Opinion: Time for our region to blow its foodie trumpet
- Credit: Antony Kelly/Archant
Last week saw the publication of the annual National Restaurant Awards ‘Top 100’ UK restaurants list. Refreshingly, it was the least London-centric roll-call for many years, with establishments from right across the country well-represented.
Well, I say ‘right across the country’, but in fact one region was conspicuous by its absence: East Anglia. Whilst the two Michelin-star Midsummer House in Cambridge was rightly recognised, not a single restaurant in Norfolk or Suffolk made the list.
What is most concerning is that this is not some artificial consumer-generated poll which in fact shows which restaurants are most adept at mobilising their social media following. No, the National Restaurant Awards are judged by a distinguished panel of food writers from across the nation, which does give them a good measure of credibility. So why the lack of nominations from our region?
It’s not that we don’t have some tremendous eateries in Norfolk and Suffolk. Whilst Monsieur Michelin has rather ignored us in recent years, we do have restaurants which stand up to many in the NRA Top 100 list (I can say this with authority, having been lucky enough to eat at a good few of the award-winners).
I think the omission of our own treasures from the national list is not down to a lack of quality, but rather a malaise which afflicts our entire food and drink sector – the inability to blow our own trumpet and tell the rest of the world just how much great produce comes from our county.
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We’re pretty good at marketing our food and drink to ourselves. Organisations such as Proudly Norfolk, together with food festivals such as next week’s North Norfolk Food Festival (where I will be hosting the cookery theatre - come and say hello), and Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival, do a great job at convincing locals about our fine foodie pedigree. It’s just that we’re pretty rubbish at doing so beyond our county’s borders.
I remember spending a fascinating night at London’s Billingsgate fish market, the epicentre of UK seafood. I spoke to pretty much every trader on the market floor, and was shocked to find that not one was offering Cromer crabs. Every single person I asked said that if people were to specify where they wanted their crabs to originate, it would be Dorset, not Norfolk. We think Cromer crabs are famous, but they are simply not, at least not outside our county’s borders.
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When it comes to our restaurants, you might argue that by keeping their quality a secret, we are ensuring there are always tables when we want to go and eat, and certainly most of the good ones are consistently well-booked, so perhaps that’s a fair point.
But I would argue that we’re missing a trick by being shy about getting out there and telling the world about the wonderful food and drink in our region. For a start, gaining a reputation as a foodie destination would massively boost our tourism industry, which is easily the biggest source of employment in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Norfolk alone produces ten per cent of the nation’s food. It’s an industry which is vital to the county’s economic, environmental and social infrastructure. And if we fail to compete on the national stage, we stand in danger of relinquishing that market share to regions which are not so reluctant to tell the world how good they are.
Another week, another food-related survey, this time to find out the nation’s favourite cheese. This is a poll that has unsurprisingly been topped by cheddar for many years, but this week comes the shock news that Britain’s king of cheeses has been toppled from its top spot by something which in most cases isn’t even mostly cheese: the processed cheese slice.
The gooey lump of plastic which is so beloved of chain-store burger makers was named by 40 per cent of Brits as their favourite type of cheese in the survey. For real cheese-lovers everywhere, not to mention the makers of East Anglia's own artisan cheeses, this is depressing, even if we shouldn’t really be surprised.
But should these artificial slices even be in the running to the nation’s top cheese anyway? At best they contain 50 per cent actual cheese, with the rest being made up of an unholy alliance of emulsifiers, salt, food dyes, preservatives and other chemical concoctions designed to aid the product’s shape and shelf life, rather than its flavour.
Proper cheese is one of the food world’s real joys, so it’s a sad indication of how little many people care about the taste of what they put in their mouths that slices of rubbery goo should be considered superior to cheddar, stilton and the rest, not to mention products from cheesy meccas such as France and Italy.
On the plus side, having just returned from a few days in London, I was pleased to see the unpasteurised Baron Bigod, made by Fen Farm Dairy near Bungay, feature large on many top-end menus in the capital. So at least one local producer is indeed successfully flying the flag for our region’s edible treasures.