Before the new wave came the old guard, and many are still going strong. We meet Britain's food heroes, old and new
Published: Tuesday 7th February 2017
It's easy to think of contemporary London as a cornucopia of great produce; a hive that's buzzing with activity from new and exciting minds creating delicious food and drink products that challenge the way things have been done. Want a British take on Mexican cheese? Try Peckham's Gringa Dairy. Fancy some smoked salmon? London Fields' Secret Smokehouse is hellbent on bringing the heart of smoking back to its spiritual home in the East End.
But in all the excitement of London's food start-ups, it's important not to forget where it all began. British cuisine may not be celebrated like that of France and Italy, but its history runs deep. That's why we've selected eight different traditional British food and drink products, and talked not only about the upstart Londoners making them, but also the companies that have been there and done it – and are still doing it today.
In these pages, you'll read about cider (or cyder) that's been brewed since 1728; the jam brand that's been shaping the way we preserve in Britain for 140 years; and you'll finally find out the answer to the burning question: who invented the scotch egg? British food culture is in a golden age, but it's one that's built on centuries of tradition. Read about some of the best of it here…
Paxton & Whitfield's early history is all about knowing its market: in the late 1700s, the Cullum family's cheese stall in Aldwych Market became a cheese shop on Southampton Street, a move made in order to bring it closer to the wealthy elites who worked in and around the embryonic Mayfair.
The name comes from Harry Paxton and Charles Whitfield, business partners of the company's founder Sam Cullum, who was responsible for the shrewd move. In 1835, the Paxton & Whitfield shop moved to Jermyn Street, where it still resides, and in 1850, the brand was appointed cheesemaker to Queen Victoria as its heritage grew and grew. It followed that up with Royal Warrants for three kings and two Princes of Wales, and the great Winston Churchill is even quoted as saying "a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield". High praise indeed.
With such a long history, the brand has had to ride out its fair share of bumps on its journey to the top. In the mid-1800s, the English appetite moved towards European cheeses over the farmhouse-style cheese England was known for. Rationing hit the cheese industry as hard as any, and its Jermyn Street shop had to bring in other groceries in place of weird and wonderful cheeses to try to aid the war effort.
But today, the brand is as strong as ever, with two shops in London, one in Stratford-upon-Avon and another in Bath. It's known for bringing some of the UK's best cheeses to its customers, as well crackers and condiments, too. From stall to shop, and beyond...
Philip Wilton refers to himself as "the Urban Cheesemaker". And, given that he makes his range of artisanal cheeses tucked away on an industrial estate in North London, it's a pretty apt description of what he does.
The company's been around since 2012, when Wilton was made redundant from his job as a management consultant. He decided not to look for a similar role somewhere else but, presumably, to look to do a job that was about the furthest he could possibly get from his old one.
What started in a home kitchen continued and flourished in said industrial estate, where Wilton and his team make some of the best cheeses to be found in London.
The secret's in the care and attention paid to the manufacturing process. Wilton sources milk from Jersey cows that graze in the Lune Valley in Lancashire, rather than from larger dairy farms closer to the capital. Today, he's featured on the menus of restaurants all over London, as well as having provided cheese for events put on by everyone from Coutts Bank to Nike, catering weddings and functions, and being sold in markets and shops around London. Wilton describes making cheese as "magic" and "alchemy". It seems like something he was born to do.
Like many of London's new batch of food producers, Wilton is also eager to share his (relatively) new-found expertise in cheesemaking. That's why he and his team offer cheesemaking workshops and courses, too.
That Forman, one of the country's oldest purveyors of smoked salmon and trout, would have a premises on the capital's historic Fish Island is nominative determinism at its best.
It owes its formation, though, to a Russian – the not-very-Russian-sounding Harry Forman arrived at the turn of the 19th century and pursued what he knew back-to-front already: the art of curing fish. He set about importing salmon from Scotland and developing a technique that would later be known as the 'London cure': a perfect blend of curing salt, oak smoke, and time.
What's particularly notable about Forman – and, indeed, about many of the great British brands still creating great food and drink after decades or centuries of doing so – is that it's still a family business. Lance Forman, Harry's grandson, is in charge today. And, certainly not harmed by London's recent fling with all things brunch, the product remains as popular as ever.
