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Vittles 7.4 - Pivoting
The Great Produce Pivot, by Jack Faulkner
When you’re brought up in the British class system it’s sometimes difficult to see its absurdities clearly. I think of my father who met his biological mother fairly late in life, a firmly middle-class woman who chided him when she saw him mop up some sauce with a piece of bread that “you can tell that you were brought up on a council estate”. Even food is not immune from the illogic of class. In my warped head addled by the class system I can just about understand why someone who is an aspirational member of the middle class might say that, but delve into it and it makes no sense. What is working class about scarpetta, a technique that literally everyone in Europe uses? Why does Britain so consistently try to encode class into the desire for better food, or for simple pleasures?
There was actually a list floating around at the start of lockdown on ‘middle class foods’ which was typically infuriating but enlightening. From the list you can broadly split what middle class food is into three categories.
The first is “health food”. This means kale, avocado, meat substitutes, pulses, grains and especially quinoa. Out of the three categories this at least makes the most logical sense — if the person telling you to eat these things always looks like the granddaughter of a baron then you’re going to make that connection naturally. But of course it also erases the very long history of veganism or vegetable-based diets in other cultures, and says eating healthily or morally is a luxury you can’t afford.
The second category is “foreign muck”. This is basically anything that is a staple in another country but sounds exotic here. Hummus, tofu, pesto, kombucha (actually there is a whole subcategory for foreign fermented food), quinoa again. This is a slightly more alarming category that associates being interested in the food of other cultures as being middle class. This association is mostly made by other members of the middle class who are trying to be countercultural and signal that they are not, in fact, a member of the elite. Yeah I know — this country has brainworms.
The third category is “anything that is a better version of something else”. Sourdough, single-origin coffee and tea, anything ‘organic’, better cheese, better meat. There’s an obvious reason for this — they all cost more. But there’s something fucked up about trying to code these things, all of which are generally made by working class artisans, as middle class, reinforcing the idea that better food is for ‘someone else’. Tied into this is the general ignorance of any British working class food traditions outside of the M25 (that is, until a middle class chef packages it up into a consumable version for Londoners).
Today’s newsletter by chef Jack Faulkner is about better cheese and better meat, using the examples of the produce he has worked with in kitchens from Westcombe Dairy and HG Walter. The shorter food chains gained through producers pivoting now mean this produce is more available than ever, without the usual mark up of a restaurant. It’s my hope that produce like this has found its way out of its usual circles during the last few months, and might stay there, although I do fear it will be business as normal fairly soon. Access to good food should not be a class issue but we have turned it into one,’ and it’s going to take more than a lockdown and a pivot to undo it.
The Great Produce Pivot, by Jack Faulkner
Last year, when Westminster was busy trying to decide what type of Brexit to do, they had a series of indicative votes. This presaged a serious uptick in the usage of word ‘indicative’. Indicative this and indicative that. In recent times a new word has emerged for our 2020 zeitgeist glossary: ‘pivot’. Everyone has pivoted. There is a marked increase in pivoting. It seems in times of national crisis that pivoting is what we do. I am a chef; I cooked food in the newly opened Clarence Tavern in Stoke Newington. But since the new scenario, or to use another recent trope — “due to circumstances relating to COVID-19” — I have (yes) pivoted to packing veg boxes for delivery for Sabel Food.
Our pivoting is indicative of our response as consumers, or perhaps as people. Some suppliers have changed what they do in order to survive, others who have more of a niche simply cannot pivot. A fashion supplier can pivot to make hospital scrubs for example. A food wholesaler can pivot to selling directly to homes rather than caterers and restaurants, but a dairy in Somerset might not have it so easy.
My friend Nick Millard is a herdsman for Westcombe Dairy — the producers of the best ricotta I’ve had outside of Italy, as well as Cheddar and Duckett’s Caerphilly, an unpasteurised crumbly white cheese. Cheesemaking and being a herdsman is better than rock and roll — as Nick will attest having had a former career as a drummer in a rock band. Another pivot! Nick the Herdsman told me about the horizons in Westcombe. Obviously, farmers still have their duties in the fields and barns and milking parlours, but if they’re not selling their cheese, what happens then? With the best of intentions, the general public are not going to make up the shortfall. How often do you finish your supper with a bit of cheddar and some membrillo? For whatever reason we don't eat cheese at home in the same way we do when we dine out. I guess a wheel of cheddar is a lovely thing but I don't really want one in my kitchen. When we pivoted out of restaurants we also pivoted away from cheese plates. This is a huge problem for dairy suppliers, but for some more than others.
It’s soft cheese makers who have a real problem. You will have heard about dairies pouring milk away. It’s an absurd thing to do and promotes cries of waste, but if you’re contracted to sell milk to an airline who grounded their planes you suddenly have lots of milk and nothing to do with it. Nick looks after cows who make milk for ricotta and ricotta is sold per order. With restaurants closed, no ricotta will be ordered. So none will be made. Nick’s day won’t change, apart from his boss being a bit frazzled; he still gets up, and milks his herd, and this week he begins calving.
Cheddar though, is still selling. Westcombe produces 3.5 million litres of milk a year. Luckily half of this milk goes to a block Cheddar maker who is still supplying supermarkets which sell it at a rate similar to pre-pandemic times. Westcombe also sells directly to Neal’s Yard and Waitrose, and Cheddar thankfully keeps. The situation at Westcombe is a microcosm of the wider cheese industry: on the one hand chefs are no longer buying ricotta curds or cheeses with a shorter lifespan, like Ducketts Caerphilly, so they will reduce their output dramatically. On the other, Cheddar makers look like they will push through (as will Comté in France and Parmesan in Italy).
