Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Wake up and smell the tofu”

In 2016 the Vegan Society commissioned a survey which asked nearly 10,000 people for their views on veganism – the reply came back that 1.05% of Britons followed a vegan diet and the trend was upwards, that means there are 542,000 vegans in the UK

The term vegan was coined by Donald Watson in 1944 with support from such notables as George Bernard Shaw. To begin with they saw themselves as “strict vegetarians” but in short order there were “dietary vegans” – no meat; eggs; dairy or anything derived from animals. Then “ethical vegans” – opposing all exploitation of animals, plus “environmental vegans”. The statistics may lag behind the current marketplace but veganism is growing fast and starting to make a significant impression.

April 2018 sees the publication of Cook Share Eat Vegan, a new book from Áine Carlin, the best-selling author of Keep it Vegan. This new cookbook is published by Mitchel Beazley and is a handy source of inspiration for any carnivore faced with entertaining vegan guests. The dishes all read well and are refreshingly unfaddy: “Spicy mushroom stuffed calzone”, “polenta pizza”, “falafel shakshuka”, “chip shop vegetable curry”, “puy lentil ragu”, “sweet potato and walnut koftas” and “celeriac steaks with a mushroom stroganoff sauce.” Cook Share Eat Vegan is an elegant book and does a good job of bringing the vegan diet into the mainstream.

A restaurant called By Chloe. (with a full stop as part of its branding) has just opened in London’s Covent Garden. This is a vegan establishment and flies the flag for the “plant-based diet” as By Chloe. styles itself as “New York’s hippest, plant-based, fast casual restaurant”. Time Out New York went so far as to award By Chloe. the title of best veggie burgers in NYC. The strategy behind the menu at the new establishment (a second London branch is opening immediately) is to offer plant-based, meat-free, versions of mainstream favourites. So classic fish 'n’ chips is re-worked as crispy tofu served with the classic accompaniments of chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce. Shepherd’s Pie is made from ground seitan, vegetables and mashed potato then served with By Chloe.’s famous Beet Ketchup. There’s a “Guac” burger; or noodles made from matcha kelp; or a quinoa taco salad; or a vegan mac ’n’ cheese – said to be one of the dishes sorely missed by the dairy-intolerant. Other vegan takes on the classics include sticky toffee pudding – in this instance topped with coconut whipped cream. Or perhaps you would prefer to round off your meal with a dairy-free ice cream? As the blurb would have it. “By Chloe. aims to share delicious, wholesome, plant-based food that fuels and energizes without compromising flavour, taste or satisfaction”.

The path from eccentric minority to alternative mainstream is not an easy one, but there are enough signs to encourage the committed vegan. Perhaps the plant-based gospel will find more followers this year. Although you have to wonder what George Bernard Shaw would have made of a Guac burger…

“Happy New Year?” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Happy New Year?”

It’s the optimism that impresses. Anyone opening a restaurant must have a thick hide and determination aplenty. Every year hopeful restaurateurs remodel their dream restaurant sites and then watch their life savings gurgle down the plug hole as the public gives its verdict

But a small proportion of these new restaurants will catch the public’s fancy and prosper. For anyone interested in all things food and drink, studying the restaurant market can help reveal the future, and in the next four months there are a host of restaurant openings planned. This is where those extreme food trends first see the light of day. Here are just a few of the hopefuls trying their luck and opening soon. Which ones will make it? We have the rest of 2018 to find out.

Cora Pearl in Covent Garden is a solo venture from Tom Mullion who had such success with Kitty Fisher. The Good Egg deli will also be opening in Covent Garden with dishes inspired by the cuisine of Montreal and Israeli street food. Kudu will be bringing South African inspired dishes to Peckham with locally foraged ingredients. At Hicce (which means current in Latin), Pip Lacey, a protégé of Angela Hartnett, will be cooking over a wood fire and making much of traditional marinating, curing and pickling. Atticus – Soul food in North London from Iqbal Wahhab (he set up both the Cinnamon Club and Roast in Borough Market). Daddy Bao comes to Peckham Taiwanese food, buns, “smacked cucumber” anybody? L’Ami Malo Crepes and galettes from Northern France coming to Spitalfields. There’s to be a vegan mac ‘n’ cheese and quinoa taco salad. Farm Girl Chelsea Aussie food and health-conscious dishes.

The Royal Oak at Whatcote, here 80% of the meat served comes from the wild… “pigeon biltong” anyone? Ekte Nordic Kitchen all-day Nordic cuisine has new home in the City. Ruya Middle Eastern fine dining is coming to Victoria. Anatolyan cuisine. Avobar Has Covent Garden been waiting for this all avocado restaurant? Brat Tomos Parry (ex Kitty Fisher’s) opens in Shoreditch and names his venture after the Basque dialect name for turbot. Cooking on fire, with dishes from Welsh and Basque cuisines. Temakinho at Tower Bridge will be the second of these Japanese/Brazil fusion restaurants.

It’s hard to believe but this short list only scratches the surface of the openings this spring and shows off the astonishing vibrancy of the UK restaurant scene. As for spotting cuisines that will end up being the “next big thing in the foodie world” you get to choose from: Israeli Street Food; South African meats; Soul Food; Bao Buns; Jamaican specialties; Crepes; Vegan; Aussie Cuisine; Wild Meat; Foraged food; Nordic Cuisine; Anatolyan Cuisine; Avocados; Welsh Cuisine; Basque Cuisine; Japanese/ Brazilian fusion.

Imagine the stresses and strains of opening a restaurant – the decisions to be made. Then consider some of the stranger options above, because a proportion of them will succeed despite many of them looking very unlikely. Who knows, hidden in the long list of hopeful restaurant openings may be the one concept that tickles the public’s tummy? And hidden in that success may be the food trend that we would all like to spot.

“Happy New Year?” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Happy New Year?”

What did you get for Christmas?

As we rely more and more on the magic of the internet the processes involved in buying and selling get faster and faster. The first mince pies hit the supermarket shelves in mid-August last year and they will cling on into the start of the New Year.

If there is no legitimate festival to make a fuss about, the marketeers will make one up. Just before Christmas we were told that there were stellar bargains to be had on Black Friday. The nine-day “Black” shopfest came hard on the heels of another import from America - dressing up to trick or treat for Halloween. Then, as with the January sales, which now crop up anywhere between November the 5th and the New Year, the received wisdom is that a spoonful of spurious feeding frenzy will keep the tills ringing.

But hang on a minute, whether or not it is top of mind even the most ardent customers have a budget. The amount of money in the retail system is finite and shopkeepers cannot take money from customers if they have already spent it the week previously. Many retailers find themselves in January with customers nursing a maxed-out credit card and no real excuse to push things forward. It doesn’t help that January can be gloomy, and when you have seen off the New Year’s revels there isn’t much to look forward to, unless you like haggis, whisky and tartan – Burns Night falls on January 25th.

It is no coincidence that a good many restaurants set aside January for maintenance and refurb. Take the money on New Year’s Eve then close until Valentine’s Day without missing much. The statistical boffins were alarmed when 2017 saw food prices rise and they developed all kinds of complicated explanations, but whatever the reason prices rarely slip down as smoothly as they go up. As we go into 2018 we must face the effects of 2017’s 70% rise in the wholesale price of butter. As any classical chef will tell you that butter is king and the current shortage (some attribute the price rise to a growing demand for croissants and pastries in China) will have to be faced. It’s a case of what can’t be cured must be endured and the French are particularly hard hit with some empty shelves in the run up to Christmas.

For shopkeepers of all sizes the target for the year must be to smooth out the peaks and troughs in the sales figures, it’s no good relying on artificial stimulus such as the Black Friday, the customers must be helped through uncharted waters. It would be nice to think that the old adage “eat less but eat better” will come to the fore and that both retailers and customers will start to put more emphasis on quality.

Looking back on 2017 it’s hard not to nominate an outstanding candidate for Politician of the year - Graziano Delrio, Italy’s Transport Minister. In the autumn Mr Delrio was supposed to join his parliamentary colleagues on a symbolic hunger strike. But when he noticed that the dates clashed with the Alba truffle fair he put off the hunger strike. He sounds like the kind of chap who has his priorities right… I wonder if he could be seconded to the Brexit team?

“Breaking fast” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Breaking fast”

Next time you find yourself in a hotel breakfast room, take a look around at the other guests. This sensible folk will have got up early to tuck into double fried everything. Once upon a time everyone would have been breakfasting like this. A combination of the decline in manual labour reducing our need for fuel and constant battering from the health lobby has put a dent in the world of breakfast and now the “Seagull’s breakfast” rules supreme, (for nonmariners the components are “a look around and a drink of water”). What a pity that serious breakfasting is reserved for a treat, or those occasions when breakfast is already included in the hotel’s B&B tariff. Big breakfast is beleaguered

In 1902 Miss M. L. Allen wrote a charming little book entitled Breakfast Dishes which was aimed at housekeepers and cooks. The listings in the book treat breakfast on a day by day basis and provide five dishes for each day. They ate well in 1902. Breakfast items for 4th January are set out: savoury omelette; kedgeree; potted pheasant; cold ham; scones; orange marmalade. Other days featured dishes like stewed jack pike; curried macaroni; sausages boiled with chestnuts. Somewhere along the centuries breakfast has changed from a table laden with often quite sophisticated dishes, to a plate laden with a pile of fried stuff.

One of the unexpected consequences of the increasing number of chefs setting up shop in hotel restaurants is that they often should cover the hotel’s breakfasts as well as their restaurant’s lunch and dinner. Having the infrastructure in place and limiting the overhead makes these deals attractive, breakfast is the pay back. Theo Randall has been the “Name” restaurant at the Hotel InterContinental (off London’s Park Lane) for a decade and is remarkable as the restaurant offers top notch Italian dishes from a kitchen headed by an Englishman. He also has a way with breakfasts. As well as tables covered in baked goods, there are juices and a series of offers that come under the heading of “Theo’s Full Breakfast”. All the dishes have an Italian spin but just about fit neatly within breakfast. How about “Frittata – St Ewe Cornish free range eggs with zucchini, caprino fresco and marjoram”? Or “Rösti di patate – potato rösti with poached eggs, crisp pancetta and salsa pizzaiola”? Just when everything sounds a bit posh and rather Italian you come across the “Colazione all’Inglese”! Let’s hear i for the full English in Italian disguise. “Roast organic pork sausage, field mushrooms, potato rösti, crisp bacon, and your choice of poached, fried or scrambled eggs”.

Isn’t it time we all saw a decent breakfast as an opportunity – the kind of satisfying, robust meal that prepares people for a busy day ahead? Cooked breakfast will still be a treat, and we are unlikely to dash up some potted pheasant, but it can be a whole lot more than a bowl of suspect muesli looking rather like horse food. Let’s tempt serious breakfast out of its last stronghold in the hotel dining room and indulge ourselves at the start of the day.

