Years ago, when we could still leave our houses, I used to belt round the country, visiting restaurants so you didn’t have to, and occasionally I used to belt round the country doing a radio show. The format was quite simple: we would get out “into the regions” and talk to live audiences. A bit like the BBC’s Gardeners’ Question Time, only about food. Thanks to excellent researchers, we usually found a local speciality and a guest to talk about it.
This teaches you two fascinating things about our national cuisine: a) everybody has got a version of brown lamb stew that’s better than everyone else’s; and b) there will always be some sweet soul trying desperately hard to get people to pay attention to a nearly forgotten local speciality.
I love a forgotten local speciality.
The person I most envy in food media is the American presenter Guy Fieri. His job, it seems, is to travel the US finding joints run by several generations of the same family and try their “special-ty”. This simple description does the programme — Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (known to cognoscenti as “Triple D”) — absolutely no justice at all. Fieri enters the building, hopped up on enthusiasm, and proceeds to spray it indiscriminately, but the amazing thing is that the food is worth it. It’s not that deep-fried hog maw on a stick, Hank’s catfish combo or an 18-ingredient sandwich the size and texture of a car tyre are objectively delicious, but the exchange of honest enthusiasm and happy boosterism is a delight to behold. These people love this stuff and they want you to know it. It’s infectious.
And this isn’t just an American peculiarity. If we could travel, we could hop in a car together, come out of the tunnel and spend a year driving around France, Italy and Spain, just staying single nights at small town festivals celebrating a local speciality. I’m not exaggerating here. In fact, if I were Rick Stein, I’d send this to someone at the BBC and they’d commission me to do it. Every other town, village or cluster of cottages across most of Europe closes completely for three days each year to celebrate a local cheese, shellfish, sausage or fungus. They drink toasts in its honour, don robes and special hats and appoint each other to ranks in a confrérie or sociedad of aficionados . . . Christ, they literally dance in the street.
When we Brits go on holiday in Europe, we keenly scan the internet for these things: “Oh look, darling, they’ll be having the festival of air-dried goat scrotums while we’re staying at the gîte.” And we delight in sitting under the fairy lights, dancing to an execrable local mobile disco and find it all so profoundly, charmingly echt.
We do have traditional festivals based around food in the UK but they are vanishingly rare. The only one most of us could call to mind would be the annual cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire, which is famed more for the number of injuries each year than Double Gloucester cheese. It’s reported by the media but more as a “health and safety gone mad” story than anything to do with food.
There is a modest annual festival for cheddar cheese, but it’s in Adams, New York, not Cheddar Gorge. In the Cambridgeshire village of Stilton, they celebrated by rolling wooden cheeses, but according to the Protected Geographical Indication regulations, Stilton can only be made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire. Our attempts at food-related jollity, it seems, either require extensive risk assessment or they’re in the wrong county . . . or the wrong country.
Perhaps this will be a positive outcome from lockdown. Even when regulations lift, it looks like international travel will be difficult for a while, and months of our own cooking have given us an appetite for something a little different once we’re allowed out. Perhaps it’s time for small towns and villages around the country to look to their grandmas’ recipe books and dig out their cider presses, their sardine nets, their oatcake rollers and their badger ham salting troughs. We can do this. We can open up the town square on a couple of nights, rig some fairy lights and find a truly lousy local mobile disco. We could even manage the robes.
I think we should draw the line at funny hats though. After all . . . we are British!
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