The South West really is the nation’s top class cuisine region – a fact celebrated by the horde of regional food fairs and festivals springing up like wild mushrooms all over the place. You’ve only got to turn your back on a nice little field and within a month it’s loaded with rows of cars stuck in the mud, several marquees selling local bacon, hand made chocolates and nettle chutney, plus a chef on a stage with a microphone stuck on his neck telling jokes while basting a chicken with sorrel and saffron sauce. Either that, or he/she disappears in a sheet of flame while stir-frying champignons in rather too much Somerset brandy. Fun for all the family – provided you stay back at least twenty feet from the chef’s raised podium.
There used to be a time not so long ago when our region could only boast rain soaked fish and chips, Dorset knobs and apple cake, Devon cream tea and a packet of local salt and vinegar crisps. But no more, because we now live in an area of outstanding natural booty! A lot of this success is due of course to Hugh FW, Mat Follas, Aidan Chapman, Mark Hix and many other local and national chefs who have done so much to publicise better appreciation of our food on TV and elsewhere (and also in this magazine!). Between them all, they have helped make the kitchen the focal point of a home rather than a damp 1950s cubbyhole next to the dining room (plates pushed through a sliding hatch of course). They have also shown (particularly to men) that cooking is cool, cooking is OK, cooking can be fun. And it’s grown and grown so much that now we can all enjoy successful events such as the ‘Eat Dorset Food Fair’ at Parnham, the Cheese Fair at Frome, many food festivals in South Somerset and Devon plus specialised food fairs in Dartmouth, Montacute, Lyme Regis, Wimborne, Honiton, Bridport, the Marshwood Vale and elsewhere. Wherever you live in fact, it seems there’s an eating event either happening or about to happen near you.
So, thank you one and all – I’ve hardly needed to go shopping for food since September. I could just as easily have dined out on all those thousands of free samples stuck on cocktail sticks. And such new and exciting stuff too – not like the boring old bits of tired cheese or limp sausage (sometimes with a chunk of tinned pineapple if you were lucky… ugh…). This year I’ve sampled such glamorous titbits as wild blackberry kebabs, chilli prunes, potted quails eggs and figgy mushroom pudding (v. good). I’ve had water buffalo burgers from a stall in Purbeck (excellent), nibbled honey tarragon cake from a Somerset tent (interesting) and munched a delicious but rather damp shrimp pancake on a rainy Dorset afternoon. This has all been most welcome, but I think we’ve possibly now reached a peak as I read with alarm that an Axminster fishmonger has just launched a line in seafood flavoured ice cream: king prawn and smoked salmon mixed with cherry tomatoes and chives. Yes really. Yum? Well, no actually.
Is this because people are now so used to ‘normal food‘ that there’s a temptation to resort to gimmickry in search of ever more exciting things to eat? To present a successful recipe, it seems you now must include wildly different and contrasting contents with a resulting crash of tortured tastebuds. In pursuit of publicity perhaps rather than provisions…
But who cares! While this trend continues, I shall jump onto their exotic grubwagon and try to make a quick quid or two. The more disparate and potentially horrid the ingredients, the greater the commercial opportunity! So here’s a sneak preview of what I shall be selling at next year’s food festivals (Health & Safety permitting, which might be a problem with some of these examples).
“Dorset Water Vole with wild blackberry and anchovy stuffing”: this sounds so revolting that it’s a shame not to be able to try it at least once in your life, but the water vole is a protected species and is not easily available unless imported frozen from Norway where it is a national delicacy.
“Grilled Devon Dead Bat with cold cauliflower and a gooseberry and aubergine coulis”: Words cannot explain how awful this sounds to me as I detest aubergines and loathe gooseberries. As for ‘cold cauliflower’, I would rather die. Also, the addition of the word ‘Dead’ when applied to the word ‘Bat’ is unnecessary since a live bat would flap around the room and wouldn’t stay on your plate long enough for you to carve it up (not that I would dare to…).
“Stir-fried Chesil Beach Seaweed with assorted flotsam salad and crunchy jetsam croutons”: This is (mostly, but not 100% guaranteed for Vegans) a vegetarian option for very brave diners. Quite tasty but rather too salty for my liking. In some parts of Dorset, you can be arrested if you are caught eating this in a public place, but that all adds to the fun!
“Poached Somerset Slugs with Wild Sparrow Eggs in a nettle and river estuary mud jus”: ‘Difficult to be objective about this recipe. It will almost certainly fail the Health and Safety test owing to river estuary mud (a vital flavoursome ingredient) being too full of mercury and sulphuric cyanide. No problem with the slugs or the sparrows’ eggs though, if you can track them down. They’re hard to find. Tesco doesn’t stock them, nor do Morrisons or Waitrose. The Co-op might, but I haven’t checked. Go on and call them. I dare you.
“West Country Beef Fillet Steak with Cream, Peppercorns, French fries, green beans, green salad and a squashed roadkill badger sauce.” Yes, I know, I know… It was all going so well up to the badger bit. Sorry about that, but I still reckon I’ll get some takers – even if they’re only after curiosity and self denial. But then, people like that don’t live in our area. No, definitely not!