Thursday, 15 December 2016

Dorset Snails – Slow Food at its Finest

Jennie, David and Tony - the snail specialists

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Steve Jobs

One of the joys of this blog is finding out that a national or international phenomenon can be traced back to a source in Dorset. Then the pleasure of listening to someone wax lyrical about their product with genuine passion.

See what I mean with the UK’s #1 garlic farmer here.

Of course, we’re all selling something to some extent, but stories of celebrities stonewalling through interviews in monosyllables addressed through their PA show that we don’t all believe in what we’re selling. The latest person to share their story with Dorset Gourmet is David Walker of Dorset Snails.

Snails uncovered
Before I turned up at a nondescript industrial unit just outside Bournemouth, I knew nothing about snails. In fact, I’ll admit I thought they were adult slugs (they’re not). But I knew that something big was going on here. Dorset Snails is the UK’s leading supplier of fresh snails with a client list over the years that includes Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Petrus, Claridge’s, The Connaught, Fortnum and Mason and a whole lot more. At one point or another, The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC, and the great and the good from Dorset’s publications have all made the same journey, albeit probably not with the same No. 13 bus from town.  

Dorset Snails is a family affair. Just David and Jennie Walker, son Tony, and daughter Debi. Any one of them could pick up the phone at a moment’s notice and summon a variety of celebrity chefs, but for up to 12 hours a day they’re typically busy sorting, simmering, and extracting up to 12,000 snails a week from their shells in each other’s company with the radio on.

That’s the first shock. I didn’t even realise people in the UK even liked snails, but according to The Independent, we’ve gone from producing 30,000 in 2000 to 750,000 in 2014. It’s a figure that David disputes, not least because he’s producing nearly all of them. But there’s no disputing that snails are now a standard feature on epicurean menus.

A slow start
The Dorset Snail story started in 2006 when son Tony saw Gordon Ramsay visit a Devon snail farm on The F-Word. At the time, David was a retired sales manager with Philips and Siemens who bred worms in a shed to support his love of fishing. An idea hatched, and the family turned to heliculture.

The first step was to order a batch of Helix Maxima snails from Serbia, a country with an abundance of cheap land and ideal conditions for nurturing snails outdoors. It wasn’t an instant success. To be precise, the first batch died, but David was able to harvest the eggs. In total, it took two years of tweaking, coaxing and patience to establish a business. The snails are the same species as the common garden snail, but whereas the garden snail grows to about 10 grammes, Dorset Snails boosts theirs to about 12g with an intensive feeding regime.  

Curious creatures
Starting from scratch doesn’t even tell half the story. David admits to never having eaten a single snail before starting out. Ten years later, and he’s something of a snail whisperer, reading their behaviour and monitoring their growth with the precision of a diamond cutter. Because snails don’t actually have a brain, there’s not exactly the opportunity for the farmer to develop a close bond. But while David admits that his farming doesn’t extend to affection, or giving names to his flock, he does concede, “They’re very clever things really. Quite a complex creature. They don’t communicate or wag their antenna if they’re happy. A happy snail is one that eats. But they react totally to their environment. They know what season it is. And they know the phases of the moon. On a full moon, your garden snails will be less active.”

Snails lay eggs in nests of about 100, usually underground or in leaf or rubbish, which they then seal with a plug. These hatch about three weeks later. The baby snails are fed on a protein-rich diet made up of 20 percent fine chalk for about 11 to 18 weeks before harvesting.

But banish all thoughts from your mind of herding snails into crates for a trip to the abattoir. Snails, it turns out, are capricious creatures. They like a soil temperature of about 10 degrees. Below that, they go into hibernation which can last for over a year. In fact, Dorset Snails keeps several thousand breeding snails ‘on ice’ (actually a fridge) as a back up. “Bring them out, get the temperature up to about 20 degrees, give them a spray of water and they’re awake,” says Dave. It’s not the only attribute they share with teenagers. Within a couple of hours, their thoughts turn to laying. “They’re actually very receptive to laying as soon as they’ve woken up because that’s what they do in the wild,” says Dave.

Raising the tempo
The secret to the Dorset Snails’ success is to keep the snails laying. “Our sort of farm is highly labour intensive because we’ve got the snails laying eggs 52 weeks a year. In the wild, or in open air farms, they only lay once a year then you have to find the eggs.”

Although snails are famously hermaphroditic in nature, they do inject ‘love darts’ to fertilize a mates’ eggs and boost fertility. These can then store for up to two years and used when the mood demands.

Snails, David reveals, also have a natural pecking order. “There are alpha snails,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons why if you overfill the system with too many snails, they won’t all grow. The bigger ones get to the food first and the others form a queue around it. You might put 100g of food with 100 snails, but they won’t all get their 1g.”

Getting snails wrong
The next step is preparation. Browse YouTube and you can see how to cook Spanish caracoles, for example, squirting the live snails in salt and vinegar, then rinsing off the slime and simmering with onion, white wine, chorizo, and a tomato sauce. David is appalled. Cook it this way, and you’ll end up with a rubbery, gristly snail.

