Sunday, 28 February 2010

Otley’s Own Super Market

I make no bones about the fact that I harbor an intense dislike for supermarkets. There is nothing “super” about them as far as I am concerned (apart from their ability to dominate the retail food sector, devastating consumer choice and local economies). Lucky then that my home town of Otley boasts no less than 3 butchers, an artisan bakery, traditional grocers, mobile fishmonger and an independent wine/beer merchants, as well as a thrice weekly market.

However a shopping highlight is always the thriving Farmers’ Market. Held on the last Sunday of each month (between 9.00am and 1.00pm) when the cobbled Market Square, overlooked by the Victorian Jubilee Clock, hosts a vibrant and colourful group of tightly packed stalls, buzzing with punters.

It is recognised as one of the leading farmers markets in West Yorkshire and features more than forty stalls. It’s not just preserves and chutney’s on offer either; you can actually do your full weekly shop here, as well as stocking up on non-perishable goodies to sustain you through the month ahead. There are a wide variety of producers, the emphasis being on fresh local produce rather than exclusively organic goods, although there are a number of really good organic stalls. Almost all products are grown, reared, made or processed by the stallholder - there are no middle men. Also under the Farmers' market Certification scheme, run by FARMA, the produce on sale must originate within 50 miles and, where possible, 30 miles of Otley. Only a couple of specialist producers travel from outside Yorkshire.

One of the biggest queues is always at Langthorne's Buffalo Produce from Northallerton; their wares include Buffalo meat and cheese, but also Venison, Aberdeen Angus Beef, Wild Boar, Iron Age Pig, Lamb and Mutton. The buffalo burgers are amazing; buy them ready prepared to take home and cook, or they always have a batch sizzling on the grill to sell in a bun in case you missed breakfast. Or even if you didn’t as the smell and sight of the big juicy burgers is difficult to resist.

Other regular favorites include:
Kilnsey Park Trout Farm (Upper Wharfedale); fresh and smoked trout, pates & fish products
Swillington Organic Farm (Leeds); organic free range rare breed pork & chicken
Yockenthwaite Farm (Buckden, North Yorkshire); their hand baked granola is delicious
Swaledale Cheese Company (Swaledale); artisan cheeses made using traditional methods
J Stringer & Sons (Malton, North Yorkshire); Organic flour, bread mixes, porridge oats & potatoes, they also sell Yorkshire rapeseed oil
Dumouchel (Leeds); amazing fresh breads and patisserie
Quay Ingredients (Skipton); an extensive range of dried herbs & spices
Curry Cusine (Leeds); a range of custom made spice blends / mixes & pickles to produce authentic Indian meals at home – they have also been known to do live cookery demonstrations in the market
Braythorne Bees (Stainburn, North Yorkshire); different varieties of honey and honey-based products including candles and skin creams
The Organic Pantry (Tadcaster, North Yorkshire); seasonal organic veggies

Garth Cottage Nursery (Northallerton); Specialist growers of culinary herbs and herb-infused oils, salad dressings and vinegars, garlic and chillis. This month they were also selling rhubarb roots and forcing pots
Ledston Estate Game (Ripon); including venison, pheasant, rabbit, hare
Pattacakes; patisserie, puddings & pies
Autumn Harvest mushrooms

It annoys me if people expect the produce at a FM to be cheap – “after all they cut out the middle man”, they argue - or refer to the produce as expensive. These misconceptions are entirely due to society’s conditioning by the supermarkets. In reality food isn’t, and should not be, a cheap commodity to be flogged in BOGOFs. For me these people are missing the point, but incidentally if you do want cheap you can buy 3 lambs hearts for 75p. FMs provide an outlet for producers to by pass the supermarkets, sell direct to the public and get a fair price for their produce. In return the customer gets to build up a relationship with their producers, ask questions, buy the best fresh local produce and enjoy a more interactive and pleasant shopping experience.