“Some like it hot” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Some like it hot”

Stand by to be swept away by a tide of melted stuff – cooked cheese is coming to town

The market leader, (and currently the must-have on food wagons throughout the country) is called Halloumi fries. A fledgling cousin of cheesy chips, Halloumi fries are made by cutting Halloumi into chip-shaped pieces, flouring them and then giving them a turn around the deep fryer. Someone has developed chips that are potato-free and doubtless they are very proud of their cutting-edge indulgence. Despite the hideous squeaking of the cheese on your teeth, and the knowledge that a portion’s worth of Halloumi contains a testing amount of salt, hungry people are queuing for this. Chefs and short-order cooks everywhere have reason to be pleased, their customers love the combination of double-fried anything with batter and salt. Just watch the chap salting your next portion of fish and chips. Not much restraint there, and that is before the vinegar is sploshed over your dinner.

Cheese has always been one of the trump cards in the kitchen. There is something very appealing about the richness and tang of a good cheese when you meet it on an otherwise plain dish. The only ingredient that challenges for the crown is bacon (greedy people will tell you that there is no dish that is not improved by adding bacon). But think back to all those occasions when a dollop of melted cheese has been the grace note. The 1970s was the decade of deep fried Camembert – rubbery, stinky and oozing across the plate – but it still appeals and occasionally you will find it lurking on a gastropub starters menu. Retro dishes must deliver otherwise they are swept away by progress. Or there is Raclette, which works on the principle that we are seduced by the machinery devised to cut a helping of molten cheese. Or fondue. Eat a half pound of melted cheese sauce with a few bits of bread and then add a glass of chilled white wine. The result is shocking – your innards will solidify as their contents bind up and set firm.

Fondue at lunch time is a trial, in the evening it is terminal. Another hot cheese that is trending is mac and cheese. What’s an American comfort food doing on menus this side of the Atlantic? Macaroni Cheese is one of those traditional dishes that is easier made in theory than in practice - the problem lies in getting the cheese sauce wet enough for the pasta to swell and soften. So far so good, but what about the current fad for “deep fried mac and cheese”? Nasty, chewy, dried out balls of pasta with a cheesedusted coat. It’ll never catch on… but it has.

One of the most abused cheeses in the hot and melted category is Stilton, the king of cheeses. Setting aside perverse ideas like Stilton sauce on a steak (a sure way to ruin both the steak and cheese) there is one circumstance when cooked Stilton delights. The welsh rarebit. In the Savoy Hotel before the war, it was best practice to spoon the Stilton, and the grill room would get through several Stilton cheeses each day. Spooning is very wasteful but it did provide the kitchen with a valuable ingredient. The rind and the remains of every Stilton played a key role in the welsh rarebit. Try it – a stilton rarebit, made with beer and mustard, white bread, very pungent. You have to wonder whether Halloumi fries will have the same kind of longevity.

“The march of the seasons” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“The march of the seasons”

I have a guilty secret: I cannot bring myself to throw anything away. I feel happiest in my office surrounded by cookery books; their mere presence is comforting and I tell myself that I can just reach out and pluck wisdom from the shelves. I also have an obsessive relationship with the weekend papers, clipping and filing anything to do with food, drink or restaurants. These cuttings make interesting reading and conclusively prove that there is nothing new under the sun

Let us take a dip into September 2010 and turn the clock back. It is interesting to see what were the hot topics. Tom Parker Bowles was writing about chillies – no surprises there then. Diana Henry was writing about autumn lamb and saying how much better it was than spring lamb. Allowing the little lambs to bulk up a bit helps the flavour. Angela Mason was enthusing about something very new – salt caramel. (Other discoveries include a new grain called quinoa and we all had to learn how to pronounce its name, a problem that haunts us to this day).

In The Independent there was a piece about cavolo nero, and in The Telegraph Xanthe Clay was writing about hazelnuts. Lucas Hollweg was writing about mushrooms in The Times and the humble mushroom was featured in half a dozen pieces – if there was a trend that autumn it was mushroom-shaped – one of Mark Hix’s main recipes was “gnocchi with wild mushrooms”, a dish that lingers in the memory. But the mushroom is infamous for its variable seasons, which are not good news when copy dates are considered.

Seven years ago the food pages were vibrant and informative as more and more menus started to value local, seasonal food. Antony Worrall Thompson spearheaded British Food Fortnight with braised oxtail in S Magazine. Mary Berry carried on baking. And at the well-respected Capital Hotel dining room, the kitchen turned towards “peasant food” with dishes like “lobster with truffles” – you have to be a pretty well-heeled peasant to lunch in SW3. The proverb has it that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and this may well be the case with food and drink businesses. The fact is that when it comes to food, “seasonal” and “local” have been pivotal for some while and could be seen as a constraint or an opportunity.

By and large, most customers can be engaged with providing that the proposition retailers place before them doesn’t seem outlandish. Most of the weekend food columns from September 2010 stand up for themselves and do not seem impossibly dated; good food is still accessible. What is intriguing is the “story” behind each article. We all like a good read and only after we’ve tackled the story behind the dish do we go into the kitchen to cook.

Who knows, 2017 may be the year of a glut of wild mushrooms, or blackberries, or partridge. We may even find a way to pronounce quinoa without looking silly.

“Cooking up trouble” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Cooking up trouble”

Connoisseurs of the inappropriate one liner will be sad that Prince Phillip has withdrawn from his endless round of engagements. He recycled jokes mercilessly and showed little patience with the dignitaries he met. The Duke has an abrasive and inspiring legacy. His comment on the cooking at Buckingham Palace in the 1960s: “I never see any home cooking – all I get is the fancy stuff”. Or at a dinner party when the predinner drinks ran on: “Bugger the table plan, give me my dinner”. In 2002 he breakfasted on bacon, eggs, smoked salmon and kedgeree, croissants and pain au chocolat before exclaiming: “The French don’t know how to cook breakfast” - at last, a good reason to Brexit

Every cook has a drawer of shame, where all those unwanted kitchen gadgets live out their lives in the dark. There’s a pair of 'herb scissors' that snips several leaves at a time. There’s a pair of duck shears. There’s a whole family of patent peelers. And in a great many trendy kitchens there is a spiraliser. Reports are coming in that this device (which apparently turns out long bootlaces of courgette) is so successful that it is putting a crimp in the pasta market. The research gurus at Mintel have noted a fall in pasta sales of 60,000 tons over the last eight years. How can this be? Should gadget manufacturers be allowed to frighten cooks by banging on about healthy living? What’s unhealthy about pasta? The Italians seem to do pretty well on it.

Trying to keep up with trends is a fool’s errand. There’s a property magnate in Australia who says that if prospective home-owners stopped wasting their money on smashed avocado breakfasts they could spring up the property ladder. His remarks have ripples in Mexico where a good many of the world’s avocados are grown. The Mexicans are very happy to see an avocado sales boom and the price go up to £22 for a 10kg box, especially as the Australian avo crop has taken a big hit from cyclone Debbie.

And it’s hearty congratulations to the Welsh grower who grew some plants for display at the Chelsea Flower Show and ended up with a pretty, one metre tall, plant whose fruits broke the chilli heat record and have been assessed at 2.48 million Scoville units.

Meanwhile, another improbable danger on the home front has come to light. It has been reported that fiendish cyber-attack bakers have successfully hacked into the Aga app and taken control of other people’s ovens presumably to scupper a competitor’s delicate sponge cake on the day of the Village Show.

Robert Benson sells bottles of wine for £6.50 from his market stall in the North West, but before you put your name down for a case you should know that it is non-alcoholic and formulated for dogs and cats. Benson gets his stock from a pet winery in Florida where it has been developed in conjunction with veterinarians. Products like this give newspaper sub-editors amazing scope for bad puns… Dog Perignon for the pooch? Or perhaps puss would prefer red “purr-gundy”?

“Flamin’ June” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Flamin’ June”

For anyone interested in cooking and eating, deciding which of the 12 months is best for food and drink is like picking a fantasy football team – it’s perfectly alright in theory but will soon be overwhelmed by events. November has its supporters – think of all those unctuous stews, crumpets that drip butter, roast gamebirds and heart-warming soups. But the golden month must be June, if only because it is such a contrast to the “hungry months” of January and February. The weather is better in June and the fisherman can put to sea, mackerel and crabs are top quality. The spring flush of grass has worked its magic on the cheeses. In June there are new potatoes, peas and tiny beans. Strawberries, rhubarb and gooseberries. The exotic stuff is also at a peak – gulls’ eggs, calcots, elderflowers. Most accomplished cooks know that every great meal stems from buying the very best ingredients and interfering as little as possible. If you cannot cook up a storm with June’s bounty there’ll never be a better time. At this time of year, food and drink should be celebrated everywhere

News of the global reach of the pasty. Wind the clock back to 1658 when the first settlers were landing on the Cayman Islands. In 1654, Oliver Cromwell sent a task force to fight in the Anglo-Spanish War, and it included the first man to settle on the Cayman isles. He was either called Bodden or Bawden (in those days illiteracy encouraged a more flexible approach to spelling). Today the Cayman Isles are one of the larger British overseas territories, and they’re into hardcore banking and tourism. Mr Bush – their man in London – has hit upon the jolly wheeze of trying to find UK descendants of the marine called Bodden. The Caymanians feel closest to the Cornish, and point out that there are many elements common to both of them – fishing, boat building, a westerly aspect and, bizarrely, “inventive cooking”. Apparently, the Islanders are famous for their “Cayman Isles patty” which is uncannily like a Cornish pasty.

Boffins will confirm that we are more susceptible to the smell of a drink or dish than its taste. They would confirm that whisky tasters get 70% of their impression from the nose. The big supermarkets understand this theory and are not averse to siting the fan outlet from the bakery beside the front door. The makers of instant coffee make sure that a small puff of coffee-scented air is trapped in the jar under the paper seal. None of which compares with the full blown “olfactory molestation” suffered by several Italian neighbours. In a court case in Montefalcone, Italy, the irate occupants of a block of flats sued a married couple who cooked pot after pot of rich pasta sauce and horror of horrors, sometimes fried fish. The litigants claimed that the smell permeated all the other flats. The smell of bread fresh from the oven, of freshly roasted coffee, of a massive beef joint “resting”
before lunch are all aromas we can take pleasure in. But before poohpoohing those sensitive Italians, surely much depends on just what the smell is? How about continual kippers, over-boiled cabbage or burnt toast? Not worth a lawsuit but not very pleasant.