Worse still is tinned snails. “They’re packed in tins with brine and cooked for 20 minutes at 260 degrees,” he says. This is your typical French escargot, of which only 10 percent come from France. (The rest are cheap snails from Serbia, Eastern Europe, Poland and so on.) If you’ve had a bad snail experience, the chances are that this was the culprit. “There’s a few Italian restaurants I know that serve them out of the tin and they’re like snail chewing gum,” he laments. “They have no other taste other than garlic and parsley butter.” Instead, this is how you prepare snails that top restaurants will buy:

The idea of settling down to a sumptuous banquet of snails that were aimlessly wandering the garden path that morning is simply a pipe dream. For a start, those snails could have been chomping on poisonous plants such as foxglove, or bursting at the belly with grit and other impurities. It all has to be flushed out. To prepare them for the pot, snails need to go into a rigorous purging cycle – a week on just water to flush out the gunge. After this, they go into the fridge for a month to send them into hibernation.

Rest assured, then, that every snail that goes into the pot at Dorset Snails is already deep in a blissful sleep. The snails are blanched in boiling water for a couple of minutes then deshelled and sold on to chefs to cook at leisure. Alternatively, blanched snails with butter are placed into a water bath at 96 degrees C and subjected to a ‘champagne simmer’ for 2 ½ hours, then rinsed in salt and vinegar to remove any slime. At this point, they are then slathered in garlic and butter and packed back into a shell. Not their shell, though. These would be too small, so Dorset Snails has to buy in bags of slightly larger shells for the purpose. The most astounding part is that there’s not a machine in sight. Just a row of stock pots and Jennie and company working through 12,000 snails a week by hand. On the day I visit, Jenny has an order of 1,000 snails to complete, working her fondue fork with ninja-like precision.

Once the snails are blanched, they bring them down to 5 degrees within 90 minutes then chill them to 1 degree, vacuum pack them, and send them out across the country by overnight carrier.

On my day at the processing plant, there’s an order being prepared for courier despatch to a very well known chef in London, and a 12-pack destined for the Isle of Wight by snail mail. Back at the beginning, the first big name to champion Dorset Snails was Anthony Worrall Thompson, David reveals.

“He was our first customer, and he had six or seven restaurants at the time. I went to his house with some sample snails, which were too big for the dishes he wanted to serve them in, so we had to harvest smaller snails. He had the Notting Grill in West London and I took up 55 packs on the Thursday in a van. On Saturday, he phoned to tell me that he’d run out.”

From snails to Escargots
The list of chefs who have run with the snails since – and the various approaches they’ve tried – is inspiring.

At Marco Pierre White’s steakhouse, the ribeye and fillet are doused in snails in garlic butter. At Temple & Sons, Jason Atherton does a Dorset snail bourgignon alongside clams. Our own Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster used to serve a very popular snail breakfast with mushroom, black pudding, bacon and fried bread. At The Tickled Pig in Wimborne, even the pizza came with a snail topping. You can even have them spicy. Cyrus Todiwala sold out with a snail curry tartlet based on a Goan monsoon season dish. One of David’s favourites is from Menu Gordon Jones in Bath where the snails are served as an amuse bouche in a light tempura batter, cooked for about six hours in a low oven.

Keeping up with the pace
Whatever the recipe, demand shows no sign of slowing down. “Overall, it’s been about a 40 percent increase year on year,” says David. “It’s not that we can’t keep up with demand, it’s that we never let anyone down. We’ve even driven up to Fortnum and Masons on a Saturday morning because they’ve run out.”

Aware that there’s a big order to fulfil and that David would probably talk about snails until the early hours if allowed, my last question is about the life of a snail farmer. It is, he reveals, a fairly pleasant existence. No dawn milking, no cold winter mornings. Instead, a satisfying and lucrative way to spend the days.

“I was a hotel owner at The Mayflower in Lymington,” he says. “Then I retired. We sold up in 1999 and mucked around a bit, did some fishing, then got a little bit bored.” Although the plan is to hand over the business one day to Tony, who at that moment is furiously whipping up garlic butter, it’s business as usual for now. “We have no plans at all to stop. I love it.”

Who wouldn’t? How many people get the opportunity to work side by side with their spouse and children in harmony? Well, almost. “I’ve learnt that if there’s a conflict about anything, I’m always wrong,” David concludes.

If you would like to comment on the above, add your own snail dish, or just get in touch, either leave a comment below or email And if you liked it, do please share it using the social media buttons below. Enjoy! 

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Illana Smith - South Coast spice from Hari Hari

Bournemouth might not be a place you'd associate with exotic South Asian spices, but these are the lapses where opportunities present themselves. Seizing the moment was half-Sri Lankan, half-British Bournemouth University graduate and entrepreneur Illana Smith. In a short period of time, Illana has grown Hari Hari into an instantly recognisable presence on the local food scene. 

Before she gets her own spot hosting Saturday Kitchen and becomes too famous, I seized my own moment to find out the story so far...

Illana Smith Hari Hari

How did Hari Hari came about?
Not wanting to go back to working for someone else was the first driver. I had many different business ideas but the idea of curry was the most appealing simply because everybody who ate my Sri Lankan curries said they were never able to recreate them at home. This led to the birth of Hari Hari. 

