by Douglas Blyde - Monday January 19, 2009 7:21 am
Bob Farrand, the director of The Great Taste Awards talks to Douglas Blyde on celebrating distinctive British flavours, a surprising connection with Robert Maxwell, and his appetising vision for 2012.
“In my experience there is still a gap between bloody awful food and food which is superb,” says Bob Farrand, founder of the U.K. Guild of Fine Food, now in its 24th year. “On boxing day my cousin and I went to Wincanton Races. It was a chilly but sparkling afternoon. I saw a trailer promising ‘gourmet burgers’ and gullibly gave in. In reality the patty was pasty, overcooked, painted in dismal sauce and garnished with frozen lettuce. Those frigid leaves brought a revolting new meaning to the term ‘iceberg’. How, I thought, could someone offer such an inedible, expensive insult to animal and customer in the year’s most extravagant season? Why weren’t people complaining? Faced with such fodder, I’m not surprised that Chirac denigrated the British diet!”
Bob realised his future was in food aged 14. He spent school holidays as an apprentice at an elegant provisions shop, applying Wiltshire cure to whole hams. Whilst he was happy to stay there, his parents harboured grander ambitions. “I was sent to study in London and ended up publishing catering journals.” In fact Bob had only one interruption from a career driven by taste. Taking inspiration from America, he founded a data retrieval firm. “Yes, it was an opportunity to make money fast, but it was fundamentally boring. Fortunately I received an offer from Robert Maxwell that was too good to refuse. That was just before he died, although I can assure you that the events were unrelated!”
Bob subsequently acquired an ailing title, the ‘Fine Food Digest’. Through its pages he aimed to draw attention to producers more artisan than accountant. Alongside he launched the Great Taste Awards, the ‘Oscars of British food’ and then the World Cheese Awards. “To get a snapshot of independent producers in the early ‘90’s, I mounted a ‘culinary census’. It revealed that, ravished by the last recession, only 1,000 delicatessens peppered the U.K. That was 16 years ago. Today we have 1,733 delis, 853 farm shops, not forgetting the big bang of farmers markets.”
Finding Flavour in the Crunch
I wondered whether some of those businesses might become victims of the current credit crunch. Bob believes that we should not let them. “I worry though. Whilst the French cannot upset farmers, we have a tendency to bail out inept banks before those who bake our bread. After the Second World War we built huge, distant farms whereas Europeans supported their local ones. In losing contact with the producers, I think we have also lost a sense of priority.”
Surely restaurants will be secure, seeing as dining out has become a national hobby? Bob believes that whilst we have “a thriving metropolitan food culture” there are too many impoverished eateries outside the cities. “Too often they fail to acknowledge the ingredients on their doorstep. And even when they do, for example choosing a local butcher, they need to be conscious of the grade of meat they are buying. This can mean the difference between a neighbouring farm’s free-range beef and a poorly matured version from afar.”
Bob’s cynicism of celebrity chefs is well known. Whilst he understands that Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall “might be seen as elitist”, he would rather have him there, enthusiastically campaigning for better animal husbandry. “Mark Hix is our greatest ambassador, resuscitating our affection for unloved cuts and meat on the bone. My problem is with the likes of Jamie Oliver who takes a fortune encouraging people into the supermarket sheds. At the guild, we never cow-tow to the supermarkets.”
An Olympic Opportunity?
What of the future? Bob has a clear vision. “At the guild, we believe that, under the illumination of the Olympics, 2012 provides a golden opportunity to show the world that we are striving to develop a decent food culture. We need to establish a meeting ground between people like me, who are almost ‘anally’ focussed on food and those who are utterly dismissive. But it’s going to be a difficult journey. Look at Cheddar. The powers that be have worked hard to industrialise and standardise one of our most flavoursome foods. Why? A genuine farmhouse like ‘Qwickes’ 24 month mature confers the nuances of its origin and the seasons – what the French call ‘terroir’. Summer milk makes a full, buttery cheese of poise, whilst thin autumn grass known as ‘stracchino’ by the Italians provides rustic, hay notes. I once tried a version, which hinted that the herd had escaped into a field of wild garlic! And it is beyond me why we try to recreate a cheese like Parmesan or Brie rather than promote our existing treasures. Perhaps it is a question of confidence.”
Bob is confident that the palate ultimately provides the proof of proper food. “I have watched people try a decent Dundee marmalade and say ‘Wow!’ People eat less of a good thing, too. Compared to those awful plasticized squares, you only need two thirds of a decent ham produced from pigs grown normally rather than hormonally. It is more nourishing, satisfying and fair.”
To find out more about the Guild of Fine Food: www.finefoodworld.co.uk