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The variety of produce available to us at the moment is hugely exciting, but what’s even more amazing is what people are doing with it. I like the fact that we’re prepared to taste pretty much anything. The artisan sector is particularly brilliant – to actually meet farmers and producers at markets and shows is wonderful, and the growth of this side of the sector means that people’s awareness and education is so much better than it ever was. If you go to some of these markets, particularly in the big cities, the varieties of the cuisines is amazing – in particular, I find the street food on offer really exciting. It demonstrates the joy of immigration – it means we have a real diversity of food styles at our fingertips. Also, as a Commonwealth country with a responsibility to other nations, we have a very eclectic base of people living here. Take Yorkshire for example. You can have access to only Yorkshire produce and still have a huge range of foods to enjoy – incredible spice products from Bradford or Halifax to the most amazing rhubarb, for example. I judge at the Taste of Yorkshire awards, and it’s just fantastic to see what’s coming out of my home county. This growth is visible across the UK, and across a number of sectors. I’m involved with the Society of Independent Brewers (SICA), which passionately champions great quality beer. We were down to around 70 brewers in the 1970s and are now up to two and a half thousand, which has been fabulous to see, and this has largely been down to increased consumer appreciation and the work of SICA and other proud advocates of great beer.
There’s a lot of education there to help consumers. In a number of ways this educations begins with children; a lot of Governments have promised better food education in the curriculum throughout the years, but I don’t see much of that happening.There’s a lot of work to be done. Throughout my time working with the British Cookery School Awards I’ve found that some of the most inspiring enterprises are based in areas where life is quite tough; they’d go into youth centres to teach children about food, and often end up teching parents as well. One in particular, Alpha Bake Cookery, is run by a hugely inspirational woman who can’t afford to set up a cookery school but sets up mobile cookers in community centres and puts on cookery demonstrations – it shows people that they don’t need to resort to convenience or takeaway food, and in fact her audience are often the people who can afford it the least. They rack up a lot of expenses by eating ‘convenience’ foods, but nutritionally are no better off.
Some of this consumer connection with food has to be driven by individuals in the private sector, trying to hook up with schools, knowing that the reality is that budgets are making it hard for caterers to be able to manage education in schools. If people in our industry have a connection with and greater understanding of food, it makes sense for them to share that with people who aren’t in that position. Consumers need to be taught that, contrary to popular belief, it’s often cheaper to buy produce from farm shops and markets rather than supermarkets – not least because they’re then not paying for expensive packaging and lighting bills. It’s important to think ahead, but also not to overcomplicate things. I maintain that one of the best fast foods is a great bit of ripe cheese and an apple. Full of goodness, potentially produced locally, and cheaper than frozen fish fingers.
Read the full interview in the latest issue of Speciality Food, free to download here.
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