If smoked fish is now more closely associated with Scotland than with the East End of London, Secret Smokehouse is on a mission to redress the balance.
The company was founded by Max Bergius [above], a smoker who learned his trade at Billingsgate Market and went on to smoke fish on Scotland's West Coast. Being a resident of Stepney, in East London, Bergius was keen to make his mark on the East End's current smoking scene.
He and his company aren't trying to reinvent the wheel – while many new London producers fuse tradition with ambitious new flavours and techniques (such as Camberwell's Pished Fish, which infuses its salmon and trout with cocktail spirits and ingredients), Bergius wanted to pay homage to the beautiful simplicity of London smoked salmon, and carry on the tradition of those who made the area so well-known for its cured and smoked fish. His company cures MSC-certified Scottish salmon, trout, haddock and kippers by hand, just the way it always has been.
If you've ever spent time in Suffolk, you'll know it's a treasure trove of food, drink and farms. Its apples blush, its farm animals beam, and its food-and-drink-producing scene is full of creative people making the best of what the landscape has to offer.
People like Clement Chevallier are testament to this fact. Having inherited Aspall Hall in 1722, he set about planting apples weeks after moving in in 1728, from cuttings he brought over from his native Jersey. He practiced making cider (or "cyder", as Aspall likes to refer to it) with apples bought locally, until such time as his first apple plantations bore fruit.
The business is still owned by the family, run today by his descendent, Henry Chevallier-Guild. While not all of Aspall's cyders and vinegars are certified organic, the brand has a flagship Organic Cyder and an Organic Vinegar, and can lay claim to some pretty serious organic credentials: family member Perronelle Chevallier was one of the Soil Association's co-founders in 1946, and the brand is actually the longest-standing holder of accreditation by the charity.
Today the brand's cyders include classic British cloudy, still, sparkling and even mulled. There's also a range of 11 eclectic vinegars, too.
"We are here to change the face of the UK cider industry forever," reads the mission statement of Urban Orchard. And, with our cities getting bigger all the time, their plan seems like an achievable one.
The process is a simple but brilliant way of producing great-quality cider without the luxury of an orchard: Apple Donors give quantities of their urban apples – from private gardens, allotments, community gardens and more – and in return for at least 5kg of fruit, they're given back 10% of the weight in finished cider.
If you're a community garden, you can even set up a Donor Station – you'll be paid for the apples you and your community give to the brand in the form of a fundraising donation to a charity of your choice.
The liquid itself is a sparkling, crisp and fresh cider, made up of nothing but urban apples and a bit of champagne yeast. It's a cider that tastes of London.
There are many stories behind the invention of the British classic, but the most popular is that of Fortnum & Mason, which suggests that the scotch egg – in all its golden-yolked, breadcrumbed glory – was considered a treat for the department store's most affluent clientele.
Much like the pork pie, it was originally intended as a traveller's snack; something that could be held easily and wrapped up in a handkerchief – and was developed by the department store thanks to its location in Piccadilly Circus, which was the starting point for many routes leading out of London.
Fast-forward 200 years, and the recipe has had a bit of an update, swapping offal and leftover meat for sausage. Other than that, Fortnum's has stayed true to its scotch egg roots. Today it offers two choices: traditional, with a free-range egg and outdoor-reared pork, and an indulgent black pudding version.
Until recently, the modern incarnation of the scotch egg was as bad motorway service station food; something to be avoided rather than sought out. But Scotchtails – founded by two friends, Oliver Hiam and Dominic Hamdy, while they were at university – has firmly put the original commuter snack back on the gourmet map. The pair make their eggs with artisanal ingredients in Hackney, and sell them under the arches of Borough Market – developing them into the posh street food they were always intended to be.
Scotchtails sells everything from chorizo-wrapped eggs to inventive vegetarian versions with tomato and basil or beetroot and lentil, served with a selection of homemade relishes. The kitchen also occasionally goes off-menu, creating scotch eggs wrapped in things like squid and chorizo. The eggs have been so popular the pair have now opened a café in Aldwych – Lundenwic – which sells the snacks alongside fresh seasonal salads, juices, and some of London's best coffee.
