It was only in 2005 that French President Jacques Chirac memorably damned British food with those astonishingly ill-chosen words, “you can’t trust people who cook like that“. So, there was no doubting his view, which was once that of the world at large – even the British themselves. When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, very few people seemed interested in good food in Britain at all and looking back it seems the menus, both at home and out, were very limited and dull. I well remember watching items about the French lifestyle on Blue Peter and hearing that old cliché; “the British eat to live, while the French live to eat.”
In those days there were still the last vestiges of the old British view that things should be plainly cooked, that anything fancy was suspect and that being interested in food was not quite right and really a funny foreign idea altogether. Certainly the British of the day were unlikely to indulge in earnest conversation about food, the way Spaniards will about Jamón, the French about cheese or the Italians the relative merits of oils and vinegars.
So, if Chirac has made that statement in 1975 I would have probably agreed with him, but all that really has changed now. Enjoyment of food now seems to be an integral part of British life and food is no longer regarded as just fuel. I love eating out anywhere I go in Europe, but in reality the variety and quality of food available in Britain now is as good as anywhere – different, but certainly as good. I don’t just mean fine dining either, this country is full of exciting affordable places that turn out delicious food at all price levels and from an enormous array of ethnic backgrounds.
However food isn’t only about eating out, restaurants and fine-dining. It’s also about the ingredients and this is where it seems to me there has been a more profound change. Everywhere I go there seem to be local producers of fabulously tasty things, wonderful cheese shops and delis and nowadays we all take it for granted – my mother would have loved it. She died in 1978 when just buying spaghetti involved a special journey to an Italian shop in town and we had to bring our garlics and olive oil back from Spain.
One of these exciting food producers really appeals to me – The Artisan Smokehouse – and I have been fortunate enough to try quite a few of their products. Frankly if you are at one of the events where they show their wares – I regularly bump into them at the excellent Three Wine Men tastings – then you just cannot miss them as the smell is wonderfully enticing. I love the smell of smoked food and so it always beckons me over.
However, much as I like the aromas and flavours of smoked food, Tim Matthews has a palpable passion for it – which is why he and his wife Gillian started The Artisan Smokehouse some seven years ago. Talking to him he really does come across as a sort of Heston Blumenthal of smoking. There doesn’t seem to be anything he won’t have a go at smoking and precious few things that he hasn’t actually smoked – even maple syrup apparently.
Indeed Maple seems quite a thing with Tim, he does all his smoking over natural maple wood chippings and I know from personal experience that maple wood has a wonderful smell of sugary maple syrup.
“It started off as something fun to do, but we now supply delis county-wide and see ourselves as part of the growing Suffolk food mafia!” said Tim.
In truth the smoking process is only something that I have a superficial understanding of, but whenever I speak to Tim he really draws me in. He is passionate about his craft and food in general, flavour seems very important to him and this enthusiasm is infectious.
His passion shows in the foods he produces and in the raw materials he smokes. The flavours he achieves strike me as being very delicate. Sometimes with smoked food that is all you can taste – the smoke. With Tim’s products the smoking seems subtle and integral to the other flavours. The texture and the flavour of the raw material are as important as the smokiness.
Truthfully though the thing that originally got me interested in his wares seems pretty unsubtle, it was smoked garlic. He smokes whole heads of British garlic and the aromas are just so enticing. Wrapped in foil and roasted, the soft flesh of the garlic is unctuous and delicious with a rich smoky note and pungent character – trust me it is fabulous on toast!
I am not the greatest fan of smoked salmon, but their Freedom Food Smoked Scottish Salmon was a revelation with a deep flavour that seemed to have a fruity quality to it. Even better, to my mind, was the Freedom Food Hot Smoked Scottish Salmon Fillet, the flakes of fish were firm yet succulent with a fragrant flavour reminiscent of Chinese tea. The hot smoking actually cooks the fish and so the texture is unlike most smoked salmon and like a piece of cooked fish, but with that delicious fragrant smoky quality.
Just before trying the smoked fish I wondered what wine to have with it. Something about the aromas of the food made me think of that Grüner Veltliner would be good, so went in search of a bottle. However I found a lone bottle of something else that got me thinking and changed my mind. I am glad I did as the combination was perfect:
An unusual grape, Rkatsiteli is from Georgia, but was widely used throughout the USSR, including Ukraine as well as more widely in Eastern Europe. It has an aromatic, floral and spicy kind of character, so will appeal to fans of Grüner Veltliner and dry Furmint.
This was great with both the smoked salmons. Just a lingering succulent softness showed this was a mature white and it balanced the acidity, which was still enough to be a perfect foil to the smoky flavours and fatty feel of the smoked salmon. The aromatic and fragrant nature of the wine was a great match for the fish too, as was the delicate spice character. A terrific dry white wine and a great combination – 90/100 points.
The meats are equally good by the way, the Smoked British Fillet Beef is so tender and fresh tasting with the flavour of the meat and that of the smoke sitting perfectly together. Tim’s Smoked Free Range Duck Breast is delicious too, despite being smoked you can taste the duck as well as the fragrant smoky flavour – it would be great in a gourmet salad.
I was also delighted to be able to try his speciality Violino di Capra – marinated, cured and smoked goat leg – which was stunningly delicious, fragrant, delicately meaty and fragrantly smoky.
The smoked meats would be wonderful with any red that wasn’t too strong by the way, earthy, umami flavours help too. Wines with the weight of a rich Beaujolais or fruity Pinot Noir are perfect. A smooth Syrah or a Barolo could be good too, like Spar’s excellent value earthy and meaty 2007 Valle Vento Barolo.
So, as you can see from my reaction to a small cross section of the range from The Artisan Smokehouse, what they make is delicious and terrific quality. It strikes me that one of their hampers would make a wonderful present for the foodie in your life.
The Artisan Smokehouse
Tim and Gill Matthews
Telephone: 01394 270609
The Rusty Pig
As if all this smoked gorgeousness wasn’t enough, I was recently tutoring a wine tasting and Robin Rea was giving tastes of the charcuterie that he makes down in Ottery St Mary in Devon. Robin is an experienced chef and still cooks at River Cottage HQ, but he has a passion for curing and air drying charcuterie. I really think what he makes is as good as anything I have had from France, Spain or Italy – the chilli salami was amazing, intensely hot and sweetly tasty by turn, like a gourmet’s Russian Roulette! It was all, as Robin says, “pigging delicious.”
What’s more, it isn’t only a shop where you buy amazing sausages and bacon, you also can eat there.
Telephone: 01404 815580
It would seem that Chirac was completely wrong, we have thrown out that old view of British food and are now as keen as anyone else to eat great food, cook great food and to produce great food.