What were the challenges you had to overcome?
I basically had no idea how to start a business. A year of research set me up ready to launch.  I read a lot …. and I mean an awful lot!! I spoke to as many people as I could who ran their own business already to get advice and tips. I made Environmental Health my best friend ;) I knew I would have to work closely with them as I was in food, so made contact very early on. They were brilliant and offered me a wealth of further advice and information.
I knew what I wanted (how it looked, how it would work etc.) but wasn't up to date with the legalities of it and that took time to learn. I made some great friends along the way on this research journey and absolutely thrived on the learning. It is these friends that led me to new contacts, new connections…a little like a snowball effect until I was ready to set Hari Hari free.

Hari Hari

People probably know curry spices, but your business is based around Sri Lankan spices specifically. What is the key distinctive difference?
The flavour!! The flavours are very different to Indian spices. I have tried to cook curries using the spices readily available here but it just doesn't taste the same as a curry back home. The whole time I have been in the UK, I have always had my stash of Sri Lankan spices with me, which I either brought over myself after a holiday there or got family and friends to bring for me when they came over. They are the same plants, but a different strain and I am certain that the soil, climate and so on plays a part in why they taste different.  

Hari Hari
Spicing up Wimborne Food Festival

Your website is a good example that these days you can't just sell a product – you have to educate people and tell a story. Did you have to learn this aspect of the business and what proportion of your time would you say is spent on it?
I think I have been lucky in the sense that I have always approached Hari Hari as a journey.  I see my customers as being passengers on that journey with me, so it is only right that I tell them all that background and nitty gritty of what is going on. It wasn't a conscious decision, it was just the way I viewed Hari Hari from the outset. It’s my baby and I want everyone to feel the passion of Sri Lanka and its food, culture, heritage through what Hari Hari is about.  I was lucky in that I didn't have to learn it - it was just the way I worked! In relation to the journey and social media I probably spend too much time on it. I am now trying to become more time efficient and am beginning to schedule postings etc. - forward planning to help free me up to do other jobs.  

Who has inspired you along the way and why?
My mum inspired me. She brought me up to be independent, to be able to stand on my own two feet and the drive to succeed came from that. I still remember at a very young age (about 12 I think) my mum gave me the talk on why it was so important to do well at school, get good grades, get a good job so I could buy all the things I want, travel the world etc. I very flippantly replied with, “I’ll just marry a rich man” to which she replied, “What if he has an accident and can’t work and you are left to get a job?!” I got what she was trying to say and she has been my source of inspiration to achieve ever since! 

What would represent success for you? At what point would you be able to say, 'Mission accomplished’?
I don’t know is the honest answer. I would like Hari Hari to become a household name (I have seen my logo’ed lorries driving up and down the motorways delivering my stock across the land) but I think as long as I am learning I will always keep going. 

Imagine I'm a fairly conventional cook who tends to buy familiar herbs and spices from a supermarket I know well. How would you convince me of the benefits of trying one of your spice packs?
Hari Hari spices are set up in an easy-to-follow step-by-step process. It really is as simple as 1-2-3. The recipe instructions are very straightforward and you can make the dish as fiery or not as you like. I always show people the spice kit explaining what you do - fry your onions, garlic and ginger (if using) with spice pack 1, add your product and spice pack 2 along with your coconut milk and/or water (depending on your preference) and then at the end you add Spice Pack 3 - you control the chili so you can add as little or as lot as you like. 
The spices themselves are relatively mild. It’s the chili that gives the dishes the kick. As they are pure spices, the kits are also perfect in relation to food intolerances. They are suitable for people with dairy, gluten, wheat, nut, soya, salt and sugar intolerance. This makes them very versatile little kits and the fact that the finished curries freeze really well means that there really is absolutely no waste as any left overs can be frozen for another day - saving you on cooking time too!

I see that you used to work in HR and have lived in Sri Lanka and the UK. What do you miss most from both the corporate world and Sri Lanka, and what do you love most about what you're doing now?
I was born and grew up in Germany, which is still a key part of my childhood. I have many friends there and try to go as often as I can. With my Dad still living there, my ties are still pretty strong to Germany.
I think I miss the regularity (in a bizarre kind of way) of corporate work and the being able to close the office door and leave work at work. Though that was great, it is also the thing I love most about working for myself. No two days are the same, I am constantly learning, growing and work never stops for me. To the point where I have a notepad by my bed as I quite frequently wake up during the night with an idea. I have learnt to jot it down there and then, or else I forget it by the time the morning comes around.
Growing up in Sri Lanka was certainly an idyllic life. I was very fortunate in what I got to see, do and experience and life there is certainly special. With wonderful people, culture, food and climate you can’t really go wrong. I miss the heat! I definitely miss that! But being in the UK affords a certain freedom that is not quite so readily available in Sri Lanka.

My life has been a journey and it is sort of coming full circle, combining all the elements of what I love from my experiences in Hari Hari and if I can get you to enjoy that journey too and fall in love with Sri Lanka and its food then…..mission accomplished :)

Liked this profile? You can also read about...
Mark Botwright from South West Garlic Farm here
Tracey Collins from Ajar Of here
Hannah Green from Mrs. Green's Farm Kitchen here
Ross Tapley from Dorset Herbals here

As always, if you'd like to share your story or leave your thoughts, leave a comment below or get in touch through Enjoy!

