The British season that recently began at Glyndebourne, East Sussex and goes on to include the Chelsea Flower Show, Ascot, Henley and Wimbledon is much more glamorous and better known than the one dearer to restaurateurs, chefs and their customers which began about a month ago with asparagus, broad beans and peas and goes on to include all the summers soft berries, with Scotland undoubtedly producing the best, and the first grouse of the year.
There was probably never any danger of the social season ever disappearing but there certainly was a definite possibility that the seemingly inexorable sweep of food industrialisation that cast its long shadow across the UK for several decades would destroy every vestige of our food heritage. That it has not managed to do so is due to the hard work and determination bordering on bloodymindedness of numerous proud individuals across the country and the resulting patchwork of their endeavours forms the basis of William Blacks beguiling new book The land that thyme forgot (Bantam Press £16.99).
For any keen restaurant-goer or food lover this book will prove a fascinating insight not just into the passion of so many committed individuals but also into just what a vital role middlemen and women have played and continue to play in sourcing the most distinctive ingredients for the most discriminating chefs.
The romantic notion of chefs popping down to the market at daybreak ceased to be a reality long before the internet, email and overnight delivery brought the farm, harbour and moor much closer to the city centre. But, however passionate chefs and restaurateurs may be, they still need someone to point them towards the best supplier and most seasonal ingredient, to facilitate what should and could go on next weeks or next months menus.
I first met Black over 20 years ago when he was fulfilling this role from the back of a very smelly van. The van smelt of fish, as did Black himself on most occasions as he confesses in this book, because his role then was to buy the freshest fish on the Boulogne fish market in Northern France on a Tuesday morning, pack it under ice and then drive it over to Londons top restaurants so that it could be filleted and ready for Wednesday lunchtimes menu.
Black was not alone in this obsession for the best. Henrietta Green **QUALIFYING PHRASE championed many an individual producer; Michael Hyams, now trading as Mushroom Man (www.mushroomman.co.uk) was delivering what fellow traders on Covent Garden then described as queer gear- salads that can now be found on most supermarkets shelves; and Randolph Hodgson was establishing his connections with British and Irish dairies that have made Neals Yard Dairy such an international success. Recently, Hodgson has turned farmer himself establishing a dairy near Sherwood Forest, Nottingham that will by Christmas 2006 produce Stilton from unpasteurised milk for the first time in many years. But because the Stilton producers have abandoned this traditional method of production Hodgsons more authentic cheese will now have to find a new name **Stitlon perhaps?
At the time it was in every restaurateurs best interest to keep Black in business. His eye for quality was exemplary as was his knowledge of just which chefs were making the best use of the best produce but sadly his business acumen was the very opposite. All the cheques I wrote to him every week to ensure that he had enough for next weeks purchases were worth it, however, when one day he took me to a small fish restaurant outside Boulogne, now sadly closed, which served what proved to be the most luscious fillet of turbot with hollandaise I have ever eaten.
lack abandoned commerce to write and present television programmes with his former wife Sophie Grigson but since they spilt up he has taken on the mantle of culinary detective tracking down, sitting down and often eating with those who are in certain cases the sole remaining producers of traditional foodstuffs, first around Italy with Al Dente, and now with The land that thyme forgot, his most important and successful book to date.
The book is successful because Black is sympathetic. He knows quite how arduous and unrewarding rearing mutton on the windswept island of Orkney is; just how tough the life of a shrimp collector on Morecambe Bay must be; quite how passionate the gooseberry growers who gather in early August at the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Annual Show in North Yorkshire have to be to keep the worlds oldest giant gooseberry going; and why in the absence of fresh blood due to the closure of so many abattoirs even such renowned black pudding makers as Jack Morris in Bolton, Lancashire have to make use today of dried, reconstituted blood.
En route Black discovers why Hindle Wakes, a dish brought over by Flemish weavers in the 16th century, eventually disappeared; how greed, in the form of overfishing by the Victorians, deprived the Thames of most of its whitebait; and, more upliftingly, what the most recent immigrant communities are adding to the sum of our food culture with the Indian restaurants and shops in Leicester and their Chinese equivalent in central Manchester.
Without these individuals determination to carry on producing such distinctive ingredients eating out across Britain would certainly not be as exciting as it is today.