In 1905, Thomas Fentiman, an iron puddler from Cleckheaton, was approached by a fellow tradesman for a loan. The deal was struck, and a recipe for ginger beer was provided as security. The deal fell through, and Fentiman became the owner of the recipe.
He began producing the botanically brewed ginger beer, selling it door-to-door from a horse and cart in handmade stone jars, stamped with an image of his dog.
A century later, and Fentiman's is still a family-run company, owned by Thomas's great-grandson. It's still brewed using the traditional techniques – using crushed ginger root and other botanicals, and allowing it to ferment for a week – although the process has been brought up to date. These days the drinks are carbonated, and pasteurised to extend shelf-life.
Square Root's modern-day sodaworks epitomises London's start-up culture: it originally started out in a kitchen, and the sodas were sold from a 1920s delivery tricycle affectionately named Elsie. Within two years, the drinks because so popular that Square Root moved to a production and bottling space in a railway arch in Hackney Downs, and the company was awarded the 2015 BBC Food & Farming Award for Best Drinks Producer.
The team only uses fresh ingredients that they juice or infuse themselves, often taking the wonky or softer fruits that supermarkets won't buy. They work with seasonal ingredients, which means the flavours available often change, and the final product contains around a third less sugar than your average soda.
There are a few core flavours though, with ginger beer among them – a fizzy, spicy drink that speaks of the care taken to produce it.
Over the years, the classic jar of Tiptree's strawberry jam has achieved near-icon status, gracing breakfast tables, supermarket shelves and afternoon teas the world over. That shouldn't be a surprise, given that it's been a product of superior quality since it was first made in 1885 by the Britannia Fruit Preserving Company.
As the company began to grow and new varieties were added, it started to distinguish between jams made with home-grown fruit (conserves) and those made with foreign produce (preserves).
Tiptree was awarded a Royal Warrant in 1911, and again in 1954. There are now hundreds of flavours, from the original Little Scarlet, made with, er, little scarlet strawberries, to rhubarb and ginger, and apricot and armagnac.
It's all about unusual flavour combinations at small-scale London producer This Is My Jam!, which was founded by Bermondsey-based Michael Sampson. What was originally a one-off recipe for a friend's party turned into the company's bestseller: a raspberry, cherry and dark chocolate conserve.
This creation led to more inventive flavour pairings, from apricot and earl grey to strawberry, rhubarb and tarragon. Particularly popular are the delectable boozy varieties, like pear, gooseberry and London gin; plum, fig and brandy; and pear and amaretto, as well as seasonal specials like the Christmas pudding jam.
This Is My Jam! moves between various food markets, but if tracking that feels too much like hard work, they're also available online from Tabl.
The scotch whisky industry is packed full of heritage and history, and Bowmore's no exception: founded in 1779, it's actually the oldest distiller on the island of Islay, in the Scottish Hebrides.
Bowmore's single malts sum up a lot of what Islay fans love about the region's whisky: the malted barley used to make the spirit is slowly smoked over peat in clay kilns. It's also one of the few distilleries to produce its own barley, rather than buying it from nearby farms. Its water comes from the nearby Laggan River.
Its coastal location is also key to the finished product's flavour: while treacherous waves batter the walls of Bowmore's No. 1 Vaults, the whisky ages below in former bourbon, sherry and bordeaux wine casks that lie among salty sea air, giving the finished whiskies a touch of sea-salt notes.
All this history doesn't mean the distiller is resting on its laurels, mind: as well as its core range, Bowmore regularly releases experimental limited-edition expressions, too.
How's this for a punchline: the whisky distillers without a distillery. R&B Distillers are making whisky even before they can move in to their brand-spanking-new distillery on the tiny historic Isle of Raasay, near the Isle of Skye on Scotland's West Coast, to add to the one recently built in the Scottish Borders town of Peebles.
Raasay has something of a chequered history: known previously for a culture of bootlegging, it'll soon be home to the island's first ever legal distillery, opening in spring.
That hasn't stopped the brains behind R&B making waves in the market already, mind: their single malt Raasay While We Wait, as well as the two releases from the Borders distillery, is a taste of what's to come, and has been well-received across the industry.