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Dorset Garlic Farmer Taking the UK by Storm

The morning I call Mark Botwright on his mobile phone, he is standing in a garlic field in Dorset. It is a field he has come to dominate as the UK’s #1 garlic farmer. Along the way, his garlic has won plaudits from Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Yotam Ottolenghi, Michel Roux, Mark Hix and others, and he’s won Great Taste awards for the last four years. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised that the man who’s been on the BBC, US and Canadian TV and in all the papers has spared the time for a nascent local food blog, but it soon becomes clear. This farmer loves talking about garlic.

Mark Botwright South West Garlic Farm
© Tom Moggach for New Covent Garden Market
How South West Garlic began
The story of how South West Garlic Farm started is now the stuff of legend. Mark’s wife, Wendy, gave him three garlic cloves as a gift when his main business was livestock farming. 19 years later, and the farm is now growing 90,000 elephant garlic bulbs on 10 acres near Bridport. Along the way, it’s become an obsession, and the farm close to being the leading producer in Europe.

If Hollywood were to turn his story into a movie, there would be a great montage sequence of planting and picking garlic, cut with shots of standing out in the Dorset drizzle. All the ingredients are there for an uplifting feelgood blockbuster.

For a start, it’s a story of triumph over adversity. Prior to turning his hand to garlic, Mark was a livestock farmer with 600 head of sheep. “I’ve always been in farming, so there’s never been any money involved or the money to buy anything,” he jokes. Then Mark injured his back, and foot and mouth looked set to deliver the final blow. But Mark had plans for the 100 or so bulbs he’d been growing on the farm at that point.

A change of focus
So a livestock farmer became Mark the Garlic. Almost two decades later, the animals he does keep on the farm are for providing fertiliser. “We’re trying to become bio dynamic,” he says, “so that everything has a job to do. The cattle are here to produce meat, but also to produce top quality manure. The whole process has now gone full circle.”

In many ways, his success has taken him by surprise. “For 16 years, all I did was grow garlic to produce seeds to keep going forward,” he explains. “But about five years ago, I knew that by 2016 I would be holding probably the largest seed stock of elephant garlic in the world. In two years’ time, we’ll be at our peak. We’ll be producing two million bulbs of elephant garlic.”

A global phenomenon
That means that every day Mark is fielding calls from all over the world, as well as appearing on TV. “The other day there was a lady who’d been writing a paper just about garlic for five years,” he says. I suspect he gives anyone who does call as much time as they need, whether it’s to give advice on storage and growing, or recipes.

“Garlic is easy to grow but I get emails every day from people asking me why they can’t grow it. It’s incredibly hardy and I think people mess around with it too much,” he explains.

The Black Garlic revolution
Any dreams of a quiet life were crushed when Mark ‘discovered’ black garlic. It’s been a sensation.
“I needed to find a way of having product to sell in the winter when times are harder and we’d sold out of summer stock,” he says.  

Black garlic

“That’s when I found the 4,000 year old recipe for the black garlic. We were looking for a way to preserve the garlic without adding anything to it and we don’t do any refrigeration. It’s as natural as possible. I found this recipe online and it took me three and a half years to perfect it. It was designed for putting garlic in earthernware pots and leaving them out in the sunshine. That doesn’t really work in the UK.”

Found most commonly in Korean cuisine, black garlic uses fermentation to preserve the garlic head. It’s been called the ‘new truffles’ with a taste that is not really that garlicky, but sweet, earthy and tangy.

“I took it around to lots of festivals and they thought it was amazing. Chefs had no idea what it was. They all thought it was garlic in balsamic vinegar,” he says.  

Next up is garlic sea salt. “We harvested a lot of wild garlic in the spring and made the product,” he says. “We gave it six to eight months to see how we performs, and now have 200 kilos to start selling next week [late November].”
The wonderful world of garlic
At the moment, South West Garlic farm grows Garlic Scapes, Elephant, Morado and Iberian Fresh Garlic. Scapes are the long, thin stalks of the garlic flower with a peppery flavour and texture like asparagus.

“They’re incredibly popular,” Mark says. “We have to grow six times more garlic each year just to keep up with demand. But the window for the whole crop is just four weeks and they only produce one scape per plant.”

“We’re trying to steer away from the Mediterranean varieties which are the Morado and the Iberian. They’re very fussy soft neck varieties. We’re going now for more hardnecks. Russian-style Elephant garlic which love the cold weather. They just seem to do better. I prefer them. They look nicer and they have more flavour because they’ve been in the ground longer.”

Ah, yes. The flavour. I ask Mark why it is that the garlic I buy from the supermarket has almost no perceptible flavour or aroma.

Getting garlic wrong
“We don’t supply supermarkets,” he points out. “The reason the garlic you’re having is bad is because it’s probably spent 9 to 10 months in a chiller fridge with inert gases, and it’s lost its way.”

Most of the garlic that finds its way onto our shelves is from China. “There’s two papers been written about growing practises in China because they use human waste as a fertilizer and we don’t know how treated that waste has been. A lot of UK farmers apply human waste but it’s so well treated you might think it’s mud. But that’s generally put on fields where wheat or barley is grown for animal feed.

“They were also caught bleaching some of their white varieties. Garlic can get staining on the skin from different soil types, like a heavy clay. They were bleaching them because people prefer nice clear looking stuff. We’ve been brainwashed.” Aesthetic appeal is also the reason why bulbs are sold without a root. “It’s so mechanically processed,” says Mark. “That’s just what they do with chopping the roots off, to prettify it.”

