The London Larder: Inside the capital's artisans
The capital may hardly be considered a cornucopia of food production. But we speak to artisans around the city who are changing that impression, bringing love and local pride to their London produce
YOU OFTEN READ how the likes of Scotland or Cornwall or California have an enviable 'larder' – a collective term for a region's plentiful produce – but you might think it can't possibly apply to anywhere within the M25. Your cynicism is understandable. Oxford Street is famous for many things, but sustainable organic farming isn't one of them.
But things are shifting – so much so, in fact, that the best thing about this feature is how much abuse it's going to generate. In around 1,200 words' time, many of you will declare I'm an idiot and announce "I can't believe they didn't mention so-and-so".
And that's rather splendid, don't you think? Behind doors and inside assorted sheds and industrial units, London has a wealth of artisan producers of all sizes who are doing tremendous things in the name of food and drink, for a rapidly growing audience.
"I think it's because there's a sense of personality in artisan production," says Pete Thomas, head brewer at Islington's Brewhouse & Kitchen. "And there's an ever-increasing interest in locally made produce."
That's certainly true at Brewhouse, where the brewing equipment sits at the far end of the bar and, five days a week, drinkers can watch Thomas making his six regular ales and two seasonal beers. More to the point, they can go and chat to him. And they do.
"In some places, the brewer is like a zoo animal you watch through glass," laughs Thomas. "We wanted it open, and the instant feedback is great. There's a lot of knowledge out there; we get a lot of home brewers in." This is a group with whom he has a lot in common. "Before Brewhouse, I was in construction, and just brewing at home. The money in construction was much better," he adds, laughing. "But now I love what I do."
Behind doors and inside assorted sheds and units, London has a wealth of artisans
The notion of love – along with enthusiasm and pride – is one that occurs frequently during the research for this story, whether from those who have been in the artisan food world for just a few months, or those who have been at it for more than 100 years.
Some of you may be surprised to see H Forman & Son – founded in 1905 – featured rather than, say, Chris Box of Little Greenwich Smokery. Trust me, it's nothing personal: Chris's products are stunning (do track him down via @smokingsalmon on Twitter). It's just that we had a point to make that artisan refers to the method, not the scale.
"We have a viewing gallery into the factory," Lance Forman – H Forman's great-grandson – tells me. "People often ask why we show visitors what we're doing, but we have no trade secrets." Indeed, the process is a classic one – salt cure, smoke, slice – but here it's all done by hand, with the freshest fish imaginable, by some 30 skilled staff. "It's one thing to learn how we do it," says Forman, "it's a different thing to replicate it."
As Forman points out, H Forman & Son wasn't the first smokehouse but it is now the longest surviving one. "Jewish immigrants in the East End smoked fish as a way of preserving it. Then they discovered Scottish salmon – the end product was fantastic and it took off as a gourmet food, perhaps Britain's first ever. Caviar, foie gras and truffles all came in from other parts of the world – but Scottish smoked salmon started in London."
One area where the newer wave of artisan producers is especially active is online. Pact Coffee is a case in point. It's an online subscription service "on a mission to get the UK drinking better, freshly roasted coffee", as its head of PR Ed Grattan explains.
If it were just about smoke, then kippers would have taken over the world
To do this they send Will Corby, their head of coffee, around the world to buy world-class beans from dedicated farmers. These are then roasted in the UK in small batches, ground at the last possible moment and dispatched overnight to the consumer. "Customers can choose five levels of grind, depending on how they brew their coffee at home," says Grattan.
The idea came from serial entrepreneur Stephen Rapoport, and was founded in his kitchen in Balham. "Stephen woke up one weekend, found the coffee jar empty, and was frustrated at only being able to find substandard coffee locally," explains Grattan. "So he came up with the idea of receiving freshly roasted coffee when you need it on a flexible subscription basis."
Refreshingly, as well as making it easy to get hold of good coffee – "we've got customers in the Outer Hebrides," adds Corby – Pact is also trying to get past the snobbery, hence accessible tasting notes on the packs such as 'Earl Grey Tea and Garibaldi Biscuits' or 'Chocolate Digestives'.
"We go into more detail online," adds Grattan. " 'A tea-like mouthfeel, a light citrus acidity, a biscuit sweetness' but 'Earl Grey tea and garibaldi biscuits' is something people can relate to." The attitude seems to be working. They may still have Stephen's original domestic grinder on display but that's for sentimental reasons. The Balham kitchen has been replaced by a large industrial unit in Bermondsey, where it's dispatching up to 3,000 bags of coffee a day from a range of six coffees that change regularly, but are all treated with respect and different levels of roast to allow the natural flavours to shine.
"Anyone can make coffee with roast flavours," says Will. "You could take the best sourdough in the world and burn it, then take the worst white bread in the world and burn it, and they'll taste identical. However, toast the sourdough perfectly and you'll get something really amazing."
It's a point that echoes something Lance Forman told me earlier – that it's all about the quality of what you start with and then striving to get the most out of it. "If it was just about smoke," he says, "then kippers would have taken over the world."
London artisans – in pictures
That subject of pure enthusiasm comes up again when talking to Philip Wilton, of Wildes Cheese in Tottenham. "They say you should do something you love," says Philip, "and I love to drink and eat."
Wilton was a management consultant before taking to cheesemaking. "Can't you say I'm an ex-porn star? It has less of a stigma," he quips. He had been learning about cheesemaking as a hobby when the recession started to hit. "Redundancy was in the air and I wanted to ensure I was one who got it – so I spent a year learning how to make cheese and a year tormenting my boss."
Armed with his redundancy payout in 2011, he founded Wildes Cheese, which is now available at many of the capital's farmers' markets, including a stall at Borough Market.
Like many of the producers mentioned here, there is a flexibility and accessibility to Wildes' range that you don't get from supermarkets and larger producers, with experimental efforts often joining their regular cheeses, just to see what customers think. As well as great instant feedback, for Philip, it's an indicator that people are more interested in food as a whole.
"I think there's been a move away from the bland. With so much mass-produced food, cost is the overriding factor. It doesn't offend anybody, but nobody's excited by it either.
"But I think we're reacting against that and the recent scandals – horsemeat, for example – that remind the consumer that the big boys can't be trusted. You need to enjoy what you're eating. We've looked at other countries who haven't quite sold their souls to the supermarkets and there's been a shift back towards that," concludes Wilton.
There certainly has. And, to feed the enthusiasm of gourmet shoppers everywhere, let's hope that London's many artisan food producers continue to thrive. ■
Follow Neil Davey on Twitter at @DineHard