“Trends bubbling under” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Trends bubbling under”

Earlier in 2017, when the year was but a pup, Greggs the high street baker announced an impressive rise in several key financial indicators. For investors lucky enough to hold Greggs shares, dividends were up by 8.4%, and all of this despite a background of gloom and doom and low interest rates. There is always something to cheer about if you look hard enough and a healthy options range now accounts for 10% of Greggs’ turnover. The strategists at the bakers have pulled off something of a coup as there are very few bedfellows as uneasy as the Greggs “Balanced Choices” range and their own formidable sausage roll

You have to admire a company founded on selling mighty sausage rolls to impecunious students, but which can still address the “food to go” market place with such spectacular results. The key to Greggs’ High Street dominance (and whopping yearly sales of £894.2m) is that these bakers understand their customers. If some of those customers feel that they have fallen out of love with the greasy giant sausage roll, and want something more contemporary like the “Balanced Choice”, so be it. The trend has spoken. Don’t invent, cook, or buy-in a new line because it is a personal favourite, only add something to the shelves if it is what the customers want. Problems come when marketeers are tasked with predicting the future and the Next Big Thing.

Sometimes, however, the trend comes to you, and currently I have a kitchen full of bubbling jars and exploding bottles. My wife has got into fermented foods in a big way. The principle being that adding regular doses of fermented foods to your diet is a powerful force for good, you can even prepare your own probiotic powder. It’s time to make kefir (a drink that’s the rowdy big brother of natural yogurt); to pickle anything that strays onto the work top – excellent salt pickles like the famous “new green cucumber” so popular in Jewish restaurants. Or how about cultured butter? Cure the cream before churning. Like so many “wonder” foods, the idea of fermented foods is not new: try the Korean national dish Kimchi – extra pungent fermented cabbage. Koreans also appreciate black and squelchy pickled garlic. In Shanghai most of the vitamin C in the diet for the winter months comes from pickled cabbage (which is pretty much the same as Central European sauerkraut). For maximum benefit, we should wash everything down with a glass of kombucha – a Japanese creation, (infuse black tea and let it cool, add a little sugar and then leave to ferment).

It can be confirmed that all these living foods have a powerful effect on the innards and that they might just be genuine health foods. If the idea of natural foods that do you good appeals, then becoming a veg fermenter is something you should try.

Meanwhile on our high streets the mega sausage roll will still go head to head with “Balanced Choices” and it will be some time before Kimchi, Kombucha and Kefir become the people’s favourite.

“Let me tell you a story” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Let me tell you a story”

Some would say that Damon Runyon was one of the greatest ever masters of the short story. He wrote reams of them and was still churning stuff out on his deathbed in 1946. They are well written tales and peopled with stylised characters like Harry the Horse and Nicely Nicely Johnson. Eventually Runyon amalgamated all these characters into a smash hit – Guys and Dolls

He has left a mark on our language by his use of slang and he gets the credit for inventing the term 'Hoorah Henry'. In one of his later stories the plot hinges on his cast of horse players considering betting on a particular horse following a heart-rending story about the jockey needing the prize money for his sister’s hospital bills. It turned out that the other jockeys had all agreed to pull up their mounts, the irony being that Runyon’s characters didn’t believe the “story” and so placed no bets, missing out on a sure thing.

Anyone who sells anything is probably aware of the importance of having a good story. Earlier this year there was a short piece in a national newspaper singing the praises of Cambodian Kampot pepper. Apparently, chefs in Paris and Los Angeles will grind nothing else and a chef super star called Olivier Roellinger waxed lyrical about Kampot’s “olfactory richness”. The pepper powerhouse in South East Asia is Vietnam, and while Cambodia produces 20 tonnes a year, the Vietnamese harvested 145,000 tonnes. Scarcity has its price and while a kilo of Vietnamese pepper fetches around £6 in Europe, Kampot can cost upwards of £150 a kilo.

Kampot pepper has a good story; it is very aromatic, and has been awarded PGI status (Protected Geographical Indication) as well as scooping a hatful of stars from the Great Taste Awards. When any customer walks into a food shop the shopkeeper’s first task is to put him, or her, at their ease. Chat about the main British preoccupation – the weather – is good but what is most needed during this interaction is a story. That hard cheese in pride of place on the counter top for sampling, did it really spend some time buried on a beach above the
High Water line? Those Dorset Naga chillies in the basket, are they really as incendiary as people say they are? Are these the ones you should only prepare while wearing gloves? Is that small, gnarled-looking sausage a highly thought of British salami? And what about that Kopi Lowak civet cat coffee? Has each coffee bean really seen the interior of a civet cat’s digestion?

Having a couple of good stories to hand is part and parcel of making a shop welcoming. But do not worry about the whys and wherefores, a made-up tale will do just fine. Customers are much more likely to buy from you if they are able to relate to you. Not every customer is going to splash out on a large quantity of Kampot pepper and a few ultra-hot chillies, but a story could mean that they feel at ease and shop to their full potential. We can all benefit from a good story, just don’t refer to customers as Hoorah Henrys… at least not in their earshot.

“Gung hay fat choi!” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Gung hay fat choi!”

This year the Chinese New Year was early and the main festivities ran from 27th January until 2nd February. For everyone else this is a quiet time of year, with both food shops and restaurants choosing to lie low in January. Eventually St Valentine’s Day will encourage an upward blip in the sales figures and things will perk up

Meanwhile, the Chinese community is busy merchandising its flamboyant New Year. Drums are beaten, cymbals clashed, while the lion dances and rears up to the windows collecting lucky red packages of money. Everything to do with the Chinese New Year is about building up a stock of good luck for the year to come, and stirring up business during the “hungry months.” It makes you wonder what we could do to put some pizazz into February and stop it being so grim.

British poets have not been much help. “February Fill Dyke” may be traditional but it doesn’t deliver much beyond floods and mud. The Anglo Saxons also had a soft spot for February, which was said to be the point in the year when the first kale and cabbages were ready for the cooking pot. Goodness knows what those Saxons would make of kale’s current role as a trendy yearround veggie. Only a very hungry man would be charmed by the fresh food available in February. Scholars would have it that the name “February” is derived from “Febria,” a Roman Festival of purification, but for most Brits striving to eat fresh and local whenever possible, February means “Turnips á la mode Baldric”.

There is a rich tradition of taking over feasts and national festivals and using them to drive business.

At the end of January, the Scots hold Burns Night suppers (dinners to celebrate the earnest poet’s birthday). The skirl of bagpipes precedes a mighty haggis into the dining room – a.k.a. the “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddinrace” – this is a magnificent bit of spin for a sheep’s stomach stuffed with a suspicious oatmeal mixture. The whisky helps make it all palatable. For their part the Welsh have St David’s Day (at the beginning of March), but rather disappointingly you’re unlikely to find iconic seasonal Welsh delicacies – unless you count the “Eat a Raw Leek Competition” that is popular in village pubs.

For once England has a real advantage in the race to cash in on the folklore front. St George’s Day falls on April 23rd. The days are longer and there’s a slightly higher chance of decent weather, but sadly no quintessential English dish to stand in as centrepiece. You are much more likely to eat well in April than in February, but that’s explained by the first fresh vegetables coming through, the first spring lambs, and more good weather opportunities for fishing boats to put to sea.

One strategy for food shops and restaurants is to ease up on the seasonality imperative, and make the most of the flood of produce that comes to us as air freight. Which brings us back to the Chinese New Year. It’s unlikely that we will ever see Morris Men as flexible as the dancers in the Chinese lion costume, but we could find some enthusiasm and perhaps a new festival or two that would encourage customers and retailers alike and so make a difficult time of year a bit less difficult. Happy St George’s Day!

“Happy New Year!” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Happy New Year!”

Welcome to a New Year as yet untarnished and still full of optimism. Magazine editors everywhere will have got together and commissioned a raft of pieces about the future for January. What are the trends for 2017? Will there be some new ‘must-cook’ foods? Will there be developments so earth-shattering that the face of retail is changed beyond all recognition? This time last year, all the speculation was about Brexit. No one knew how it would end up and we still don’t, although it is fair to say that the result managed to be both unexpected and inconclusive

At the beginning of the old year, who would have predicted that 2016 would be remembered for a big supermarket’s small war with a food manufacturer over Marmite? Two sides groping for some kind of publicity advantage. Another year-defining development was the rise and rise of gluten, or rather the lack of it.

Suddenly gluten-free was the thing to be. A number of products that had never ever contained gluten started to emblazon 'Gluten-Free' on their labels. Last year saw the launch of a gluten-free dog food – presumably Towser had been munching his way through a wheat field when he saw the error of his ways and went gluten-free. Perhaps this hound could try eating meat?

2016 was once billed as the year of the spiraliser, but mercifully courgette spaghetti didn’t catch on – too wet and flabby. Yet another assault on our culinary heartland came from a different and surprising direction. According to the research boffins, the public is falling out of love with tinned food. Tinned soup has borne the brunt of this development and is down 8%. Heinz tinned tomato soup may be a lurid colour, it may not taste of tomato, it may have a dodgy chemical smell to it, but surely it is a part of everyone’s gastronomic journey? Then there is the tinned sponge pudding, whose sales slid down by 30%. Solid, unyielding, chewy sponge with a dripping crown of golden syrup, a week’s worth of calories in a single hit.

What’s going on when we no longer defend our comfort foods? Goodness knows what will happen to that tinned steak and kidney pie beloved of bedsit dwellers everywhere. A shallow tin with deep brown, gloopy, gravy and some brave chunks of meat swimming through it. Meanwhile the crust is detached and cooked separately, ending up golden and flaky.

Another trend that greets the New Year is eating insects, worms and bugs. All of which makes perfect sense if you live somewhere where there is very little to eat. Last autumn saw something of a push for insects. How about cricket bolognese? Sadly, this is not dinner served at a Test Match but rather one of many suggestions that we should all be munching on insects. Perhaps start with the cricket flour energy bar?

There have always been strange gimmicks on the food aisles – five or six years ago one of the bigger department stores sold a natty line in chocolate-covered scorpions. What makes the world of food and drink so rewarding is the unpredictability of the public; it would take a very foolhardy scribe to predicate what lies in wait for us in 2017, and even if the hamburger marches on through our menus and a gluten-free range is a must-have, nobody knows the when, where and why of it all. Make mine a tinned syrup sponge pudding!