Planting the seed
While Mark’s wife Wendy can take credit for sowing the seeds of an idea, I’m still curious to know what drives the garlic farmer. “I like growing things,” he says. “I love keeping animals and being in the outdoors. I’m standing in a field right now. It’s freezing but I’d rather be out here than indoors. But I’m inspired by my grandfather. I’m 53 now and I was messing around in his garden from when I was about three. I was always fascinated. He was an incredibly good vegetable grower.”

He also adds a poignant coda to his story. “I lost my parents when I was 21 and they’re definitely up there watching. Any time I plant something in the ground, the next day it always rains.”

Spreading the word
Like many other people I’m sure, I first came across Mark the Garlic by following his prodigious Twitter output and following the links to his website. Even garlic growers need to master social media.  
“I’m completely self-taught,” he says. “You’ve just got to keep banging away. I never think ‘why am I doing this?’ We’ve got about 11,000 followers. I link to other stories to educate people and make them aware of what’s going on, and share recipes. I speak to a lot of people about black garlic and I’d say 99.9% of people have never heard of it so I’ve got a long, long way to go. I get people contacting me from all over the world wanting to talk to me about it.”

Once I’ve come to the end of my questions, I let Mark get back to keeping the crows off his garlic. I wouldn’t mind betting that he’ll hardly make a few steps before his phone rings again, with another list of questions at the other end of the line. And I’m just as sure that he would answer them all with the same enthusiasm.

If you’d like to leave a comment or share a garlic tip, please do so below. Or if you’ve got a story to tell, get in touch on

Liked this profile? You can also read about...
Tracey Collins from Ajar Of here
Hannah Green from Mrs. Green's Farm Kitchen here
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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Rise of the Assassin Food Blogger

Gone are the days when a single review could make or break a restaurant. OK, the occasional masterpiece finds a wider-than-normal audience, such as The New York Times’ legendary takedown of Guy Fieri’s American Bar & Kitchen. But the era when chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc waited anxiously for the verdict of Egon Ronay and friends is largely over. And those were the good times. Instead, chefs today suffer a daily death by a thousand cuts.

We’re all food critics now 
Search any restaurant online, and the scattergun opinions on TripAdvisor or Yelp will inevitably have commandeered the top search ranking. And what horrors await. For the most part, a masterclass in anonymous, passive-aggressive spleen. Spiteful, deranged eviscerations from the keyboard from customers who barely raised a heckle in front of their plate. Bizarre, contradictory venting that reminds you of the line from Annie Hall:

“Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.”
“Yeah, I know. And such small portions.”

Understandably, chefs are fighting back. Let’s be honest, there’s little enough love lost between chefs and professional critics, but at least figures such as Ronay, who had himself been a restaurant manager, gave a chef the right of reply before going to print.

I have seen waiters do many, many things, including burst into tears and juggle knives, and I once glimpsed one having sex. But never, ever has a waiter commiserated with me about the lack of service.” (One of the kinder parts of AA Gill’s review of L’Ami Louis ‘The Worst Restaurant in the World.’)

Who reviews the reviewers?
But today’s assassin bloggers have rewritten the rules. Whatever their temperament and resting heart rate, most chefs can take negative feedback that corrects a genuine mistake. But not the guy who ordered his steak well done then complained it was tough, or the table of six that sent back clean plates without a word then posted a lengthy diatribe online. In these cases, you can read some fantastic management comebacks online which call into question the expertise, motivation or sanity of the reviewer. Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. As one chef I spoke to admitted, “I know that most of these one-star reviews come from my competitors.”

Ali Smith
Dorset foodie Ali Smith

Ali Smith, Dorset chef and foodie
To get some inside perspective from both sides of the swinging kitchen door, I asked blogger and chef Ali Smith, who writes for West Dorset Foodie and Menu Dorset, for her thoughts on the rules of reviewing.

The importance of blogs…
From an industry perspective, blogs and reviews have become an integral part of the public’s decision process. It’s not just the traditional guides and broadsheet reviews any more. Reviews can and do bring diners to our restaurants and as such must be viewed as a relevant tool. Bloggers need to consider the position of power they are in; potential punters Googling a venue might find three web pages; the restaurant’s own website, TripAdvisor and their blog- one individual really can have a disproportionate amount of influence.” 

…as long as they’re fair
“Of course we can’t expect all reviews to be glowing. As a chef – some constructive feedback is often valuable; if diners and online reviewers are repeatedly raising the same issues then maybe they have a point. It’s rarely useful, however, to write a scathing review and often deeply unfair on the business and individuals at the receiving end. In a personal blog situation, if you don’t like somewhere, don’t write at all. The only possible purpose it can serve is to alleviate your own need for vengeance. The restaurant might have been short staffed, had a late produce delivery, or had an equipment failure in the kitchen. We all have off days. It’s not good for the paying customer but it’s how the restaurant deal with it that’s key. Be more understanding; point out issues at the time, not after the event when the management have no power to change the outcome.”

