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Monday, 16 February 2009

At Hill Farm Oils - extra virgin rapeseed oil

Hill Farm Oils are one of the great success stories of farm diversification in Suffolk. They've taken a familiar crop, rapeseed, which turns so many fields bright yellow from April onwards and produced a nutty cold pressed extra virgin rapeseed oil. The oil is now widely available in Waitrose and Sainsbury's nationwide, East Anglian Tescos as well as independent farm shops and delis.

The Fairs family have been farming for 35 years in and around Heveningham, near Halesworth in Suffolk, but in 2001 Sam Fairs was inspired to develop a new product from the rapeseed crop after hearing a friend had been rapeseed oil tablets to lower his cholesterol. Sam began to experiment with the cold pressing the rapeseed into a premium cooking oil that has half the saturated fat of olive oil and is high in omega-3, an essential fatty acid which can help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease.

Rape covers about 3% of England's farmland and closer to 10% in some areas but it is not a crop that we usually associate with food. It's main use is for the manufacture of cooking oils, margarine and processed foods, with much of the by-product used as animal feed. Many varieties aren't even edible and are used for the production of lubricants and adhesives to cosmetics and gardening products.

It was fascinating to talk to Sam about the challenge of getting people to switch their buying and cooking habits. Sam talks about how olive oil has become so deeply ingrained in our minds as THE healthy oil, the one we reach for automatically in the supermarket aisle or standing at the stove. His focus is on educating people about the health benefits of rapeseed oil and encouraging them to try the taste for themselves. He tells me how in their experience once people have tried Hill Farm Oils they are converted (I vouch for this). Their greatest marketing opportunity is to get people to see the oil being used in cookery demonstrations, used in recipes and promoted by food writers and chefs. Mark Hix is a great fan and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall often uses it in his recipes. Mike Keen, Head Chef at The Anchor, Walberswick tells me he's a big fan and we'll use it wherever possible in Food Safari cookery demonstrations to encourage more people to give it a try.

Sam gives me a tour of the site and talks through the cold pressing process and shows me the bi-product which becomes cattle feed. The whole process from pressing to bottling is extremely high-tech and makes use of some very expensive bits of kit. The Fairs family have invested heavily in this enterprise.

Sam generously gives me several bottles of oil to try at home and to pass on to friends and chefs!

I've made great use of it and recommend it to add texture and flavour to home-made bread, to replace butter in muffins and flapjacks and for stir-frys and roasting vegetables; its high smoke point make it ideal for this.
If like me, you try to buy as much food locally as you can, Hill Farm Oil is great news - single-estate, extra-virgin oil from just up the road - has to be a great alternative to Italian, Greek or Spanish olive oils.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Blythburgh Free Range Pork - January 22nd

Like anyone who's travelled up the A12 towards Southwold and Lowestoft, I've been familiar with the Jimmy and Alastair Butler's Blythburgh Freerange Pigs for a few years. They've almost become as much as landmark of this part of the north Suffolk coast, as the stunning Blythburgh church. So it was great to get meet one half of the team on a wet and stormy January morning.

The light sandy healthland soil around Blythburh has limited agricultural use but it is, apparently, the best land for outdoor pig-keeping in the whole of the UK. Unlike most free-range reared pigs, the Butler's spend all of their lives outside and have 80 times more space to run around in than conventionally reared pigs. This, they say, is reflected in the quality of the meat.
The pigs freedom to roam develops good muscle and tender meet. Being exposed to the sun and weather maintains the pig's skin in better condition leading to superior crackling on roasting joints. The breed of pig adds to the flavour, JSR Cotswold Gold sows are a blend of lines, including traditional breeds, specially bred to thrive under outdoor conditions. The Butlers run 1200 of these sows on 120 acres in addition to the 75 acres utilised by the growing pigs.

The pigs are fed a natural diet containing no antibiotics or growth promoters. They are grown about 20 per cent slower than normal pig production which makes the animals more mature at slaughter - which again contributes to the juiciness and flavour of the meat. The piglets remain with their Mothers (sows) in insulated arcs for nearly four weeks until they reach a healthy size and strength to be weaned off milk onto solid food. This means the sows can have a well earned rest allowing them to recover after having so many hungry mouths to feed and the piglets are moved into large straw filled tents and huts that become their new homes.

Alastair tells me that they are one of the only pig farmers that are happy to have people visit their site because they are confident in what they are doing and know that people will not see any of the shocking practices, like castration and tail docking, revealed by Jamie Oliver's recent programme, Jamie Saves Our Bacon. Those with beady eyes will have spotted Jimmy in the studio and some footage filmed on their farm.
Blythburgh Free Range Pork is a perfect partner for Food Safari, focussed on providing a high quality product with impressive animal welfare and a conviction that the future of British pig farming depends on the public wanting to know more about where their food comes from, rebuilding connections with farmers and demanding a responsible food chain.