“Shop happy” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Shop happy”

Every year, early October sees a good number of restaurants holding their breath in anticipation. Setting aside the merits of a tyre-maker’s opinion about gastronomy, the Michelin Guide to Britain and Ireland is a plump red book much beloved of chefs. For many otherwise sane and sensible cooks this guide is the one, and to win a star is the ultimate cheffy ambition

At the last count there were over two dozen different British restaurant and hotel guides to choose from, and that’s without the growing number of opinions strutted on the web and in the social media. At last, Britain has restaurants to be proud of. But what about food shops, delis, farm shops, and bakeries? Where is the shoppers’ guidebook? In the 1987 Henrietta Green toured the country with her dog Violet and produced the first guide to food shops and small producers, British Food Finds, which went on to become The Food Lover’s Guide to Britain. This book was an absolute godsend to anyone interested in food and drink – both foodies and cunning shoppers.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, an American food writer called Patricia Wells published The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. This book had a brilliant lay out. There was a section reviewing restaurants, there were the favourite recipes from each of those restaurants, and then a section on food shops and kitchen hardware shops. Over the last couple of decades there have been a few attempts to publish a comprehensive guide to British food shops, but they have all failed. For one thing, the level of churn in the food shop sector means that keeping any guide up to date is a well nigh impossible task. Shops change hands, a limitless host of new products flood onto the marketplace in time to catch the eye of the Christmas shopper, and, simultaneously, half as many products are discontinued. For anyone contemplating a comprehensive shoppers’ guide, even a glance down the possible schedule of visits required would be enough to send shivers down the spine. That’s a compelling reason why no one has attempted a Food Lover’s Guide for the 21st Century.

Maybe the internet would be a better bet? Nowadays, the tablet on the kitchen table is the first port of call for recipes; it just remains to create the Food Shop equivalent to Wikipedia and then somehow to keep it updated. Perhaps it is time to look into crowdfunding? While the chefs are worrying about their star spangled future, everyone else is starting to shop for Christmas. In our household there is a simple division of labour: I am very fond of food shopping while my wife hates it. Her idea of hell is to wander aimless from butcher to deli to cheese shop, sampling while unfurling menus in the mind.

When selling, everything from the store layout to the rigid smiles of the sales folk has a single objective – a happy shopper is more likely to be a spending shopper.

It’s time to embrace the run up to Christmas and make the shopping experience more enjoyable, whether you are selling Louboutins or Stilton. It’s such a pity that there is no longer a Food Lover’s Guide – it would’ve made a splendid Christmas present.

“How to make a food town” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“How to make a food town”

In Northern Ireland in County Armagh there’s a small town called Moira. It’s not a big place and has a population that nudges 5,000 on a good day. Over the years it has been known for a couple of pubs and McCartney’s, an impressive butchery on the high street which has won Supreme Champion at the Great Taste Awards (with a magnificent homemade corned beef)

But anyone watching for the last decade or so would have seen this small town turn into something of a foodie hub. There’s another butcher – Hannan Meats – which operates on a larger scale out of a spotless factory on a Moira industrial estate.

Hannan has a number of aging rooms lined with Himalayan salt blocks, and sells magnificent salt-aged Glenarm shorthorn beef as far afield as Fortnum & Mason and a number of London’s top restaurants. Like McCartney’s, Hannan has also won the Supreme at the Great Taste Awards. The very tail end of last year saw a crisp new restaurant – Wine and Brine – open on the sensibly named Main Street. Not so long ago editors would commission a succession of articles about Ludlow, pointing out the five butcher shops, the Michelin-spangled restaurants and the annual food festival. But keeping the public educated and motivated in favour of good food is a tricky business.

At the end of August this year, Moira held its second ever food festival in the town park. It was a charming day out despite several vicious showers when it rained hard enough to sting. There was a large tent full of local producers, Abernethy Butter was there and the Krazi Baker was selling epic potato breads hot off the griddle stuffed with crisp Guanciale (pig’s cheek bacon). There was a grand array of local beers, ciders and gins all sold from a giant tepee. Children and dogs scampered hither and thither paying little heed to parental instruction. Grown-ups sat on straw bales and nursed a glass or two of local ale or cider. The mainspring of this food festival is a lady called Joanne McErlain who is to be congratulated on keeping the event to a single day and hanging on to that precious local vibe. The stall-holders were all happy with the level of sales, the locals were happy with their purchases, the demonstration tent was packed, and everywhere there was a contented murmur.

When it comes to festivals, charm is a potent attraction and one that is easier to create when working on a smaller scale. Gradually the people of Moira and its surrounds are changing the way they see food and drink. It’s no longer merely fuel but something that they can engage with. There will be a third Moira Food Festival next year, but in the meantime locals will be slightly more interested in the provenance and quality of that steak, those vegetables, that sausage. Ultimately this will change the tone of the place, and that will benefit small and large producers alike. It is so much easier to preach to the converted. Go down the sales chain and you will probably end up stalled at an uninformed consumer. Build-up your customers’ love of, and interest in, food and drink and you will at the least have a sporting chance of engaging with them.

Look out Glastonbury, the Moira Food Festival is on your heels.

“Weather” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues


September is an agreeable month. There’s often an interlude of decent weather in the US which has become known as an “Indian Summer” (allegedly because the Native Americans needed autumn sunshine to ripen the maize that was their staple diet)

September is also the month to sharpen your sales techniques because that faint drumming of the rails means that Christmas is barrelling towards us and leaping out of the way is not an option. Brexit dominated the spring and it’s exceeding obvious that there isn’t a simple way out of troubled times. But we can take heart from some very British strengths…

Brits are particularly good at coping. Whatever the problems thrown at us, we cope. We’ve coped with a couple of World Wars. We’ve coped with joining the European Community and there’s no reason to suppose that we won’t cope with moving out of it. Look at the positives: when we went in there were casualties, ask the fishing fleet. But in those years as Europeans the public standpoint on food and drink has changed radically. Now UK customers ask about provenance and welfare when buying meat. They buy – and are knowledgeable about – several kinds of cheese; it’s no longer a choice between Mousetrap and Danish Blue. The acclimatization of chilli has warmed dishes up a bit. Coffee has stopped being powdery instant and become fine Arabica ground in your kitchen. Surely it is easier to sell to a customer who is interested?

And then there’s the Meerkat factor – if you are prepared to buy your motor insurance via the comparison website running those ads you will get a Meerkat Doll. Yes, you’re about to part with the best part of £1,000 and this company’s response is to pop a small cuddly toy in the mail. Surely no one changes their insurance provider because they get a free doll modelled on a small South African mongoose? Prime time, and those Meerkats jostle for space on your TV screen while the website they promote is wildly successful. These guys are sophisticated marketeers and wouldn’t punt the grotesque dolls if they weren’t popular. But it’s troubling to see how effective dolls can be in our very sophisticated market place. It goes to show what a perverse and difficult business selling can be.

When Christmas is upon us it is time to bring out a plan. Even more alluring than a Meerkat is the feeling customers have when they notice that they are getting something for nothing. Those slivers of cheese to taste; a nibble of salami; a pack of biscuits to go with the cheese; a taste of that rather good Burgundy; three for twos….these obvious ploys should not be left to supermarkets. They are old-established techniques and that is because they work. Every good sales person knows the importance of making the customer their friend – establish a good relationship in September and it will still be working for you at Christmas.

September is the right time to broach the subject of Christmas to the customer in a quiet way. Not via Christmas posters months early and Yuletide deals in September, but by making the customers feel that they are part of special relationship. Meanwhile, across the country, otherwise sensible consumers will be asking their small Meerkat doll whether they have the right levels of household insurance. The question is, will they be able to trust any answer they may be getting?

“Picnic perfection” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Picnic perfection”

It’s no surprise that one of my favourite passages in the Wind in the Willows is the one where Ratty checks out the picnic that he has put together for himself and the Mole. The enticing list of goodies seems endless: “coldchickencoldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespotted meatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater”

When you’re masterminding a picnic, profusion is good. Readers of a certain age will recall the sad sight of a typical roadside picnic with the Ford Cortina parked up at the side of the road, the picnic table and chairs unfolded, and stewed tea dribbling from a vacuum flask, sandwiches with real sand. Meanwhile the participants struggled with both the noise of the traffic and the persistent whiff of exhaust.

Hugh Lowther, fifth Earl of Lonsdale, became known for his awesome extravagance towards the end of the 19th Century and he was properly wealthy. Part of his estate was 75,000 acres of Cumbria including several coal mines and he spent money like a drunken sailor. At one point he was spending £500 a week on cigars – which was an enormous sum in the early 1900’s. Hugh also knew how important the perfect setting was to a good picnic. When he had special guests staying he would be woken by his butler in the small hours and then (if the weather was kind) he would wake his guests and have them taken on ponies to a Lake District vantage point where a long table had been set up and a couple of dozen servants served a monster breakfast to feed the guests while they admired the sunrise. Meanwhile exactly the same feast was prepared in Lowther Castle. If Hugh didn’t like the look of the weather when the butler roused him he turned over and went back to sleep. The picnic breakfast on the hill top would be abandoned to the rain and the guests came down to breakfast with no idea of the excursion they had missed.

The question of what goes into the perfect picnic is a difficult one. We may be looking for items that are portable – a fine scotch egg; or a Melton Mowbray pork pie; or a ripe cheese – good strong flavours; perhaps a rich fruit cake, but there are no rules. A number of years ago a fishing friend rang up and suggested that we spend a day on a chalk stream and if that were not enticing enough, Raymond Blanc, the third member of our party, would be bringing the picnic. As a line of form, having your picnic provided by a chef with two Michelin stars is pretty good. Somehow the picnic took over from the fishing prospects. What would Raymond bring? After setting up a table and chairs he delved into the kind of large wicker hamper that Ratty would have been proud of. First onto the table was a plastic box full of tomatoes (“from my garden”); then a trough of very rich terrine; an enormous loaf of sourdough bread (which he tucked under his arm whilst sawing at it with a long knife); finally a Livarot cheese at the oozy point of perfect ripeness. Add a couple of bottles of fine red wine and there you have it. This was an epic picnic. A few contrasting flavours and textures. Everything at its best. Enough of each component to satisfy even the greediest. It was also a refreshingly normal picnic, the kind of feast we could all aspire to. And isn’t it nice to know that when out fishing even the most exalted chefs like just the same kind of picnic as you would put together yourself?

“Less is more… more or less” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Less is more… more or less”

No sooner had the audience figures nudged over a monster 13 million than the producers of the Great British Bake Off intensified their hunt for a spin off. Something without Mel, Sue and their particular brand of innuendo but hanging onto their coat tails

So, this spring saw Bake off Crème de la Crème amble onto our screens. Fifteen teams of professional pastry chefs not only had to compete but also to turn out large numbers of whimsical delicacies against the clock. The programme was compered by Tom Kerridge who is an articulate fellow and a great cook. There’s a lot wrong with the fundamental idea – for a start it’s impossible to produce the best pastry work against the clock. Patissiers are all bonkers (some say that’s due to a life time spent getting up in the middle of the night to bake bread) but even they cannot beat the clock. When time slips by and something ends up not quite right or unfinished, the perfectionists in the kitchen do it again, and again, until it is right. It was saddening to see professional pastry chefs mortified when they were unable to complete a tray of 30 miniature works of art. But the sticking point is the insane complexity of these creations – does anyone enjoy biting into a cake that features six or seven competing flavours? In one programme the patissiers’ brief was “apple crumble and custard”. Cue dry ice and miniature apples made from sorbet. But you have to suspect that a well-made apple crumble with decent custard would be much better eating. We are all doomed when the looks of a dish becomes more important than how it tastes.

