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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
FoodJoin the Queue

Join the Queue

You can wait a long time for a bus to come along and then a whole lot arrive at once. And in the food world that is happening now. The hot ticket at the moment is food made and sold from the back of buses, trucks and carts.
I have to declare an interest as I occasionally help out cooking on the Real Food Bus—a mobile kitchen and farm shop that showcases local seasonal and organic food grown in West Dorset as it travels the lanes making its request stops at various events and festivals throughout the year.
It is not just the Real Food Bus, similar ventures are popping up all over the West Country. The Jalopy Pizza van and the Albion Curry Bus are two of the best.  You can take away or eat straight away but the Curry Bus has found a neat solution to the dilemma of where to consume the food brought to you by eateries on the move. On Monday night you will find it parked at the Crown at Uploders (another stop is the train station at Maiden Newton), parking in a pub car-park means you can combine your curry with a pint in the Crown’s garden.
The heady smell as you board the 1961 model of Albion Nimbus bus is certainly a long way from another bus eating experience I remember. The top deck of the London night buses we used to hop on, hung-over and tired after a session on the town, would be permeated by the fetid grease and onion stench of cooling doner kebab.
Buying food from mobile catering vans is not new. We can all remember from childhood our Pavlovian response to the piped tunes of the ice cream vans, a lure more effective than any real piper’s tunes. I don’t however recall any clear aural stimulus that led us as students to the many kebab vans lined up in the High Street after kicking out time at university. (Just the faint buzzing in our ears from an evening’s too loud music.)
There were always a great number of them lined up, but we had our favourites and really did claim to detect a difference between them. Now I would like people to think that this was because of the freshness of the salad or the strength of the chilli sauce. No—then it was a value decision, one based on who loaded the pitta with the most folds of the pinky beige meat. I don’t know why, as it looked like tongue, the raggedy tongue of a slobbery Alsatian. I was prepared to believe it was lamb (or perhaps mutton) but my only hard evidence was that no matter how many pints you knocked back, the fat from the kebab would solidify as globules on the roof of your mouth so that your tongue alone could not budge them. Lamb fat is the only animal fat that I know with this slightly unpalatable quality. (Which is why, incidentally, left over lamb is better re heated than cold).
It was only when I went traveling to Greece that I discovered kebabs could be street food of the highest order. On many corners the souvlaki vans hawked their version of the kebab and at every one I found a treat. Cubes of succulent meat—pork or lamb—smoky salty and hot from charcoal grilling, dusted with oregano and mountain thyme and then wrapped together with a salad of mild onion and tomatoes. The tomatoes were a revelation in themselves, as red as raspberries and shared with them that ethereal balance of sweet and sherberty acidity that comes only from the sun. The principal ingredients were bound together by a garlicky tsatziki sauce and tightly wrapped in hot flat bread that had been soaked in olive oil, as green as the May flush of grass.
The Greek souvlaki were cheap; as impoverished students they were the only hot food we could afford on that holiday. In six weeks the closest we got to restaurants was swiping the uneaten bread from tables as we walked past. No wonder we returned ten kilos lighter and ten shades darker.
Now making good food affordable is the holy grail in these universally austere times. Pop-up eateries and mobile catering vehicles do dramatically improve the maths behind the menu. Tough times have meant twice as many people have decided to cut down on meals out and takeaways than chop their grocery bills. It is said that 90% of restaurants close in their first year. No surprise when the costs of being fixed in one location often make up the difference between profit or loss. As a general rule if a restaurant spends more than 8% of its turnover on rent it will struggle to survive and we all know retail rents are continuing to rise, despite the death of the High Street. (A disturbing fact is that more restaurants permanently shut their doors every week than pubs. We seem to mind this less though, perhaps we want choice with food and the right to graze in different places but like the idea of a ‘regular’ pub.)
Amid all this gloom, we the consumers can benefit by eating out from suppliers of no fixed abode. This is because it is nearly guaranteed that more is spent on the raw ingredients of the food relative to the other costs. Good ingredients are always by far the best guarantee of quality eating.
In the past the people who fought the statistics behind being static were those who often had no choice but to do so. Newly arrived ethnic groups couldn’t easily break into the ordinary job market in a foreign land, but they were prepared to put in prodigious amounts of hard work to earn a crust. Often they mobilized the whole of their family in the enterprise. This is why every town has its Indian, Chinese, Thai restaurant or indeed Turkish kebab shop.
The recession means that there is now a new army of young people in a similar position. Locked out of jobs by the Government’s self defeating austerity measures and faced with official indifference or fake apprentice schemes many are looking to set up small food business’s for themselves. They have eaten amazing food at the festivals that now mark the summer social calendar, and then wonder whether going mobile is a neat solution to being a NEET. (The  government acronym for people currently “not in education employment, or training”.)
