southerners, who will be polite about everything and then just not buy it again.”
In the tearoom, 75-year-old farmer Bill Bland, a man with the wry humour and bashed-about knuckles that come from a lifetime of manual work on the flanks of the Pennines, tells me what he likes to eat: “Basic food. Hotpot. Steak and kidney pudding. Sausage and mash. And a slice of Muriel’s cake.” Muriel, 73, Bill’s wife of 51 years, is sitting alongside him and admits that she doesn’t make quite as many cakes as she used to. “But I still bake bread and help out at my daughter’s beauty shop in Skipton, and I volunteer at the church.” Muriel is also the mother-in-law of Chris Wildman, proprietor of the farm shop and tearoom and famed – locally anyway – as the inventor of Yorkshire Chorizo.
“There is a certain Yorkshire attitude towards food,” says Wildman, 51, carefully. “They don’t want nonsense. They know what they like, and they like what they know. Occasionally, getting them to try new things can be difficult.” This might be a matter of geography rather than gastronomy. A look around the shelves of Wildman’s shop reveals stocks of Yorkshire chutney, Yorkshire beer, Yorkshire biscuits, Yorkshire cheese, Yorkshire honey, Yorkshire crisps, Yorkshire parkin and, remarkably, 32 different kinds of Yorkshire gin.
If you’re not inclined to share Yorkshire’s belief in its own excellence, a look out of the window at the back of the shop and tearoom – a view we will get to enjoy throughout the series – might persuade you. The intense green of Malhamdale is crisscrossed with ancient dry-stone walls, and across the fields Malham Cove (around 260 feet of sheer limestone cliff) is carved out of verdant slopes that rise to Pennine fells above. Nearby, an unworldly glacial valley, Gordale Scar, cuts through the hillside, and the tower of St Michael the Archangel emerges from the morning mists.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful place,” Kerridge says when we meet later in London. Airton is also the sort of place where lunch is called dinner and served at 12.30pm and entertainment is a matter of fell running, village cricket, the annual horticultural show and bell ringing.
George Parker, 72, takes me up the spiral staircase to the bell tower of St Michael the Archangel in nearby Kirkby Malham and unleashes a peal (not for too long – someone has recently objected to bell practice interfering with their evening gin and tonic). Listening to the bells in an ancient church known as the Cathedral of the Dales, it’s easy to feel cut off from modern life and its food fashions, but Parker has seen and tasted the world. “I was in the Navy for ten years, then I was on oil rigs in Indonesia, and I enjoyed the local cuisine,” he says. “So I loved having the show here and taking part. My favourite product was the Kum-chang tea.”
In fact, Wildman has learnt something new about the people of Airton. “They might think they like Yorkshire puddings and gravy, but in the end they’re quite happy to try lots of new things. Yorkshire people can welcome and embrace different foods and cultures. After all, Bradford is the curry capital of the UK.”
Airton has one more surprise. I find Amos untethering his border collies and heading back to his farm office. “I’ve got a consignment of meat going down to London.” London? “Yes, I supply nine or ten restaurants, top ones. They’ve asked me down to give them a talk. I might just do it.”
Top of the Shop with Tom Kerridge airs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, starting on 17th April at 9pm on BBC2