By way of balance, there was also the stunning Oxford Gastronomica Dinner in celebration of Claudia Roden’s 80th birthday – an event that showcased the honest cooking of José Pizarro. The food was as simple and sophisticated as the Bake Off spin-off was overcomplicated and contrived. Rafts of 'pica pica' circulated during pre-dinner drinks – octopus, Manchego with membrillo, croquettas, Jamón Ibérica. Then to table for 70 guests, mainly chefs and food writers – butler service, five starters, one main. A glorious foodie “help-yourself”. As an opening move there’s a small pot of crab with a crumb topping flashed under the grill. Then some pan-fried ceps with egg yolk – this dish comes to table and one of the diners breaks the egg yolk in the centre of the mushrooms and stirs it in to act as sauce. Fantastic flavours. A dish of lentils with Monte Enebro cheese and candied walnuts. Complementary textures. A dish of chicken livers on toast with a splash of super sticky Pedro Ximenez. A tomato salad with white anchovies and Jamón, crisp Little Gem with a sour sweet dressing and punch from the Boquerónes. The main course a perfectly judged pork tenderloin – amazingly tender 'Presa Iberica 5J with patatas panadera, green salad and padrón peppers'. The presentation of the food was impeccable, each dish, and every combination of ingredients, had been thought about. These dishes are homely, there are no elaborate stacks, no towers, in fact no fancy presentation at all, but your instinct tells you that they will be good to eat. Pizzaro knows and loves his ingredients and rejoices in bringing the best out of them… Meanwhile, somewhere in Britain in the small hours, the patissiers grind onwards striving for perfection. Good luck to them, but they will always come second to bold, straightforward flavours and dishes that comfort the inner diner. This isn’t rocket science… it’s more important than that!

“Singing the blessing” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Singing the blessing”

Food awards come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s not often that the first job of the judges is to sing along with the “blessing of the pies” – words by the Reverend Kevin Ashby and appropriately enough set to the tune of American Pie

“So... my, my, what beautiful pies,
They’ve got a great aroma
Wafting up to the skies,
And meat or veg or fruity
We must give them a try;
We thank God for the bakers so wise,
Who have baked us all these wonderful pies.”

Food awards come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s not often that the first job of the judges is to sing along with the “blessing of the pies” – words by the Reverend Kevin Ashby and appropriately enough set to the tune of American Pie.

The venue was the impressive 12th Century St Mary’s church in the middle of Melton Mowbray, 'The Rural Capital of Food'. Anyone who tells you that Brits are not interested in food should attend the British Pie Awards – 800 entries in 20 different classes ranging from classic pork pies to chicken or lamb pies. Football Club pies to apple pies. Pies hot and pies cold, with a special class for the 'Queen’s Pie' in honour of her majesty’s 90th Birthday (won by a golden pastried monster – a Victorian Corset Pork and Chicken Pie made by Walker and Son).

Then, just when everything seemed a bit “so what?” the winner of the Supreme Champion was announced and the top prize went to a beef skirt and vegetable pasty made by Cumbrian butcher A.F. Huddleston. The top table judges were bowled over by this pasty: “The winning pasty was outstanding. It looked so appealing, an even bake with a perfect glaze and a perfect crimp”. “Eating it was a delight, well balanced flavours”. Then it all kicked off, with media folk ramping up the story – how dare the judges give the Supreme Pie Award to a pasty? Gradually it emerged that for the purist there was little to separate pies from pasties. A decent pie has pastry enclosing the filling on the top, the bottom and the sides, so does a pasty. A decent pasty has a rich filling that is packed tightly and doesn’t leak out during cooking, so does a pie. Pies often have a crimped edge that seals the lid, pasties are also crimped, on top or at the side.

In the Middle Ages, pies were known as coffins and the tooth breaker pastry was not edible but served to protect the contents during travel. Long ago when British rivers were in better nick Gloucester would send a large lamprey pie up to the monarch to mark any special royal occasion. This custom was revisited in 1952 when Gloucester Council sent a lamprey pie up to Buckingham Palace – but sadly, even in the fifties, the river Severn’s lamprey stocks were in terminal decline and the “Gloucester” pie had to be filled with Canadian lampreys.

The glory of pies lies in their versatility; whether you are biting into a squelchy Balti pie at a sports ground or slicing a regal pork and chicken pie in a palace, there is a pie for every occasion and every price point. Just because your lunchtime pie’s appearance reflects its humble origins it doesn’t follow that it won’t be a gastronomic triumph. The old rule “simple is good” is as true today as it has always been. The perfect pie calls for plenty of traditionally skills and a baker who stubbornly insists on using only the best possible ingredients. It’s time we got behind our pie makers and gave them the credit that they so richly deserve. As the blessing would have it they have “a great aroma, wafting up to the skies” and that goes for pasties as well!

“Sausage wars” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Sausage wars”

When it comes to enthusiasm for sausages and pies I bow to no man. For me the humble snorker plays a pivotal role on many menus, filling the gap between lumps of meat various and those more complicated dishes that tickle the chef’s fancy. But given their often utilitarian role, sausages can be surprisingly sophisticated

Ask an East Anglian tucking into a Newmarket sausage whether they would prefer an Oxford sausage and they won’t go on about technicalities, seasoning or the precise amount of sage or rusk involved; their local sausage demands blind loyalty and only the familiar will do.

The British Isles has a pretty good track record in respect of sausages, but let us not forget the “grind everything small and do not enquire to closely where the meat comes from” school of thought. Cast you mind back to the dreaded Saveloy sold almost exclusively through chip shops: orange-skinned, sludgy inside and shockingly cheap. It’s a sensible rule of thumb that if a sausage sells for less than the cheapest meat available on the market it is best not to enquiry too closely about the precise composition of that banger.

Recent events in Kyrgyzstan have put the diplomatic spotlight on sausages. A Scottish gold miner called Mr McFeat hit Twitter with an assertion that local Kyrgyz delicacy – the 'chukuk' sausage – looked like a horse’s penis. This is not far off the mark as said large sausage is made from horsemeat and is a second cousin to the spicy 'sucuk' sausage that you’ll find in Turkish restaurants. Whether or not the sausage in question was made from horse doesn’t really matter, the Kyrgyz authorities rounded up Mr McFeat and charged him under the race hate laws which left the ex-pat gold digger facing a five year jail stretch. With a straight face the Kyrgyz establishment issued a statement asserting that such offences could lead to war between the UK and the former Soviet republic. After Mr McFeat had been chased up the road by a howling mob (allegedly), he was smuggled out of Kirgizstan and banned from returning for five years. In a way you have to respect the Kyrgyz for sticking up for their sausage. Perhaps the next great initiative in the search for World Peace should be intercontinental sausage sharing? If so, the process has been somewhat left behind.

For decades the Andouillette has puzzled Brits and promoted sales of hot mustard – the only condiment that will cover up its feral whiff. This is a sausage made from chitterlings and pig’s pipework, and as you cut into it the aroma of poorly maintained urinals rolls across the table. Many moons ago, on a trip to Paris with a touring rugby team, I was present at a serious brawl which kicked off when various lumpy Antipodeans refused to eat (and so to pay for) anything that smelt so bad. What the waiter had described as a “big pork sausage” when taking the order turned out to be an Andouillette. So for sausage diplomacy to work we’ll need to try some dodgy stuff from the other side of the Channel and the French will have to embrace the glory that is our Cumberland sausage. I don’t see how we could lose. Perhaps we could start by sending an emissary to Kyrgyzstan with some traditional British sausages for a grand fraternal tasting? Then we could move on to a sensible EEC sausage referendum when deciding whether to fry or grill.

“Back to Basics” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Back to Basics”

February is a particularly sullen month. Wallets are still smarting from Christmas, credit cards sulk and anyone running a restaurant is hanging on for St Val’s day in the hope that a dose of spurious romance will kick start the dining year

Towards the end of last year you could spot some encouraging trends taking their first baby steps. The majority of trends storm out of the kitchen fully fledged and are linked to new kit. Get yourself a Large Green Egg, or a smoke gun, or a water bath, and then you can create the dishes of tomorrow. But surprisingly, our legacy from 2015 is not gadget-driven. It seems that chefs and shopkeepers alike are looking through older material and blowing the dust off those classic cookbooks. The old-fashioned ways have made a quiet comeback. At the 2015 Great Taste Awards the Supreme Champion came from a butcher in Tipperary called James Whelan, and his winning product was beef dripping! About 20 years ago, Jamie Oliver started the fashion for foodies cooking their roast potatoes in goose fat and so claimed a significant advantage in the search for the world’s crispiest roast potato. But goose fat is pricey stuff (especially if it must deliver a halfway decent margin), and following extensive trials during the recent Christmas season I can confirm that roasties cooked in beef dripping are superior – beefy, crisp, golden – and for once the old way of doing things is a runaway winner. Could it be that old-fashioned, traditional foods and old-fashioned, traditional kitchen skills may start pointing the way?

Further along the foodie cutting edge you’ll come across another anachronism: bone broth. In the days of Escoffier, huge kitchens were dominated by a giant stock pot and the demi-glace it produced was a vital component of classic sticky-rich veal sauces. Now, Japanese restaurants vie to produce the most intense broth for Tonkotsu ramen. An enormous stack of pork bones is cooked for an implausibly long time and delivers an implausibly intense flavour. Making proper stocks takes up a great deal of time, but the benefit is strong, pronounced flavour, as the Japanese know only too well.

Another 're-discovery' of 2015 was the vogue for fermented foods. In the 2010s the Koreans sent us plenty of black and pungent smoked garlic while household utility rooms everywhere rang to exploding bottles of home-made Kombucha (a fresh-tasting, fermented drink from Japan that contains a huge amount of beneficial bacteria. The idea has taken root that massive doses of “friendly” bacteria will solve a large range of intestinal glitches. Once again this is not a new concept, and most of Europe has been pickling away for centuries: there are those wonderful Jewish new green cucumbers and that fabulous pairing of Lancashire hotpot with picked red cabbage. In China pickling is even more crucial, as pretty much the only vitamin C to be had during the winter months comes from fermented cabbages and Chinese leaves.

It may be curmudgeonly but it’s hard not to take a satisfaction from pushing the old-fashioned concepts into the limelight. Treat your roasties to beef dripping. Make an intense stock from scratch. Embrace the health benefits of pickled red cabbage. These are not new ideas but they do work well. What’s more, you won’t need any ultra special, ultra pricey kit – for once, “being on message” may be easier than you think.