Visit to Shawsgate Vineyard - January 14

On my bike today a mile up the road from Framlingham, to see Tom Jarrett of Shawsgate Vineyard. Shawsgate is one of the oldest commercial vineyards in East Anglia and has consistently won national and even international awards for its wine. The 20 acre vineyard produces white grape varieties: Bacchus, Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc, Muller Thurgau, and Schonburger, with some of the vines dating back to the early 1970s when the vineyard was set up. As for reds there are three plots of Acolon and Rondo.

For most of the year the vineyard is very tranquil and a haven for wildlife and birds. Come late September/October the harvest starts. The team of about 20 pickers is a real cross-section of society from local ladies who've been doing it for years and also pick for other local vineyards, to travellers and seasonal workers. Tom tells me they've even had city workers volunteer on their holidays.

Shawsgate is unusual in having its own state-of-the art winery and makes wine for many other growers in the region, including Wyken, Lady Carla Carlisle's vineyard near Bury St Edmunds.

The winery was built in the late 80s and is equipped with over 300 stainless steel tanks based on a New Zealand model. Tom show me around and explains the process: the press is a rotating cylinder containing an air bag that slowly inflates, gently squeezing the grapes to release their juice. From here the juice goes in a large tank where fermentation happens then it's bottled and left to rest.

We visit the shop and see the range of white, red and rosé wines Shawsgate produces and we discuss how they have recently rebranded all the labels to give their wines a fresh modern look. We also talk about how Tom has withdrawn his product lines from supermarkets and and other retailers as the high duty on wine makes the margins very slim. Shawsgate prefer to sell direct to consumers or to the trade and you can enjoy Bacchus in several places including The Waterfront Cafe in Woodbridge.

You can visit Shawsgate most weekends for a self-guided tour of the vineyards or take part in their vineyard experience days. Food Safari is going to work with Shawsgate to offer a vineyard day with a difference where you can get hands-on for the day, pruning vines, picking grapes, even labelling bottles. Of course we'll throw in a good lunch and a wine and food matching session. Visit our web site for the details:

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Pinney's of Orford - January diary continued . . .

Tuesday 12th January - Pinney's of Orford

My first January in Suffolk has given us many stunning bright mornings and once again I de-ice the car to pop down to Orford to meet Harvey Allen, who runs the wholesale and retail side of Pinney's of Orford. Pinney's has a fascinating history worth recounting in some detail . . .

At the end of the second world war when Richard Pinney, like many of us since, decided he had had enough of living in London and headed for the countryside. After an extensive search he found a derelict cottage near Butley Creek, near Orford on the Suffolk coast and began looking for ways to make a living. his first enterprise was cutting rushes from local dikes and rivers, drying and platting them into mats and carpets.

He then turned his attention to the river and set about restoring the derelict oyster beds in Butley Creek. Oysters had been cultivated there since Roman times and had a fine reputation but the trade had died in the late 19th century. Despite being warned by local people that if he wanted to lose all his money, oysters were a good way to do it, he started laying down oysters from Portugal, which grew and fattened very well.

At the same time, being a keen fisherman, he caught some large sea trout off Orford beach. Not knowing what to do with them, he began to experiment with smoking in a disused compartment at the end of his cottage. The results were so good that he decided to buy some salmon and the smoking business grew from there. He developed a unique system of burning whole oak logs - a system which has been refined but hardly changed to this day.

In the mid 60s he decided to open a small restaurant for people to try these products and so the Butley Orford Oysterage began. In the 40 years since then it has involved successive generations of the Pinney family. The restaurant has moved to larger premises in Orford's pretty market square and the small shope at the back is about to move again to new premises right on Orford Quay. Many of the fish sold are caught with our own fishing boats. Daily landings include cod, bass, sole, skate, lobster and crabs, according to the season.

The smokehouses are still situated at Butley Creek next to the oyster beds. Trout, mackerel, cod roe, wild and farmed salmon, kippers and eels are among the products that are smoked every day, for the shop, restaurant and for our growing wholesale deliveries.The oysters grown now are the Pacific variety which thrive in the healthy oyster growing environment that makes Butley Creek such a special area.


Harvey and I chewed the cud for a couple of hours about the many challenges and opportunities facing producers such as Pinney's: how to start to sell through local Co-op supermarkets without upsetting long serving independent delis and farm shops; the decline of farmers markets for producers; the demise of Framlingham's landmark deli and general grocers, Carley & Webb, who've shut after over 100 years of trading; and the potential impact of Waitrose's announcement to open in Saxmundham in May on the site of Somerfield - all subjects worthy of their own blog.