I missed the market last month due to a particularly veracious hangover that kept me in bed until well after everyone had packed up and gone home, but I was reliably informed that there was a new stall in town. This month's visit confirmed it; The Real Lancashire Black Pudding Company has moved in. My life is now complete!

Farmers' market facts:
The concept was imported from the United States, where they have been in existence for 35 years.

The UK Farmers' market Certification scheme is run by FARMA (National Farmer's Retail & Markets Association) and is inspected by an independent body which assesses member markets to ensure they operate within their guidelines for what makes a farmers' market the real thing.
Farmers' markets in the UK started in the autumn of 1997, the first one being held in Bath. There are now more than 500, with over half of them being certified as operating under terms defined by FARMA.

Otley farmer's Market
Market Square
Last Sunday in the month, 9am – 1pm
FARMA Certified

Friday, 26 February 2010

Celebrating Britain’s Protected Products

Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb has become the latest British product to achieve Protected Designated Origin (PDO) status from the European Commission this week.

PDO status safeguards regional foods by preventing producers from outside the designated geographical area from calling it by the protected name. Products are also extensively audited, ensuring that traditional production methods are maintained and consumers can be confident that they are buying an authentic product.

Britain, and in particular Yorkshire, has been slow to cotton on to the benefits of PDO but Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb now joins Swaledale Cheese as a uniquely Yorkshire product and becomes the 41st British product to be added to the list of legally protected names. It is in good company, joining the likes of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, Stilton cheese, Cornish clotted cream, Jersey Royal potatoes, and Melton Mowbry pork pies.

The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes have applied for PDO status for ‘Yorkshire Wensleydale’ and after a lengthy 3 year campaign have a decision pending for later this year. Bizarrely they claim that 56% of the Wensleydale cheese sold in the UK is not actually made in Wenslydale at all, but is made elsewhere in counties such as Lancashire, Cheshire & Shropshire. I’m sure Wallace and Gromit would have something to say about that, lad.

Anything that helps preserve the heritage, character and reputation of British foods and gives our producers an advantage over cheap imitations must be a positive move.
Surely when it comes down to it, the clue should be in the name?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

A Lancastrian in Yorkshire; The Bull at Broughton

After our morning spent discovering the secrets of the rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire last weekend I felt the need to redress the balance in favour of my Lancastrian roots. Now even I can't pretend that Skipton, gateway to the Yorkshire Dales and all that, is firmly entrenched in the Red Rose County. However, much to my delight it would seem that this part of Yorkshire has been invaded…. by a Lancastrian.

The Bull at Broughton, just outside Skipton, is the latest addition to Nigel Howarth & Craig Bancroft's Lancashire-based "Ribble Valley Inns" pub company. It joins The Three Fishes at Mitton, The Highwayman near Kirkby Lonsdale and The Clog & Billycock at Pleasington, nr Blackburn.
The RVI venture is part of the wider Northcote group of companies, which also includes the Michelin Starred Northcote Manor in Langho, and the group is co-owned by the two Lancastrians. Nigel Howarth is the chef behind the food and is now known nationally for his appearance and success on BBC 2's Great British Menu. His Lancashire hotpot was the winning main course in the last series and is probably the dish for which he is now best renowned and indeed typifies what he is all about - British classics perfectly executed with a modern twist.

Having visited both the Three Fishes and The Highwayman before, we knew roughly what to expect from The Bull; the same formula has been applied to all of the RVI pubs. I do not mean this in the typically naff generic chain pub sense, as each venue still manages to retain its own identity, but there is definitely a common premise that runs through them all. They are not billed as 'gastro pubs' but a more a modern day version of a ‘local’, serving great food and ale in a hospitable and relaxed environment. The philosophy behind each is to source the best ingredients from local artisan suppliers and to create a seasonal menu inspired by genuinely regional specialties. Add to that a good range of local ales and present it all immaculately in a building full of atmosphere & character. From the trademark spacious layouts, the extensive use of wood, bare flagged floors, solid wood furniture and real fires to the neutral modern décor and pictures of suppliers that adorn the walls and table mats, the pubs make the perfect informal and welcoming modern country inn.