“Through a glass darkly” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Through a glass darkly”

Towards the end of December, the editors of large newspapers start to fret about what stories they should be running in their New Year editions

News of the shortcomings of actresses and the latest scandalous behaviour of over-paid footballers can only fill so many of the pages. Food writers, the gardening correspondent, restaurant critics and the lady who writes about books and the opera will all get a terse email asking what are the hot trends going to be for the year to come – and all these worthies have one thing in common, nobody has the faintest idea what will be the next big thing.

About a decade ago I got the call, “What is the next great food trend?” Resisting the temptation to steer the great British public to a few classic horrors – salted puffins, donkey milk cheese, those duckling embryos still in their eggshells – I proudly proclaimed that the next great dining breakthrough would be Mexican. This was a logical and sensible choice, we Brits are fond of chilli; Mexican food is not expensive and has plenty of carbs; it sounds accessible. Strangely nothing happened, the world of food turned gently, while ignoring my suggestion. The next year I nominated Mexican once again. And the next year. And the one after that. Finally my nerve broke, and after half a dozen years singing the praises of Mexican restaurants whenever the editors dreaded “next big thing” query arrived in the inbox, I switched and confidently recommended Moroccan restaurants as the food to follow.

You’ve probably guessed that this was the year when Mexican food took off big time: the year 79 Mexican restaurants opened in London. It’s a dangerous idea that anyone in the food and drink business could steal a march on his or her competitors by predicting the next big thing. For a start, a genuine trend has to gain a foothold before it is noticed, it doesn’t become a trend worth following until it is established, and once established it has arrived and is no longer a trend.

Look back at 2015 and its trends. The restaurant sector had a good year (the Harden’s 2016 guide blurb says that 179 new restaurants opened while 56 closed) and that reflects the public’s interest in everything foodie continuing to build. Last year a barbecue smoked in every back garden – unless they were of the high ticket Green Egg variety, in which case they achieved blast furnace-like levels of heat and just the right amount of smokiness. Britain’s obsession with pulled pork and smoked ribs filtered down to the High Street as people returned to the humble hamburger again and again. Toward the end of last summer, Mary Berry and company had the nation glued to the television set while those brave home bakers created a jaw dropping succession of cakes. Iced fancies, the cupcake, huge multi-storey showstopper cakes and industrial quantities of royal icing. Never have so many viewers dribbled over sponge cake.

Would it be unfair to say that the Great British public were happier watching “Bake Off” than stepping into the kitchen and knocking something up for themselves? None of which gets us any closer to the vexed question – what is the next big thing? What is going to be the fad or craze that defines 2016 first in the shops and then in the kitchen? Personally, I lean towards a Moroccan spiced hamburger that has been slow-smoked and then finished with swags of pink icing… But will probably have to make do with a fistful of fajitas once again.

“Time for a cool yule” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Time for a cool yule”

Christmas lies across the calendar like a fallen tree and blocks out sensible behaviour from early November until Twelfth Night in January

Each Christian country has its own 'special day' when the celebrations peak. On St Nicholas’s Day (5th December) the Dutch hide presents around the house. On St Lucia’s Day (13th December) Hungarians celebrate the twelfth day before Christmas. Then there’s Christmas Eve, which for a number of European countries is the big day. As Britons, we save our most extravagant feasting for Christmas Day but keep Boxing Day in reserve for another bout of over-indulgence. On January 6th the French focus on Epiphany and the Three Kings.

As the Christmas juggernaut rolls ever nearer we become more and more traditional. This is the time of year when sales of Brussels sprouts peak, and when it slowly dawns on turkeys that they may not be the ones celebrating. Our Christmas bill of fare is much the same as it has always been, in that there’s a grandstand piece of meat to overcook – be it turkey, goose, rib of beef or a ham. There are signs that a significant number of Britons are sufficiently influenced by the telly chefs to cook something other than turkey this Christmas, and in recent years there’s been a swing in favour of beef. But perhaps we should look at what the rest of Europe chooses as centrepiece of their Christmas revels?

Some years ago there was what would now be called a “pop-up” shop in the east of London. In the run up to Christmas, volunteers would take over the Finnish Cultural Centre and sell tinned foods and Finnish delicacies. There was iron-hard dried fish that tasted of bad breath and pyramids of reindeer pâté in tins. It may be childish, but the idea of eating Rudolph on toast seems a very good one. Venture to a German kitchen, or into Poland, and the Christmas Eve favourite could well be spiced carp. This being despite it being difficult to make anything magnificent out of carp, as the flesh is somewhere between muddy and flabby and there are plenty of small and irritating bones. In Britain we ate carp on meat-free Fridays in the Middle Ages – but under sufferance rather than because of any gastronomic potential. Meanwhile, the newly arrived Eastern Europeans, who even now are fishing for carp in Britain’s network of canals, are very puzzled when British anglers put the fish back rather than killing and eating them.

Continental cooks do have some strengths – rich fruit breads like Stollen from Germany and Pannetone from Italy are both becoming increasingly popular in the UK, but it would take a leap of faith to suggest that they are any match for a good Christmas cake. Or indeed the classic shortcrust mince pie (warm in an oven, cut a slit in the top and pop in a spoonful of brandy butter to melt into the hot mincemeat). In France more oysters are sold on Christmas Eve than at any other time of the year; Parisian families delight in having a few dozen in a basket to carry home in triumph. Contrastingly, you have to suspect that most Brits (outside those in the hotel and restaurant trade) would flinch at the prospect of opening their own oysters. Thereafter the French save themselves for the Galette des Rois – a very tolerable cake served on Twelfth Night.

Perhaps this is the year that we should respect our own Christmas traditions while trying something new? Stilton is at its magnificent best at yuletide, but what if we served it alongside some reindeer pâté and a boiled carp? Happy Christmas!

“Old dog or new tricks?” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Old dog or new tricks?”

There are two powerful forces at work in everyone who shops for food and drink. On the one hand there is the allure of the new, while on the other is the comfort of what is old and established

In large part Homo Sapiens owes his intellectual development to curiosity, so slap a 'new' label on that mammoth tenderloin and it will fly out of the door. This blind love of the new is not very logical, but it is certainly potent. When a product really is new, the shopper has to take its virtues on trust – the pack copy says it is zingy, refreshing and satisfying, but because this is a first-time purchase that is all hearsay until you try it yourself. At the other end of the scale there are products that are old friends. Like so many old friends they are a bit dull and familiar, but at least you know what you are getting.

There’s a similar dynamic in the world of restaurants. When you’re standing outside a shiny new establishment clutching the latest rose-tinted review and wondering whether to venture in, that newness may well be the only thing holding you back. But when you are considering a restaurant that is tried and tested, “long established” becomes code for reliable. The Gaylord Indian restaurant in London is remarkable. It first opened its doors in 1966 and has been ducking and weaving to the pressures of the marketplace ever since. Gaylord has quietly gone about its business for nearly half a century, and that timescale means that the restaurant has lived through the phenomenal success of tandoori chicken, the creation of chicken tikka masala, the popularity of rogan josh, the rise of the jalfrezi, the diaspora of Indian breads, plus our current obsession with street food. This is an old restaurant, but one with plenty of modern ideas and rather good food.

When it comes to all things new, the boffins at the supermarket chains understand just how powerful newness can be. Pushing a trolley around a large emporium, it’s hard not to wince at the display of little trays from Bon a PetEat. A new product is called Chicken Terrine with Rice and Vegetables, and the ingredients listed are chicken, brown rice, carrots, peas, potatoes, minerals, sunflower oil, salmon oil, dried tomatoes, dried kelp and dried basil. Shockingly, all this wonderfulness is aimed at the family pooch. It sounds good enough to eat. But although it retails at 75p for a 150g tray, this is dog food. The pack copy also suggests that a dog the size of my faithful companion should be getting four trays a day – so that’s £21 a week, and it would be cheaper to roast him a couple of chickens. Granted, this stuff is prepared with 100% traceable British meat, but can anyone really think that Rover needs chicken terrine to make his day complete?

In the ebb and flow of information between seller and purchaser, the concepts of both 'new' and 'old' can end up bent into all manner of shapes. As a customer, it’s comforting to know that the product you pick off the shelf has some history and some heritage, but then sometimes it feels really cool to push the envelope and take home the very latest thing. However, when it comes to trying those doggy delicacies, best leave it to the dog.

“Do local rules apply?” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Do local rules apply?”

Year on year, our ongoing obsession with “local” foods is tested to the limit. The idea that responsible foodies should shop locally, and in tune with the seasons, is a good one, but rules are there to be broken

It’s all got very complicated, and that’s before you find out that our borders are shrinking. The climate is changing and farmers are finding they can grow many of the crops that once only came from mellow locations on the Continent.

In a recent piece I rather unwisely suggested that “when it comes to charcuterie you don’t immediately think of Shropshire,” only to receive a couple of rather cross notes from Shropshire charcutiers. The landscape of food and drink is changing. Now you can get a huge selection of decent chorizo and salamis which are not only made with high welfare pork, but British through and through.

This year the warmer weather has coincided with some fruit farmers cashing in on a brave decision to plant more stone fruit some years ago. At Bardesly Farms, Staplehurst, Kent they have seen a bumper crop of apricots. Not nuggety little fruit but 200 tons of large, rosy-blushed, juicy apricots. This fruit farm already works with the big supermarkets and British apricots have already been sighted in Tesco. Meanwhile, other fruit farmers have also had some success growing exotica like British kiwi fruit – there’s a mixed parentage if ever there was one.

At Huggits Farm near Tenterden, Kent, they are already selling jars of British table olives under their 'Olio of Oxney' brand, and this year the crop is shaping up well. The key to success for this British olive grove is very careful research when deciding which varieties to plant. Now it’s a question of waiting for the trees to mature and the hope is that in years to come there will be another English oil to compete with Britain’s already successful rapeseed oil growers.

For a long while quinoa has been a bit of a puzzle – one of the main difficulties being how to pronounce the word (“keen wah” apparently). But this grain, which comes from a member of the goosefoot plant and whose true home is in the Andes, turns out to be perfectly happy guesting in East Anglia, where The British Quinoa Company has been increasing the crop year on year.

Just when you think that planting exotica in the balmy south east of England is all very well, spare a thought for food writer Christopher Trotter. Three years ago Trotter planted some vines in Fife in the hope of creating Scotland’s first commercial vineyard – Chateau Largo. Despite using early ripening grape varieties like Solaris and Siegerrebe, his first cuvee wasn’t a great success. The wine was oxidised and as he described it with remarkably honesty: “not great”. Many a French vineyard could learn from this honest appraisal.

Whether we like it or not – and generally we do like a tad more sun – climate change and all manner of other changes are upon us, and the list of what we consider to be local and “our” foods is changing fast. Dish up a platter of charcuterie with a quinoa salad dressed with British olive oil, follow it with a luscious British apricot and, if you must, a glass of Scottish wine. Quite suddenly it seems that the sky is the limit and we can now eat foreign specialities with British provenance. Let’s raise a glass to shrinking borders.