The upshot of it all is that Food Safari will work with Pinney's to offer some behind-the-scenes tours of the oysterbeds and smokehouse at Butley Creek. You'll see for yourself the smoking process and get as close as you can (without actually going under water) to the oysterbeds and hear more about what fish are landed daily by the family's own boats. After the tour we'll head back to the the restaurant in Orford for a seafood lunch. The first event will be on May 30th to mark the launch of the new shop on Orford Quay. Visit our Food Safari web site for full details.

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Food Safari January Diary

January was a busy month for us at Food Safari as we spent as much time as possible out of the office and on the road visiting some of east Suffolk's finest producers and retailers and developing plans for our full programme of events in 2009. I thought it might be interest to write up some of those visits.

Tuesday 6th January - The Suffolk Food Hall

The kids are safely back at school after the Christmas hols and I whizz off down the A12 to meet Oliver Paul at The Suffolk Food Hall. It's a stunning clear, cold and frosty morning as arrive at Wherstead right underneath the Orwell Bridge, but inside the cafe is buzzing with mums and toddlers grabbing a coffee on their way back from the school run.

Since May 2007, the Suffolk Food Hall has brought together a number of local producers under one roof: Crystalwaters fishmongers from Lowestoft; Hamish Johnson cheeses from Framlingham; and Bread from local baker Helena Doy and their own Broxtead Butchery, winner of East Anglian Daily Times Best Butcher award in 2008.

As I arrive Oliver's busy with their chef taking photos of a steaming steak and kidney pie for their inaugaral Suffolk Foodies Club event 'Pie and a Pint' in February. The Foodies' Club is aimed at foodies in the Ipswich area and gives them a chance to meet some of the Food Hall's producers and suppliers and the chef, Andy, on the first Wednesday of every month. The events are very reasonably priced at £12.50 a head and I'm sure will prove to be a great evening out. The next event is on March 4th and is a chance to meet Helena Doy, from the aptly names Bread who supply farm shops and delis all over Suffolk.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Report: Beer Academy

How does the choice of ingredients and brewing process affect flavour and style? Why does beer get such a bad press while its supposedly more sophisticated cousin wine is seen as the natural choice to partner with food and growing steadily in popularity? How can beer find new audiences beyond lads and lasses swigging Stella on a big night out or beardy real ale drinkers?

These were some of the question that last week's Beer Academy course sought to answer. Aimed at people in the booze trade as well as beer enthusiasts looking for more of an educational experience than a typical brewery tour. I wasn't the only girl either!

The course was run by George Philliskirk, a beer expert who lives in what is apparently one of the epicentres of the beer universe: Burton on Trent (why - it's the high mineral content in the water there that gives the beers a refreshing edge apparently). George is a very charming, relaxed tutor with whom we'd had the privilege of dining with the night before in the company of Suffolk and Norfolk barley growers Teddy Maufe and Roger Middleditch of The Real Ale Shop. He knows his stuff from years in the industry and was about to head off to Australia to do a spot of beer judging. Nice work if you can get it.

The day covered the whole beer story in enough depth to come away with a much richer understanding of the topic:
  • Beer ingredients (water, malted barley, hops, yeast are all you need for classic English real ale but you will find other grains like wheat and rice used for some styles and also herbs, spices and fruit added)
  • Brewing process
  • How to taste beer (just like tasting wine except you're not supposed to spit it out!)
  • Beer and food matching
  • History of beer and beer styles (what's the different between a stout and a porter?)
  • Industry info: beer and health, the UK beer market
Some highlights for me included tasting some different types of malted barley: pale malt (just like Ovaltine or Grape Nuts), crystal malt (darker and more intense) and chocolate malt (the darkest of the three with a roasted coffee/chocolate aroma and flavour).

Beer and food matching was really interesting: try teaming chocolate with a Belgian Kriek (cherry) fruit beer - it's delicious. However this part of the course was a bit rushed and would merit a longer session. There are three key aspects to consider when teaming beer with food are:
1. Complement (a strong bitter with cheese)
2. Contrast (e.g. Kriek with chocolate)
3. Cut (think of a cold beer with a spicy curry)

Of the beers we tasted, those from the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich stood out as did Bluebird Bitter from the Coniston Brewery.

Now my months in Suffolk have confirmed a few things: that we are blessed with wonderful local producers, that there are plenty of good places to eat, and that I love a pint of Suffolk Ale be it Adnams or our local Earl Soham Victoria or Hektor's Pure which went down extremely well as the house bitter at the Latitude Festival last summer. It's probably fair to say that I was getting a bit complacent about beer. But Beer Academy revealed a whole world of different beer styles and ranged far and wide around the globe in search of good beers. We came away feeling much better informed about this amazing drink and with our tastebuds zinging.