It’s not just personal
“I’m a fine dining girl at heart; I love to be spoilt with the highest level of service, the most exquisite food and in all likelihood a hefty bill come the end of the evening. I can be very exacting. When reviewing, it’s important to take a step back and try to be a little more objective. I ask myself- am I the target market? I consider price – is this an everyday dining venue or an expensive treat where there should be a higher expectation of quality and consistency? Look around – if the place is busy and popular, what is it that other diners are finding to their liking – perhaps it’s the generosity of portions, the homely feel? Tastes differ and if you’re going to publish your opinion in the public’s eye, it’s important, whilst being honest, to be fair.”

And it’s not just about the food
“From a personal perspective, writing about restaurants is a great way of getting out and about and discovering different places I might otherwise have not considered. I enjoy meeting new people, discovering new ingredients and (hopefully) being surprised and delighted by flavours, ideas or techniques I might not have come across or which might be being utilised in an unusual way.

Reviews can be helpful
“From a chef’s perspective, it forces me to sharpen my senses, to analyse dishes and flavours in more depth and hence to bring me to an ever-greater understanding of the magical sensory experience that is food and dining. It’s also very grounding; all too often, as chefs, we can become consumed with the act of constructing dishes from within the confines of the kitchen, forgetting that there is so much more to the diner’s experience than the food. Service, atmosphere, the music, even the lighting, all play a part. It puts things into perspective.”

Reviewing ain’t easy
“Of course it’s not all positive, there have, of course, been times when, confronted with yet another mediocre dish, another overcooked scallop, an artificial tasting sauce which has seen neither love, nor vegetable nor bone in its short journey from tub to plate, I wish I’d stayed at home and cooked myself! On these occasions I console myself with a second glass of wine, a glance at the beautiful view or the thought of another, better dining experience that is sure to come!”

One of the major safeguards these days is that bloggers and journalists have to disclose if a review was paid for, by invitation, or incognito. Nearly all of the reviews I have written have been arranged with the restaurant in question.

La Plantation in Bournemouth
The Edge in Bournemouth
Riverside in West Bay
Neo in Bournemouth

Obviously, biting the hand that literally just fed you is not an option, not that it’s ever been tempting. For my part, it’s clearly a perk to dine out in some great venues and talk with the chef and dining room staff. Even when they’re busy, they tend to make themselves available and are usually eager to communicate why they’ve chosen the menu and what they’re trying to achieve.

Even though I love writing about food and restaurants, I can barely cook, and have the palate of a bluebottle. Blindfolded, I would struggle to tell the difference between beef and ice cream, let alone Burgundy and Bordeaux. So instead of searching for flavours that 20 years of smoking pretty much put out of reach, I try instead to communicate the overall experience, look for the details that make the venue different, find the reasons why I’d want to go there again.

To finish off, as a little digestif, I’ve picked my own restaurant Top 5…

Best critic:
AA Gill. Not just my favourite critic, but one of my favourite writers altogether. Brutally honest, not least about his own life, and so gifted at finding exactly the right word or phrase to nail an idea. I believe he speaks very highly of me also.

The Edge Restaurant
The Edge

Best Dorset restaurant reviewed:
The Edge. Chef Nick Hewitt’s food was magnificent, the view at sunset was perfect, and the restaurant is now closed. Just goes to show…

Best dining experience:
A bowl of giant land snail in a spicy palm nut sauce from an open-air cafe in West Africa. To be honest, the snail was pretty hard work, but I wrote about it as my entry for the Daily Telegraph Young Food and Drink Writer of the Year competition in 1998, and won. So it has a special place in my heart (and it only cost about $2).   

Best restaurant visited:
La Coupole in Paris. In 2001, the magazine I was working for in London took the entire staff to Paris at Christmas. It was a lost weekend, followed within the year by a lost job. This particular dinner was a bit of a blur. At one point I remember being eyeball to antenna with a huge tower of langoustines on ice, then a line of superbly professional waiters filing past with a birthday cake festooned with sparklers. Pure theatre, and probably horrifically expensive for whoever picked up the tab.

Virgin Atlantic
Courtesy of

My Death Row dinner choice:

Forget fried chicken or a hamburger. My last meal on earth would be airline food, either Virgin Atlantic or Delta to be precise. Whichever took longer. There’s something about whipping away the tin foil, unwrapping each course one by one, and having nothing else to focus on that can’t be beaten. Top tip: Always ask the crew nicely for a second tray for a mid-Atlantic midnight snack (or to barter for cigarettes with other inmates if really on Death Row). 

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Dorset beef - the stakeholders speak

Nick Marshall Menu Dorset Gourmet steak

For the cover feature of the October issue of Menu Dorset magazine, I interviewed some of our leading beef farmers and butchers. I gained an interesting insight into everything that leads up to the steak on your plate or the burger on the grill. You can read that article here, beautifully designed and with some outstanding photography. In the following post, I’ve developed some of the thoughts that got me ruminating…

What’s the beef with beef?
Beef accounts for 12% of UK agriculture, but the industry is facing some of its hardest challenges yet. A quick stat attack:

