Food Safari

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Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Event report: Free Range Pig in a Day

Can free range pork reared on a commercial scale taste as good as rare breed or organic? Suffolk pig farmer Alastair Butler certainly thinks so and runs a successful business at Blythburgh Pork producing top quality pork through a system of true free range farming where piglets are born in snug sheds in the outdoors and then reared outdoors until they are ready for slaughter. The approach championed by Butler and his father Jimmy is one of which they are so proud that they are one of the few pig farmers in the UK who will let the public visit their farm to see the high welfare stanards.

Food Safari's Pig in a Day was a chance to see the real story behind pork. The first part of the day was a visit to the farm on the sandy heathlands of the Suffolk Coast, an Area of Outstantding Natural Beauty. Alastair described how 'free range' is still not established as a label but can sit happily (and tastily) alongside organic and rare breed.

Blythburgh Free Range Pork hope to get an average of 11 piglets per litter (more than the 4-8 a rare breed farmer might expect but fewer than the 16 or so expected from an intensive European pig farming operation). Seeing a group of piglets thundering across a field is like watching a group of over-excited school children charging around a playground. These pigs clearly enjoy an excellent quality of life. Butler argues that the main drivers of taste in pork are the right breed (in his case a four-way cross), a longer life than an intensive system offers and the optimum amount of fat.

Asked how quality producers are working with leading restaurateurs to promote pork Butler enthused about serving pork pink (rather than rare) instead of the traditionally acceptable well done. Eaten this way the meat is juicy and as long as it comes from a trusted source, perfectly safe.

So how does Blythburgh pork perform in the kitchen? Back at the Anchor, butcher Ray Kent proceeded to deftly tackle half a pig revealing the various joints: collar, shoulder, tenderloin, loin, chops, leg and favourite of Chinese cooks and cheap but outstanding belly. We explored how to use each cut in the kitchen and were inspired to buy pork from butchers rather than picking up a packet in the supermarket - for example why ask your butcher for chops with the tenderloin attached - exactly the same concept as a T-bone steak - and something you won't find in a supermarket.Ray is a traditional family butcher and a great Suffolk character - with a fabulously strong Suffolk accent he pronounced it a particularly 'noy-uss' (nice) side of pork.

After the butchery demonstration Mike Keen, head chef challenged three groups to prepare a winning sausage mix.
With powerful flavours such as chili, ginger, garlic, stilton and pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika) on offer it was an exercise in restraint as much as unbridled creativity to see which sausage would pass the Food Safari taste test. Not only did the teams prepare the mixes but Ray and Mike soon got them making and tying the sausages like professionals.

The climax of Pig in a Day is a porky feast which celebrates the glories of this most succulent meat. With the sun shining we ate a long table outside. Spare ribs marinated in an intriguing mix of banana blitzed with chilli and then roasted with the marinade; light asian-style pork balls; a perfect roast loin with a deeply flavoured nettle sauce (currently abundant - why not learn more on Food Safari's upcoming Wild Food Forage on 6 June?).
Each dish was well matched with a different beer by beer guru and Anchor proprietor Mark Dorber. Dorber argues that beers can work more interestingly than wine since they have 'flavour hooks' that really bring out the taste of both the food and the beers. Beers included the complex and exotic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with its fragrant 'cascade hops' as an aperitif, a German Schneider-Weisse wheat beer (with banana and bubblegum notes) to match the ribs and Adnams' well hopped new brew Innovation from just up the road in Southwold alongside the loin. The highlight of the feast was a taste-off between the sausages made earlier. All were excellent but for me, the stilton had the most intensely savoury, mellow and juicy quality.
Pork is perhaps underappreciated in Britain compared with beef and lamb - it's somehow not always the obvious choice. We learned on Food Safari that there's much more to pork than chops and that treated simply and boldly, it is peerlessly good. As the old saying goes, you can eat every bit of a pig, bar the squeak.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Real Food Festival - Suffolk producers where were you?

I made a rare trip to London at the weekend to visit the Real Food Festival at Earls Court. I love going back to London. It was home for over 10 years and I miss it more than I admit!

Bizarrely almost the first person I saw outside Earls Court was someone I'm more likely to see at Suffolk farmers' markets, Ian Whitehead from the Suffolk Salami Company. We're fans of their sausages and bacon (branded as Lane Farm) but I was pleased to try their chorizo which was delicious and my first purchase of the day.

Suffolk Salami was one of the few Suffolk food producers represented at the Festival, others were Munchy Seeds, Casa del Oli (olive oil) and Stark Naked Foods (pestos made with herbs grown on the family's 150 year old farm) and the big boys, Aspalls. I was disappointed not to see a stronger representation of Suffolk food and drink producers there and, with the exception of Aspalls, there was nothing there that was unique to Suffolk. Where were our micro-brewers, cheese-makers, beef or pork farmers?

Other regions were represented by their Regional Food Groups and clustered together - Wales had a very strong presence. Rumour has it that Tastes of Anglia, our own Food Group, didn't get the funding they needed to be there; but with stands costing as little as £200 each, I think that's a poor result. My friends at Grain Brewery sold so much beer they had to drive back to the Norfolk to get more to sell on the Sunday. Watch this space - next year Food Safari will be there and I'll bring as many of my friendly producers with me as I can to show the rest of the country what great foodie things are coming out of Suffolk.

In the meantime for a true taste of what Suffolk has to offer come to the fourth Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival on September 26-27, 2009. I'm going to be organising the programme of fringe events with producers, farm shops, delis, pubs and restaurants running September 26-October 4th.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Wild food foraging - research trip

I spent a fascinating couple of hours today up at Henham Park, 3800 acres of parkland best known as the setting for the Latitude Festival, Suffolk's answer to Glastonbury and home of the charming and laid back Hektor Rous. But there's more to Henham than music and comedy - it's a wild food forager's paradise.

I was with Jacky Sutton-Adam, wild foraging expert (and fellow food blogger) to survey the best spots for Food Safari's upcoming Wild Food in a Day on 6 June which she will be leading. Jacky has been for
aging seriously since 2004 and as we walked through the fields and woods, we talked about the role wild food can play in a healthy diet but also in bringing a whole new level of interest to simply being outdoors.

As we approached the lake Jacky enthused about what she sees as the 'premier league' of wild foods which are great to eat, good for you and by a stroke of natural fortune, abundant in Britain. These include nettles and dandelions which have outstanding antioxidant qualities and but also fat hen - a delicious alternative to spinach and chickweed.

Finding th
e perfect spot for a Food Safari's foray is harder than I'd expected - we were looking for a concentration of lots of interesting edible plants in a compact area to allow maximum gathering time. Finally close to The Stables, Henham's luxury b&b, Jacky spotted a particularly promising looking area of meadow. With a triumphant "I'll get my shears" Jacky headed off.

She ident
ified at least 10 edible plants within about 15 minutes, some of which we tasted although Jacky advocated that in most cases it's better to take things home and cook with them than eat them raw. I can testify to this! We've been experimenting with some wild foraging of our own this spring around Framlingham, including alexanders which are related to celery and lovage. My husband enjoys eating the stems raw but the rest of us are more sceptical - apparently they are good cooked like asparagus. Jacky explained that by late summer the dry black seeds can also be used as a seasoning.

Later, over lunch with Mark Dorber at the Anchor in Walberswick we discussed the wild food menu to be served after the forage. There were lots of ideas including teaming mackerel with alexanders, making
a fresh pasta dough with cooked nettles to add colour and flavour and elderflower panna cotta. There was real excitement about the possibilities especially because the nature of wild foraging is that what we find on the 6th June will be unpredictable!