“K.I.S.S.” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues


No one places as much store by a fortuitous acronym than those toiling in the creative departments of advertising agencies. Nothing convinces a client like a handful of carefully chosen words that have been transformed into a neat sales aid

K.I.S.S. is a particular favourite and is exceptional in that it makes some sense. Many earnest creative directors stress its importance to young copywriters and art directors. But 'Keep It Simple, Stupid' shouldn’t be the sole preserve of marketeers in Ad Land, it should be part of the DNA of every shop, deli and New Product Development Department.

In a world that pays much too much lip service to new products simply because they are new, the idea that there are advantages to keeping things single-minded is a welcome blast of fresh air. For example, look at what the street food folk have done with the humble cheese toastie. At outfits like the Cheese Truck and the Kappacasein stall at Borough Market, they sell cheese toasties that touch a chord with even the most quality obsessed foodie. How about Keen’s Cheddar, Ogleshield & Onion Mix (£4.50) or Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Bacon & Pear Chutney (£5.50), both from the Cheese Truck. Meanwhile, Kappacasein has been refining its cheese toasties for over a decade. Poilaine bread, Montgomery’s Cheddar, Ogleshield, Comté; some say Kappacasein has worked out the perfect combination of cheeses to deliver the ultimate in flavour, aroma and texture. Which is why you’ll have to join a queue to sample an epic cheese toastie. The old kitchen principle of starting with the very best ingredients and not spoiling them too much holds good, but keeping the cheese sandwich simple doesn’t mean that it cannot be sophisticated.

All too many chefs, and sadly all too many home cooks, think that the route to success starts with a complicated dish. A 'grandstand dish with numerous elements scattered across the plate flanked by blobs, smears and implausible garnishes. It is said of Albert Roux that in his heyday at Le Gavroche, whenever he had to assess someone who wanted to work in the kitchens he would wait until the end of their trial shift and then ask them to fry him an egg. A tough call, and one where K.I.S.S. would resonate. No salt on the yolk (it leaves a white mark); white pepper on the egg’s white rather than those flecks of black; no browning of the egg white frills; just the right amount of those frills (dependent on the temperature of the pan); must use a fresh egg. Cooking the perfect fried egg to M. Roux’s liking was a formidable challenge, and the apparent simplicity of the task conveniently overlooks the minutiae. God may be in the details, but he also commends simplicity.

The strength of K.I.S.S. isn’t only a question of simplifying each plateful; man cannot live by cheese toastie alone. All well-made products should have a simplicity that makes them accessible. They are also likely to have simple packaging and honest pricing. But in that first important moment when the customer asks about a particular item, having a simple response is key. At one time, not so very long ago, the idea of paying £5.50 for a cheese sandwich would have sent a shiver down even the bravest spine, but now, (at least in London’s Borough Market), that’s a fair price, and there’s ongoing communication between buyer and seller that emphasises the value. Keep it simple if you can… it’s stupid not to.

“The alchemy of books” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“The alchemy of books”

Speaking as someone who only feels really comfortable in a small office with 2,500 cookbooks lining the walls, there is something very reassuring about recipe books. Look up even the simplest dish and you’ll find a variety of different methods and sometimes a variety of ingredients. In the alchemy of food you can take nothing for granted, and all too often the whole ends up much more impressive than the sum of its parts makes it sound

At one point it looked as if the internet would wipe out the cookery book. What could be easier than setting a search engine the task of finding the perfect fondant potato recipe and then scrolling through the responses to pick one?

The problem comes when you have sifted your way through dozens of recipes and they all seem pretty much the same. Why does so-and-so add more of this-or-that? With real recipe books the process is the other way round. You choose a book you trust, take it down and see what it says. Rather than choosing the recipe you choose the source. Good home cooks usually have a short list of books that they cherish, and the flickering screen of a tablet just isn’t the same. In the 1990s, a computer called Deep Blue wacked Gary Kasparov who at that time was the best chess player in the world. IBM were doubtless thinking back to those glory days when they hatched their latest wheeze.

Earlier this year, a supercomputer called Watson (surely you’d want the one called Holmes?) was asked to produce recipes featuring food combinations that would taste good on a molecular level (whatever that means). The criteria for choosing these flavour combinations was that they hadn’t been tried before. Surely that cannot be right? Is novelty the only thing that matters at the dinner table or when you’re out doing the big shop? Like a host of other celebrity cooks, Watson the computer has a recipe book out: Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education. Inside you’ll find 65 recipes – for example, for a Spanish Almond Crescent, a butter-less and sugar-free pastry flavoured with pepper, saffron and coconut milk. It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing to make customers hammer down the door.

Words like butter-less and sugar-free strike fear into the bravest cook’s heart. Making decent pastry is difficult enough, but things will get very tricky very quickly when you rule out sugar and butter. When Heston Blumenthal coaxes his diners into trying some new combinations of taste and texture, or an ever-spookier new cooking technique, it is usually because there is some intellectual trail that he is following. A specific sense of place, or maybe a particular season. On the other hand, Cyber Chef Watson is searching for links purely on the basis that they have never been made before. Perhaps there’s a reason that we have never put pepper, saffron and coconut milk onto the same ingredients list? It is certainly unproven, and on the face of it doesn’t sound impossible (although the pepper and saffron will be playground bullies, intense and strident).

Our favourite cookery books are a step nearer reality; you can tell the ones that get most use because their pages will be stuck together with blobs of sauce from bygone days. A good cookbook is one that you trust. Computers have their uses, but you never see one tasting a sauce so they’ll never get the seasoning right.

“Match making” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Match making”

Thirty years ago nobody had heard of food and wine matching. People who considered themselves refined would insist on white wine with fish and look down their noses at anyone quaffing red with their Dover sole, but the idea that you should expend time and energy on working out what went with what raised an eyebrow

Now, 'matching' sessions are big business: wine and cheese; chocolate and whiskey; beer and mushrooms; red wine and roast beef. It seems that we all need reassurance that we are doing the right thing in the kitchen.

First of all, it is worth trying to assess just what it is that makes a good pairing. Nearly a decade ago I had the pleasure of a session trying to match drinks to curry and we made an attempt to assess how the pairings worked. There were two kinds of successful match, either the flavours of the drinks echoed the aromatics of the curries or the drinks’ role was reduced to cleansing the palate between dishes. So a strong ale (appropriately enough, an I.P.A.) worked well with rich dishes. Meanwhile, on the palate cleansing side of the equation, fizzy water, fizzy lager, or champagne all worked equally well. So we can all save money in curry houses by ordering lager rather than our customary champagne.

Recently some Indian boffins have been researching the differences between dishes from a number of different cuisines. The fieldwork was extensive and there was plenty of number crunching, all of which delivered roughly the same conclusion: if you are a French or Italian chef you set great store by balancing flavours and textures. Dishes play one flavour against another, everything is refined and elegant. Indian cooks, however, are never as happy as when big flavours bang up against one another.

Take a peep into the kitchen of a Balti restaurant in the suburbs of Birmingham. Balti Tropical is a favourite, a sauce heavy with spices, plus pineapple, plus prawns, plus chicken, plus lamb, plus chick peas, finally topped with a handful of chopped coriander leaves on its way out of the kitchen. Page one of the saucier’s manual would rule these combinations out as impossible, it’s enough to make a chef’s toque quiver. But like some other strangely delicious combinations – bacon and marmalade, or Marmite and ginger biscuits – Balti Tropical is very good to eat.

If customers will opt for a heavily spiced and discordant curry, might not they also lean towards other strong flavours? Perhaps that very old, very acidic, blue cheese has some life left in it? Perhaps that West Indian pepper sauce will change their ideas about cottage pie forever? Perhaps we should all get heavy handed in the kitchen and seek flavours that scrap with each other rather than meekly blending together. It would certainly give the organisers of cheese and wine matching evenings something to think about.

“Try leads to buy” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Try leads to buy”

“Would you buy a used car from this man?” is the line that the analysts reckon lost the 1960 U.S. Presidential election for Richard Nixon

To be fair he looked like a pretty shifty character, but it was the reluctance of the American public to trust him that scuppered his chances. Then his back room staff spent some years glossing over the 'Tricky Dicky' image and re-inventing him before they were able to steer him to victory in 1968.

There is a great truth lurking in the shadows here; if you have the choice between buying something from someone you like, or purchasing the same item with someone you dislike, nearly everyone is happier shopping with friends. Which would suggest that the most important attribute of any salesman, host or shopkeeper is friendliness. One old-established way of making the customer your friend is to let them try before they buy.

There’s probably a piece of earnest research somewhere which sets out what percentage of customers who are offered a taste subsequently go on to buy, but I suspect that these potential customers are converted not because they’re getting something for nothing but rather because that small cube of unfamiliar cheese marks a subtle change in the customer/shopkeeper relationship. Offering a sample to taste is a generous thing to do, it sets a tone and breaks the ice which in turn helps start a dialogue. The retailer gets a chance to talk about his or her products, and the customer is reassured – especially when the salesperson is knowledgeable as well as friendly.

Of course this plan doesn’t always work; cast your mind back to the big food shows and the platoons of punters clutching their free bags whose mission is to get fed for the day solely on free samples. This really is nature red in tooth and claw. There is an apocryphal tale of an overcrowded show day. The product on one stand was a breaded chicken morsel and the great British public was at its very worst. As soon as each tray was lifted about the parapet the samples were snatched and devoured. One lady, with her mouth full, said “What are these?”, the stall holder replied “Chicken Whatevers”. “Aargh”, said the lady, “I am a vegetarian”. She quickly took the chicken out of her mouth and popped it back on the tray. Before anything could be done another hand reached over and the well-travelled chicken piece ended up inside a second sampler. This tale makes all those stories of double-dipping pale into insignificance.

Like it or not, nobody knows the pedigree of every salami, every terrine, every style of bread or every cheese, but small advances in knowledge can make significant advances in sales. How would it be if food stores thought a little more like wine merchants? Customers are not expected to know every wine when they visit a wine shop, and a tasting is an accepted way to get even the stick in the muds to try something new.

Sure, sampling takes time and trouble, but it really works. Sampling helps transform the relationship across the counter from adversarial to friendly; that means repeat business, and repeat business is the very best kind of business there is. Richard Nixon changed his ways (well, he probably just changed his publicity strategy) and pretty soon he was President of the most powerful country in the world. But I still wouldn’t have bought a used car off him.

“We all scream for ice cream” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“We all scream for ice cream”

If you need cheering up in the slate grey days of the New Year, ice cream is the indulgence to turn to

Granted sales will be higher when the blazing sun is high in the sky and there isn’t a breath of wind, but we are unlikely to get two summers like that in quick succession.