The difference with the Bull is the location and therefore the emphases on Yorkshire dishes and produce. As usual the suppliers are all name-checked on a map on the back of the menu, which is littered with references to Yorkshire produce. There were 4 local cask ales on offer – including offerings from Copper Dragon & Dark Horse Breweries, both just down the road in Skipton, and Ilkley Best from the Ilkley Brewery.

I could happily eat anything from this menu but opted to start with William Hunter’s deep fried parsnip fritters with cumin dip - chunks of parsnip deep fried in a crisp batter, the insides had a lovely soft texture and the fragrant slightly sweet flavor of the parsnips was complimented perfectly by the warm hint of cumin in the creamy dip.

Dave went for the Gloucester old spot chipolatas (Cumberland, pork & black pudding), served with an English mustard relish, and assured me they were great sausages.
Both starters were served with cocktail sticks to pick with, almost like a bar snack or finger food and proved the perfect way to start a pub meal.

For mains it was a difficult choice, I was torn between one of the mutton dishes and the English rose veal escalope with capers, nut brown butter and Pearce’s organic fried egg. In the end we both went for mutton, a largely ignored and underrated meat in Britain these days it is nice to see it making an appearance on restaurant menus. I had the Herdwick mutton pudding with caper and parsley mash and black peas. It was a revelation, a delicate suet crust packed with tasty meat and kidney, the caper mash offsetting any greasiness from the rich mutton.

Dave’s mutton hotpot with picked red cabbage met with his expectations, which were exceedingly high given the man’s reputation for what is his signature dish.

Pudding was a toss up between Burnt English custard with stewed Tomlinson’s Yorkshire rhubarb and a Bramley apple pie with carnation milk and custard and a slice of Wensleydale cheese, made to serve 2. We went for the apple pie and were assured by the staff that we wouldn’t be disappointed - we weren’t. Not too sweet, the thin golden pastry crust was packed with tart apples and served with a lovely custard, speckled with vanilla. The carnation milk added a touch of sweet creamy nostalgia, I haven't had this since I was a child when I ate it with tinned peaches!

Service was the way it should be throughout - efficient, friendly and knowledgeable. At around £42 for a 3 course meal it was an absolute snip and I was well impressed with accomplished way everything was done here.

If I am honest, for me there is actually a slight "footballers' wives" kind of vibe that transcends all of the RVI pubs. It is characterised by the white Audi & BMW 4x4's with tinted windows that hog the car parks and the well-heeled clientele, typically wearing designer clothes, sunglasses and the wives carrying Gucci handbags. This combined with the elaborately worded menus and impeccable surroundings mean that maybe it is all just a bit too perfect. I guess if that is the only criticism I can level at them then I really am just being ridiculous. They are clearly doing something right here and it certainly won’t stop me going back for more!

There is an overriding sense of quality here that transcends the everyday British pub. It makes you wonder why more pubs cannot achieve the standards set by the RVI team but one thing is for sure, this is one Lancastrian that can hold his head up high over the border.

The Bull
Broughton, Skipton, BD23 3AE

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A Magical Mystery Tour; the Rhubarb Triangle

West Yorkshire has been the home of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ since the late 19th century. Despite the apparent lack of paranormal activity and notorious disappearances, the facts about this little known phenomenon are still often vague and shrouded in mystery. So in order to get to the bottom of the peculiar goings on in deepest Wakefield at this time of year we embarked on a mini rhubarb adventure.
It started with a phone call a week ahead to check availability of the tour, as advised on the website. I was told that they were very busy but we could indeed be squeezed in on Saturday 13th February at 10.30am. The booking was provisionally made and I posted a cheque at the soonest opportunity to confirm, we would then be emailed our tickets and directions to the location.
We were off to discover the secret world of the Rhubarb Triangle and to meet the ‘High Priestess of Rhubarb’!