Ethnic restaurateurs may have been poor but they often had one advantage—extended families and close communities who could lend them the capital to set up in premises when the banks wouldn’t budge. These days the bus caterers and pop-up chefs have found you need a lot less capital if you have no fixed abode. The smaller you get the less you need. Small is beautifuI. I reckon the best coffee I have tasted comes from the baristas selling coffee from a cart. The time and effort is put into extracting the espresso in the perfect twenty four seconds and then combining it with hot but un-scorched milk in the right ratio, not worrying about paying rent or business rates. Sometimes the cart is dragged by bicycle, which certainly puts a fresh spin on the mantra of ‘getting on yer bike and looking for work.’
Jalopy Pizza is another small operator whose emphasis on quality is proving just the ticket. The wood fired pizzas that emerge from the back of an ancient Peugeot J7 van are fantastically tasty.
They have established a weekly routine of parking up in Dorchester, Bridport or Beaminster as well as appearing at the best food festivals events and weddings, and they deservedly won one of the Best British Street Food prizes last year.
Their success is no surprise as Katherine Locke has gone out of her way to perfect her pizza. The recipe for her fresh dough took years to get right and went through many versions. The tomato sauce is made in small batches combined with locally sourced toppings, and they use proper mozzarella. Together this makes for a properly gourmet experience.
Peering into the small space where the pizzas are knocked up you do worry how the van’s ancient frame can cope with a wood burning furnace at its heart. The pizzas need to cook at temperatures approaching 750°F/400°C so that they are done in just a few minutes. But this is what makes them attain perfect crispness at the base and melty softness on top. They are a million miles from the fat impregnated stodgy disks of cardboard that make up supermarket pizzas (or even the so-called ‘fresh baked’ but actually frozen dough pizzas that are passed off as pizza in many chain restaurants.)
The quality of the Jalopy pizza would not make it out of place in Naples but the van is of course French. The whole idea was inspired by summer holidays in France where, particularly in the South, you often find these vans selling pizzas from the roadside. Thankfully Katherine had the initiative to bring the idea to Dorset. She now has two vans and spends much time searching French eBay for spare parts and new vehicles.
Paul Brader and Cath Barton didn’t need to search the internet for their vehicle, although he had always been fascinated by large vehicles. His neighbour had a 1961 Albion Nimbus parked outside which he had long coveted. Eventually he agreed to sell it and after a refit and addition of a kitchen in the front, the Albion Curry Bus was born. Before Dorset, Paul had lived for sometime in Bradford, a city with a good claim to be Britain’s curry capital and where he had learnt to make a mean and authentic curry himself.
It is certainly a happy if unusual mix that has bought all the ingredients together now in Dorset. I am not sure whether it was by accident or design that the particular model of bus, the Albion Nimbus, was always considered best suited to light rural duties as it was nippy and didn’t weigh much.
The Real Food Bus lacks the polished wood and fine coachwork of the Curry Bus—bizarrely it had done duties as a mobile dentist surgery before setting out on the roads of Dorset. Since arriving here it has set out on many different food routes, always tailoring the food to the destination. The common denominator is the deeply local seasonal produce which combines with an eclectic foodie inspiration to make cosmopolitan and unusual dishes. Recent cooking adventures have included rabbit paella, chorizo and rocket sandwiches, and pho—a spicy Vietnamese soup made with beef brisket. Request stops have included  the Bridport Arts Centre when it showed Trishna—a movie that relocated Tess of the D’Urbervilles to modern day India—so instead of hotdogs and popcorn it served Dorset sourced chana chaat—(chickpea and potato street food)—with cardamom ice cream made with goose eggs from the orchard. Another regular stop will be at Bridport’s Electric Palace where their live opera screening from Glyndbourne and the Met are combined with an interval supper provided from the bus.
Although producing up to thirty suppers simultaneously in a very small space is a challenge I can vouch that, provided you are organised, it is much less difficult than one would imagine as everything is literally on hand. The limitations of space force offering a restricted choice and not apologising for it. (This is a rule I wish more people obeyed, the best guide to a good feed in a restaurant is to check the menu, not for what you fancy, but the number of dishes offered. The fewer written down the better it will be. To make doubly sure avoid anywhere where your choice is offered to you laminated.)
The explosion in the number of peripatetic restaurants may be a trend made in the city but it works in the country. Although so far the majority of our buses and vans have been converted stylish old vehicles, if it carries on like this, I can easily conjure up images of London’s infamous but now disused bendy buses careering down our green lanes on their way to bring us our supper.

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