Back in the 1970s my friend James held what may have been the best ever holiday job. He got to drive the ice cream van and press the button that pumped out a loud and strangely tuneless version of Greensleeves. He also got to play with the ice-cream machine – in those days the drivers were given a big tub of liquid base which they ran through the machinery and turned into a succession of 99s. At head office they knew how many cones there should be for each gallon of base and thus how much money should be handed in at the end of the day.

All went swimmingly until a wily old ice cream van man shared his secret. Run the base through as normal but catch the resulting ice cream in a bucket and then run it through again. You end up selling a lot less ice cream base and a lot more air, secure in the knowledge that after head office had taken their money the surplus became your own. Back in those dark days, ice cream’s ingredient list (when there was such a thing) could include whale fat, corn oil and all manner of dodgy ingredients and fillers, while ice cream manufacturers routinely pumped plenty of air into their product before selling it by volume.

Traditionally the Americans sold their ice-creams by weight, but that just meant that the air-swollen British packs looked larger and better value. At the time food writers grizzled about the gulf between “bad” and “good” ice creams, and even went to the lengths of letting pots of ice-cream melt into measuring jugs to show just how little you were actually getting when the air was removed. But notwithstanding the debate, until just before Christmas 2014, ice cream was a bit of a success story.

The Ice Cream Alliance (the industry’s trade organisation) had managed to get some basic principles established – ice cream must contain at least 5% fat and not less than 2.5% milk protein. These are sensible figures for a back stop and represent a bare minimum. Meanwhile, in a joyless office block somewhere in Europe, a gang of bureaucrats were congratulating themselves as they “brought the UK into line” by getting rid of those key percentages. This change shouldn’t make a huge difference to the UK’s better ice-cream makers – they work to their own recipes and there isn’t a whiff off whale fat anywhere – but abandoning the British guidelines means that cheap 'industrial' ice creams from all over the EU can be exported to Britain and can be called ice cream even when there is no dairy content. At a stroke, a sensible set of guidelines became so much waste paper.

Thankfully we have all become more discerning when it comes to ice cream, and it is hard to see the British public abandoning the craftsman-made high-spec stuff in favour of a European import that has little to do with the dairy industry. For once the customers can see the difference in quality and will end up choosing a better product over a lower price. It’s just a pity that we only hear from the EU when they are interfering; let’s hear it for Greensleeves!

“Happy snappy!” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Happy snappy!”

Once, the invitation to “come round and see our holiday snaps” was a surefire way to send a shiver down the spine

The slides would come back from Kodak in a little yellow box and then be projected onto a screen so that everyone could ooh and aah at snaps of that darling Majorcan donkey wearing a hat. In those bygone days, cameras exerted a nerdish fascination and there were more than enough dials to twiddle, settings to set and lenses to focus. Then came the mobile phone, which kicked the photography industry sharply below the belt. Now everyone has a camera with them at all times, and technological advances not only mean impressive picture quality but also the ability to circulate your photos widely at the touch of a button. Your phone will happily save you from out of focus shots, add a flash when it is needed, and banish those demonic red eyes from your group smile.

On the downside, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Everyone takes pictures of everything, millions and millions of images linger on memory sticks and in cameras. In the old days, when shooting on film, you had to pay for the shots you printed and that made snappers more cautious. It’s routine to hear chefs grumbling about their customers’ desire to photograph each course and then put those images on the internet. As anyone who has worked on a foodie television shows will tell you, while they are faffing around with the presentation and the lighting, the food goes cold – which is no bad thing for a sorbet but isn’t much fun when you’re tucking into a congealed stew. Some chefs are getting so irritated by customers snapping away as their food gets chilly that they put a 'no photography' note on the menu, where it is ignored by all and sundry because now we are in a world where the new media rules the airwaves.

At a recent trade show there was a forum centred on social media accounts and how businesses could use the new media to best advantage. One of the points made was how useful it was to have somewhere that disgruntled customers could air their grievances – always providing that there was a speedy and apologetic response from the company concerned. Digital media expert Karen Fewell (managing director of the company Digitally Blonde) has just completed a piece of research looking into the motivation of people who take snaps of every plateful they encounter. 40 stalwart eaters who were also snappers were invited to sit down to a seven course tasting menu. Each course sought to evoke a different emotion and the object of the research was to quantify that reaction by measuring the social media traffic generated. Lessons were learnt. People turn to social media more when they feel positive about something, and those interest levels are higher when both text and pictures are featured. So it looks like taking pictures of platefuls is here to stay. Surprisingly, the study also showed that the 'end of the scale' emotion – disgust – scored the second highest level of interest, particularly when this was turned into surprise, indicating that it may yet be possible to manipulate responses to the social media.

Pictures are here to stay, but shockingly (if you are an ageing Luddite like me) there are signs that camera snaps are being displaced by the latest big thing – short videos. Jolly useful if you can pack everything you want to say into six seconds.

“An allergic reaction” | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“An allergic reaction”

It’s true to say that this year Sunday 14th December has crept up on us. Bright leaflets about the new food labelling laws (the Food Information for Consumers Regulations) have been around since the summer but it’s a pound to a thimble full of rat droppings that many “small and medium food businesses” have been busy getting on with the business of survival and haven’t read the Food Standards Agency 16-pager

For a large number of small businesses, 14th December marks the start of a whole heap of extra work. Nobody would claim that allergic reactions to food are a trivial matter, indeed in some cases they are life-threatening, but the solution enshrined in EU law places an onerous burden on businesses that may already be stumbling. In essence (and you’d better get your own copy of the booklet via
anyone who sells 'loose food' must know whether it contains one or more of the 14 listed allergens.

If you buy in a packet of buns the responsibility for allergen labelling passes to whoever packed them, but if you make those buns for sale 'loose' in your shop, the label must include specific allergen information. Which means that even the smallest restaurants must list the allergens found in the dishes sold. The 14 allergens make interesting reading – lupin flour may not feature in many recipes but the others are all familiar: celery; cereals containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley, oats), crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk (yup! that includes butter, yogurt and cheese); mustard; nuts; peanuts; sesame seeds; soya and sulphur dioxide.

Retailers also need to put up a notice along the lines of 'Food Allergies and Intolerances: before ordering please speak to our staff about your requirements' and that will mean training all your staff so that they know exactly what goes in what. If you run a small restaurant or café, the menu should itemise any allergens in each dish. So an egg sandwich needs a printed note “Contains egg, wheat, soy and milk”; or a tuna salad needs to specify “Contains fish, celery and mustard”. And always the responsibility for researching and providing this information lies with whoever sells the 'loose food'.

Providing information to help people avoid foods that make them ill sounds like a pretty good idea, but this seems like a cumbersome way of going about it. The booklet claims that it is aimed at small and medium food business, but they are the businesses that are less likely to cope with a wave of extra work and extra record keeping. Medium to large restaurant chains or food producers will grumble a bit but they have the systems in place to comply with these new regulations. Smaller businesses just do not have the spare capacity to comply with the red tape. There is also the question of how the list of fourteen allergies was drawn up.

We are all increasingly aware of gluten intolerance but a good many commentators (myself included) will have scurried to the internet to find out just how big a role lupin flour plays in the national diet. My niece has a food intolerance, she reacts alarmingly to the tiniest amount of paprika – which is increasingly difficult as it used as a 'natural' colouring in many pre-prepared foods and sauces. The new regulations won’t help her at all as paprika is not one of the chosen 14, and she will go on asking questions of waiters and reading the ingredients list small print on back labels. Is it fair to shift the responsibility from the allergen sufferers – who may be managing their condition successfully – to the small and medium food businesses who must serve everyone?

Burgering about | Charles Campion | Speciality Food Magazine
Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

Burgering about

The experts would have it that the now ubiquitous burger was invented in 1904 by Fletcher ‘Old Dave’ Davis, who hawked ground-beef sandwiches around the St Louis World’s Fair.

However, the same gang of experts manage to disagree about the derivation of the name 'burger'. For me the hot contender is 'Hamburg steak' which morphs into hamburger, and there are references of Hamburg steak sandwiches that pre-date the St. Louis Fair.

In Britain we have been messing about with burgers for a good while now, and they continue to go from strength to strength. There was a fork in the road during the 1970s when the 'real' burgers (large, meaty and American) went head to head with their fast food cousins on the High Street (thinner, cheaper and American), but now pundits are arguing whether burgers have peaked.

It is a perverse rule of nature that when the food industry establishes a strong market for a dish, chefs everywhere immediately set about improving it. In the late 1990s Richard Corrigan put a foie gras burger on the menu at his Fulham Road restaurant, while more recently in New York, at DB Bistro Moderne, Daniel Boulud offered a Braised Short Rib, Foie Gras and Black Truffle-Stuffed Sirloin Burger with a price ticket to match.

Look around London and you’ll find that the burger is in exceedingly good health, which is quite impressive when you consider the amount of pressure from the Health Police to ensure that all burgers are cooked until grey. Along with the successes of the burger and the street food invasion, we have also seen a subtle change in the way dishes are described. Coleslaw we know about and macaroni is a childhood favourite, but today’s menus list “slaw” or “mac ’n’ cheese”. Somehow this transatlantic shorthand is worming its way onto our menus. Which wouldn’t matter if it were not the case that a large percentage of the appeal of any dish is tied up in the language.

Take another booming sector of the restaurant market: steak. The bullocks that today’s steaks are cut from are pretty much the same animals as cows have always been. In her magnum opus Every-Day Cookery, under Steaks Mrs Beeton lists: ribs, sirloin, rump, thick flank and aitchbone. You have to wonder what she would make of menus about town offering fillet steak on the bone, flat-iron, Picanha, onglet, Pope’s eye, Porterhouse, D-rump, fillet tail and Chateaubriand.

Remember all these enticing variants come from the same animal. With steaks it is easy enough to change the name of the cut and so spark some interest in the diner, but a burger is a burger. And, in some ways, burger is a magic word when you are selling. Label a dish a burger and you hitch it up to burger values – short hand for reasonably priced, filling, freshly cooked, honest and informal. Which is probably why there are a host of burgers on menus everywhere that could just as easily be described as dishes.

There’s a mackerel 'burger' at Arbutus, countless 'burgers' made from chicken, the Kiwiburger at Gourmet Burger Kitchen – topped with beetroot, fried egg, pineapple, and aged Cheddar – and the 'Frenchie' at Bar Boulud Knightsbridge: a beef patty, confit pork belly, rocket, Dijon mustard, tomato compote and Morbier cheese in a peppered bun!

So, while the New Product Development folk thrash around trying to re-invent the wheel – or in this case the burger – customers will keep coming back for the classic burger and the fads and fancies will soon be out of date. I wonder if anyone told Old Dave that his minced meat sandwiches had to be cooked through and through?


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