Salmon from Uist
Uist is a part of Scotland where nothing can grow. There are no trees. They can’t farm anything – it’s too windy. So it’s good that they can farm fish. I’d always had salmon farming down as a bad thing.
But for Our Food we filmed at an expanding fish farm in Scotland, which I had thought would be a depressing, industrialised process. But it was actually quite small, and quite manageable.
And there were blokes in fishermen’s sou’westers, with the salmon jumping around being terribly healthy. It was all rather marvellous.
Clearly, they had learnt all the lessons. They had water that was very deep and sheltered, with fast-flowing currents and tidal shifts. Admittedly, I’m a layman (when I go to the fishmonger, if it’s got bright eyes I’ll buy it), but the fish looked amazing to me.
They smoked some of the salmon on site, so they didn’t have to pay the costs of refrigerating the fish and smoking them elsewhere, and I ate it fresh from the smokery. For weeks I stank of smoked fish.
As a restaurant critic you get cold, boring smoked salmon thrown at you all day long. When you look at the menu, you think, “Who would order the cold smoked salmon starter? What a mug.” But this was hot smoked salmon. Flaky, with an oaky taste. From a big healthy muscular fish that you’d seen swimming around.
And all those things you’d learnt to look for in a badly farmed salmon – a flabby body, with big sad eyes – just weren’t there.
Maybe it wasn’t quite the jet-propelled missile of a wild salmon that’s been swimming upstream to mate and die. But it was a pretty impressive fish nonetheless. And it was one of the nicest things I’ve ever eaten.
Beef from north Wales
My other stories involved travel by boat and train. But in Wales I walked – the old droving routes. Those routes eventually became roads, an instance of food shaping the landscape.
For centuries drovers walked cattle to the English markets, fattening them up on the way in the lush pastures of the Midlands and the South. It took them a few weeks, and they had to swim across the Menai Strait from Anglesey.
But they got there. They would go from village to village, picking up the cattle for market, and then come back again with the money.
I discovered in the course of filming (it was a bit Who Do You Think You Are?) that my wife’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was actually a drover. So I am the great-great-great-great-grandson by marriage of a drover. My lot were somewhere in the Ukraine at the time.
I also discovered that there’s still a wonderful symbiosis between man and beast. There was a guy called Brian who farms a herd of Welsh Black cattle. People go on about Aberdeen Angus, but Welsh Blacks are really beautiful.
We went and ate his steak. Proper, British, grass-fed steak. Minerally and chewy. We were wandering round the field one day, marvelling at how furry and pretty the cattle were, and eating their behinds by 6pm.
Mint from Norfolk
I arrived in Norfolk – which is where Our Food begins this week – on a wherry sailing down the Norfolk Broads. I hadn’t actually realised that all the land round there was reclaimed from the sea. Very Dutch in that way. And all the water was pumped up, off the land, into the Broads. On a wherry, you’re above the level of the fields, looking down. Quite impressive.
Three-quarters of the mint that goes into our mint sauce comes from the fields I sailed past. I saw the mint being picked. They have invented a machine – the only one of its kind in the world – to pick off the leaves without damaging the stalks. The leaves go straight from the lorry to the factory to the bottle.
I wouldn’t call it “a white-knuckle ride”, but speed was certainly of the essence. When I was filming, the director kept saying, “You’ve got to get across the fact that it’s a race against time.”
But that wasn’t typical. Our Food is a nice gentle series. It’s not a “nom-nom-nom” eating series, with lots of recipes. And it’s not a competition. Admittedly we won’t get the five million viewers that MasterChef gets, but we’ve got some good, interesting stories.
I mean, I had no idea that just a few years ago English mustard was under threat. It’s made from white mustard seeds and brown mustard seeds – two different types.
The white seed is all grown in East Anglia, but by 2007 farmers had noticed a problem: yields had dropped by half. The seeds had become too inbred and the crop had started to fail.
So they had to get in a scientist to go back to the original seed crop and start again. Like the scene in Jurassic Park with the fly in the amber, the scientist brought white mustard seed back to life.
Venison from the Highlands
The deer population in the Highlands needs culling; there simply isn’t enough food on the hills for them to eat. For years, the estates couldn’t give the meat away, and most of it was exported.
Now, on the back of growing interest in meats such as kangaroo and buffalo that are low in fat and low in cholesterol, venison is popular again. In supermarkets, the demand for British venison now actually outstrips supply.
Before I filmed Our Food, I had never fired a gun, not even an air gun, and thought it was barbaric, worrying that it would make a terrible mess of the deer. I’d heard these stories about stalking. You have to track the stag for days. You get wet. And you have to crawl through rivers. But we just went out, saw quite a nice big stag, and shot it.
We felt very strongly that we shouldn’t actually film the animal being shot for TV; we shouldn’t make it entertainment. It was the first thing I’ve seen shot and it was kind of beautiful and sort of terrible at the same time, which death ought to be.
It was made comprehensible to me because I had a bit of context. I crawled up next to the hunter and was there as he shot it. Suddenly, the gamekeeper is the boss: he says “kill it now”, then “pow”, it falls over. That’s what eating meat is about.
The truth is that the venison industry pays for that estate in the Highlands to be managed. Britain’s oldest and biggest wild animal can be maintained in beautiful surroundings like that only because we eat it. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be the means to manage the deer at all.
Cobnuts from Kent
I sailed through Kent on the Lady of the Lea, an original Thames sailing barge built in 1931. The barges were big enough to ply their trade in coastal waters, but they could also venture into narrow creeks to pick up goods direct from the growers.
Cobnuts, for instance – they were a personal story for me, because I’ve always loved them. I remember them very clearly from my childhood. But no one seems to know what they are any more.
They’re a cultivated form of the wild hazelnut, and there used to be acres and acres of fields growing them – all over Kent. There was once a huge demand in London, but it started to fall away after the First World War.
Unlike all the other nuts, cobnuts have to be eaten fresh. So supermarkets don’t want them because they can’t store them for long. They’ve been done for by the decline of traditional greengrocers’. To make matters worse, cobnuts are only in season very briefly – just a few weeks in the late summer and early autumn.
When I get round to buying them, they’re already brown and miserable. We’ve lost the habit of producing a nut that you eat sweet and fresh and green and cool and milky. That’s a shame. The growers have had to find other uses for their crop. There’s cold-pressed cobnut oil now. We just need to regain our appetite.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 27 March 2012.
Our Food begins tonight at 8pm on BBC2/BBC HD