  • There are just 6,000 butchers left in the UK, down almost 60% in 25 years.
  • In 2011, we were producing 935,000 tonnes of beef and importing 381,000 tonnes from abroad. Crucially, we’re producing less than we consume.
  • By 2007, the number of abattoirs in England had fallen to just above 200, down from 1,000+ in 1985.
  • The size of British beef herds fell by 27% between 1990 and 2007.
  • Between 1996 and 2005, there was a ban on keeping cattle older than 30 months because of the BSE crisis.
  • More than a thousand dairy farms have closed in the last 3 years as supermarkets have driven milk prices lower than the cost of production.
  • There are roughly 10 million dairy and beef cattle in the UK, of which 1.8 million are adult dairy. According to Animal Aid, 10 percent of dairy cows are held in ‘zero-grazing’ indoor units.
And some misconceptions:
  • The fat content of trimmed beef is around just 5 percent. As a valuable source of zinc, protein and vitamins, it’s healthier than you think.
  • Land that cattle graze on is typically not suitable for any other crop.
 Menu Dorset gourmet steak feature

How does beef work?
Typically, it takes about 2 to 3 years for UK beef to go from farm to fork. In the US, 18 months is standard, and keeping cattle any longer is seen as wasteful and counter-productive. From selecting the right semen to measuring the exact amount of required feed, industrial beef farming eliminates the unknown.

Luckily, we’ve largely avoided going down the route of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation in the UK, but as long as consumers demand cheaper meat, we’re implicitly allowing the major retailers to make the case.

The free range alternative
So it’s encouraging to see a number of beef farmers and producers in Dorset doing the opposite. Drive anywhere in the county and you’ll come across rolling valleys of pasture, these days with the obligatory yurt or tepee encampment often as a final flourish. It’s land that cries out for dairy or beef farming, the quirkier the better.

What’s in a label?
To be labelled Organic, the farm must be certified by the Soil Association and the cattle raised free from antibiotics, pesticides, and fertilisers. This is the kind of beef you’ll get from Cedar Organic Farm on the Isle of Purbeck.

Otherwise, you’ll want to look out for grass-fed or free range beef, which is raised on pasture rather than grains, or which comes with the Red Tractor Assurance.

What’s great in Dorset?

Martin Bartlett and family have been farming at East Shivinghamtpon for 70+ years. When the dairy herd was sold in 2009, the farm moved onto a suckler beef herd of around 300 animals. These are Limousin, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus.
“We’re trying to do it in a very traditional way – they graze in the summer and come in the sheds eating silage in the winter,” says Martin. “You’re giving that cow as good a life as possible to grow without stress. That makes the beef better.”

East Shilvinghampton farm

When the time comes to despatch cattle, the shortest journey to the abattoir is better, since the animals suffer significant stress en route. “The slaughterhouse is down in Bridport,” says Martin. “It goes from us to an abattoir and then from a butcher back to us.”

This is a farm that thinks locally and follows sound practise. “We don’t waste any of our meat. We only send on an animal to slaughter when we need more meat. We don’t want to fill up the freezers with things that we already have,” says Martin. “Food is too cheap generally. That means that farms struggle. If people buy local produce they can help their local environment and economy. I’m a huge believer in the local tag for food.

Patricia Barker raises Dorset Longhorn at the Bride Valley Farm in Abbotsbury. They’re a three-time Taste of the West Gold winner.
“We’re the only farm that I know of that turn Longhorn cattle into beef,” she says. “We buy them as weaned calves then we rear them and send them to the abattoir at 2 ½ to 3 years. We send about one every week. We have between 150 and 200 of all ages.”
The cattle are grass fed on permanent pasture. “They have a very natural life, spending most of their time on a nature reserve called the Valley of Stones. They’re not in small paddocks or strip grazing. They have the freedom to roam across a big area. Because they’re good grazers they will pull out the less palatable grasses.”

Dorset Longhorn

In order to remain sustainable, the farm insists that the restaurants and pubs it supplies do more than just cherry-pick the choice cuts. “Hotels and restaurants tend to want prime cuts from the hind quarter. If I sell only that what am I going to do with the other two thirds of the animal from the fore quarter. So every time I take someone on, I have to spell it out to them that they have got to take some of the rest,” she says.  

Often, that will mean educating those who visit the farm shop on what they can do with different cuts. “Things like short ribs have become very fashionable recently. It used to be that people didn’t know what to do with them. People come into the shop and ask us how to cook different cuts and that’s one way of educating them. You show them where it comes from and how to cook it.”

RJ Balson & Son, in Bridport lays claim to being the world’s oldest butcher, having started out in 1515. Running a business for five centuries isn’t just a case of finding your niche – it’s about providing something that’s better than what’s on offer elsewhere.
“Most supermarket meat it goes in the slaughterhouse live and it comes out the other end in a tray all wrapped up in plastic. Although it looks nice and bright, people don’t know what they’re missing,” says Richard Balson.

RJ Balson & Son

“The main thing with beef is that local is better. And it’s how you keep it. It’s the hanging that’s important. You don’t want it too fresh. You want to hang it for about 3 weeks. As the muscle begins to break down it goes darker and will be more tender.”

People not only want meat that looks aesthetically pleasing, they also want to cook it quicker. Another challenge.
“People want a small joint that they can carve quick and use it up in one go. If you go back 50 years, it was a bigger joint that lasts all week and you had it roasted on a Sunday, cold on a Monday, minced on a Tuesday or stewed and that joint lasted a whole week. Now they want something that they can cook in 20 minutes. Things have changed so much. People don’t have the time and we’re all out working, so they don’t have 4 hours to prepare a meal,” says Richard.  