The Rhubarb Triangle owes its name to the areas history of rhubarb growing, more specifically to its position at the epicentre of "forced" rhubarb production. The first misnomer that needs to be cleared up is its location. The Rhubarb Triangle is often described as being the triangular area between the cities of Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford (the green triangle on the map). Other sources give the points of the triangle as Leeds, Morley and Wakefield (the blue triangle on the map). However both of these claims are rhubarb (pardon the obvious pun) as the largest area of rhubarb cultivation actually falls outside both of these triangles. It more accurately covers the triangular 9-square-mile area of land formed between Morley, Wakefield and Rothwell (the red triangle on the map).

Map courtesy of Yorkshire Gardener Sue from Green Lane Allotments

In fact much of the rhubarb these days is grown around the village of Carlton and this is where we were heading.

On arrival at Oldroyd's Farm we were met by Janet Oldroyd Hulme (AKA the ‘High Priestess of Rhubarb’). The tour started with Tea / Coffee and Biscuits and then we were taken back in time to 2700BC to trace rhubarb’s ancient history. Rhubarb (actually a vegetable, not a fruit) is originally native of Siberia and since early times has been highly prized for its medicinal properties. In fact, back to the modern day and only this week it was announced that this super food has now been linked with the prevention and possible treatment of cancer.

Although not native to the UK Rhubarb was found to flourish in Yorkshire’s cold, damp soils.
The forcing process was discovered by chance in the early 19th Century, but it wasn't until 1877 that Yorkshire became the first place in the world to build special sheds to grow it in. In its heyday there were more than two hundred growers in the Rhubarb Triangle and it produced 90% of the world's winter rhubarb. It was grown, picked and whisked away to London via the rail network on the "Rhubarb Express", to be sold at Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets and on into Europe. I wondered if the trains left from Platform nine and three quarters but didn't dare to ask.
After World War II the industry sadly went into decline and producers went bankrupt or were forced to sell up as other, more exotic fruit became widely available and more popular. Now there are just a handful of growers left in the area; 12 to be precise. Leading the renaissance is the Oldroyd family, now into its fifth generation of dedicated rhubarb growers. Janet leaves you with no doubt as to her passion for this crimson stalk.

We were then introduced to the dark art of rhubarb forcing! Each winter rhubarb crowns (established root systems) are transferred indoors into dark, heated nursery sheds to be "forced". Anything referred to as being "forced" would generally have bad connotations, particularly in relation to food. In the case of rhubarb though, it describes the process of growing the plants at an accelerated rate in warm, dimly lit conditions a process that actually results in a superior product. The forced stalks are tender, sweet, and a distinctive bright pink in colour. Known as "Champagne Rhubarb", it is a seasonal delicacy and can fetch much higher prices than its more fibrous and lip-puckeringly sour outdoor equivalent that has given rhubarb such a bad reputation.
Once inside the secret word of the low, dark forcing sheds the ambiance is eerie, almost other worldly. With the giant heaters turned off, in the silence you can actually hear the rhubarb growing; it is a distinctive "pop" as the buds of new stalks burst open. The grotto-like shed runs as far as the eye can see, and the rhubarb emerges in the flickering candlelight. Janet describes it as "almost like a religious experience" and without doubt it is strangely atmospheric, even magical.

The Yorkshire rhubarb growers are currently waiting on a decision from Brussels on an application for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for their crop, to allow them to officially name their product "traditionally grown Yorkshire rhubarb" and prevent cheap imitations from impostors, such as the Dutch. The decision is due in the next few days and hopefully forced Yorkshire rhubarb will then join the elite list of protected regional foods and put the Rhubarb Triangle firmly on the map.

E.Oldroyd & Sons Ltd
Carlton Village, LS26 0ST
Tours run from January to March.

Wakefield Food, Drink and Rhubarb Festival runs from 26th to 27th February 2010.