Barbara Cossins runs The Langton Arms in Tarrant Monkton. The family has been rearing cattle for five generations. One of the main advantages of buying local Dorset beef, she says, is that “the consumer is guaranteed 100% traceability as well as 100% British beef and not horse meat, for example. Every Red Tractor assured farm is routinely visited and rigorously tested to ensure that they are achieving high standards of animal welfare, hygiene and general farm practice.”

Says Barbara: “All of our animals are born and reared on the farm and therefore lead stress-free lives. The only time they leave is for the abattoir that is a short 10-mile drive away. Our system is extensive and so all our cattle spend most of their time grazing on the pasture rich Dorset downland that is superb for growing healthy animals. We also utilise our own homegrown feeds rather than relying on imported feeds, and so we run a completely self-sufficient system.”

langton arms butchery

One of the biggest challenges she identifies is staying competitive: “This often means narrowing our margins. It is tough to compete with cheap imported beef, the majority of which has been intensively reared on barley with high stocking rates. It has also often had hormonal treatment to stimulate rapid growth in the animals, all of which results in a significantly cheaper production system than our own.

Looking to the future, there is much uncertainty for farmers who are soon going to be running their businesses outside of the EU. But if there is enough support from the British public then farmers will hopefully be able to succeed in sustaining the future of British agriculture and carry on providing quality food with a mindfulness for the local environment and high animal welfare standards.”

Conclusions to be drawn
Quite simply, there’s an enormous difference between a 21-day aged steak from a butcher and a bright pink cut from a supermarket, and the latter is not necessarily cheaper. But it needs people to get back to their local butcher. That means butchers also need to work harder to stimulate interest and educate. The Langton Arms, for example, produces its own booklet explaining how to cook different cuts of meat.

We’ve lost a lot of skills where cooking beef is concerned. We’ve also lost contact with where our beef comes from, something that is changing in Dorset. Nowadays you can visit, camp out at, or even lend a hand on quite a few of our farms. As the saying goes, it’s time to sell the sizzle not the steak. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Mrs Green’s Farm Kitchen

Hannah Green Dorset Gourmet

Standing out at the food festivals takes either an eye-catching display or a cheerful demeanour. At the Wessex Food Festival in September, Hannah Green of Mrs. Green’s Farm Kitchen brought both. Relatively new to the Dorset food and drink circuit, she took time out from selling her rustic-looking jars of homemade jams and packs of fudge to tell her story so far.

Hannah produces her farm kitchen range of six jams and three fudges from Steeple Leaze Farm near Wareham, in between helping out look after some 300 cattle, 3,000 sheep, and hordes of happy campers in the summer.

How did you end up in Dorset?

I’m originally from London where I was a training officer for a local council, so nothing to do with food at all. Then I moved down here 11 years ago to get away from the city and I really enjoyed the outdoors. I used to come down to Dorset on holiday so it started from there really.

How did Mrs. Green’s Farm Kitchen come about?

I did various office jobs, then met my husband, who’s a shepherd. I managed to get involved in farm stuff and then our late granny used to make lemon curd and she inspired me to try. It was just for fun. I wasn’t really ever a cook so I gave it a go. I made some lemon curd and jam and was selling it to the campers where we lived. Because it was so successful, I decided to make something of it.

How easy was it to set up?

The council came out to inspect the kitchen and make sure all my procedures and hygiene were OK and I received a 5/5 rating. Then I had to get public liability insurance. The council gave me the green light and I started properly doing shows and fetes.

I use a normal kitchen. Because the jams are boiled at such a high temperature, all the bacteria are killed anyway. I started off with jam, then started making fudge, and now I’m also making cakes filled with my jams.

What about the packaging?

I’m quite creative and had a bit of a vision. I’d looked around at other people’s and knew how I wanted it to be marketed. Living on a farm, I wanted it to have quite a country feel. It’s from a farm kitchen, and I love polka dots.

Mrs Greens Kitchen

How did you progress?

I started in March this year and I stock about 13 shops at the moment, so I have all those orders coming in. For the shows, some of them can be quite hard to get into, especially if there are already other preservists. My philosophy is that people will buy what they like, so even if there were five or six of us, we’re all quite different and people will come back to the one they prefer. I don’t really do chutneys and other people do. It’s important to give people a choice.

How did you learn the cooking part?

From Google! I look up the recipes then tweak them to what I want. Everything I’ve made is things that I like so it’s got a real Mrs. Green’s feel to it. I like experimenting with what works and what doesn’t and I’ve kept it quite manageable. I didn’t want to have hundreds of flavours. Then you lose the quality.

What’s the best advice you’d give?

Take your time and make sure that you still enjoy it. When you start getting too big, you get stressed. I’m at a good manageable rate at the moment. It’s exciting and there are lots of opportunities coming up.

Mrs Greens Kitchen Fudge

Where can I find your products?

We’re mostly selling in the Purbecks at the moment, mainly at Swanage, and The Salt Pig in Wareham. They also get their lambs from our farm. Gradually we’re spreading out. I’m a member of Dorset Food & Drink, so that spreads the word too.

What do you enjoy about it?
I love meeting people and networking and I’ve already got a few customers who follow me around the shows. People like to buy Dorset, because we’re renowned for homemade stuff. When you put Purbeck in the name too that goes a long way. 

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