By luck of making hard cheese and not selling milk, Westcombe will survive. As a chef, that's something I'm keen to see. Produce is, for me, maybe the only acceptable form of British patriotism. I say this with love for cheese from overseas but thanks to people like Nick we are eating more and more great British cheese, with old methods and old foods being preserved. This keeps good farmers, farming their Ayrshires or Jerseys in green grass, in business. The cows are not injected with hormones or antibiotics, they eat grass, silage in the winter and oats and peas when milking, which gets into the land after having been through the cow’s digestive system. It’s good for cows, good for the land, good for us when we make Welsh Rarebit and good for the farmer who is kept in work. It’s such a cyclical situation that is so breathtakingly obvious. How we neglected it is utterly amazing.
Nick worries about some of these cheeses, now viewed at prohibitively expensive, or softer cheeses. As far as I can tell, the cheese world is fraternal but needs consumer help — so maybe buy more soft cheese and venture outside Cheddar. Everyone needs sales but some more than others. Richard Branson once said of his rival BA "We and others are standing by ready to take on their routes and runway slots at Heathrow if they get into serious trouble". The difference is cheesemakers in this country belong to a community where they want everyone to succeed. I suppose airlines don’t.
Toby Gaynor is another man who likes communities or, as he puts it, partnerships. A thoroughly nice chap, Toby has a great praxis about providing kitchens with a great product. He is the commercial director of HG Walter a butcher whose wares I’ve seen in London’s best kitchens as I’ve done the circuit as a freelance chef. I’ve cooked their meat at Wilderness Festival, in east London gastropubs and on one occasion in St James's Palace.
I visited their operation a couple of years ago. It was installed in me by Jeremy Lee when I was a commis at Blueprint Cafe that a chef should know where their food comes from, so we treat it with the respect that is due. I wanted to know who I work with and so I was shown round the facility. While their shop in Hammersmith is what you expect a British butchers shop should look like, their place in Stonebridge Road is perhaps not. It looks almost like a tech company, updated right into the twenty-first century. I need to impress upon you that although it’s an edifice, a huge monolithic building, it’s still the family butchers. Nothing has changed except maybe volume. Even then, quality hasn’t floundered.
HG Walter doesn't have a need to be the biggest, but many would argue they’re the best. I have seen where they age the meat, on shelves with labels for each high end restaurant that demands a certain cut and a certain ageing (Clove Club had a shelf with a rib of beef aging beyond 48 days). But what impresses me most is the little things: that even their mince beef is the business, full of flavour and makes mince on toast with a fried egg taste better than many fillet steaks. They make the chef's job much, much easier.
Toby told me about how they like to impress children as much as they like to impress chefs with folded arms, Michelin stars and forearm tattoos. The optimism is boundless and not foolhardy. After losing 90% of their business overnight, they swung into action and managed to keep their entire team employed. Their butchers are still butchering, their sales team is still on the phone, their website was quickly updated. It’s as if Jeff Tracy and the lads heard the call and launched the various machines from Thunderbird Island. HG Walter who supply caterers, restaurants and burger bars throughout London, are now delivering to your mum’s house in Barnes. They swung a deal with Patty & Bun, one of their partners as Toby would say, and borrowed their lorries to bulk out their fleet along with a little help from Entremetier for vegetables and fruit.
It’s a smart operation, but as I have been doing something similar I have questioned the pivot. Am I really a key worker? Cooking lamb shoulders to send out to our customers doesn’t exactly sound like emergency relief. We are not providing food packages for the needy; some would argue that it is almost luxurious. Demonstrating the sheer absurdity of how food in the UK is consumed, good produce — vegetables and fruit deemed unworthy of supermarket shelves — are being given to food banks and to people who will happily use it. This virus is demonstrating that not only is there a lot of good food, people who are less affluent can and should access it.
It seems trivial, but it’s not. It’s not nothing to have good food, even now or especially now. That could be a little bit of the best brie available or just one or two great lamb chops. Food is not just subsistence, it’s more than that. We have an attitude in this country that good food is for other people, which I don't understand. For reasons too many to go into, we've decided not to value food. The domestic high street butcher is something we see as for the anointed, so we buy low welfare, low price meat. Good meat and cheese, as well as good vegetables and other produce, can become a staple if we reframe what we value. An occasional wedge of Kirkham’s Lancashire or decent lamb chop from the high street butcher means farmers and suppliers will survive. Maybe even thrive, and our suppers will be better for it.
We are, I suppose, as chefs, doing what we do, and butchers are doing what they do. We are persisting. While I can, I will continue to get a few pieces of something special. That’s what HG Walter is doing: providing something special. The news on the radio might be unbearable a lot of the time, but a leek and pork sausage helps elevate matters, and learning how to bake sourdough kills some time and gives you a new skill for life. The versatility of companies like HG Walter and decency of companies like Westcombe has helped. The herdsman is still out in the field and the butchers are still at work, even if we have not been able to get a haircut or see our friends regularly. Bukowski said, “you can’t beat death, but you can beat death in life”. I think he meant, sometimes, it’s good to have the best sausage sandwich you can possibly make.
Jack Faulkner is a chef and writer who has worked in kitchens across London. He is currently working with Andi Oliver at her Wadadli Kitchen pop-up at The Crooked Billet in Clapton. You can find him on Twitter at @jackcantsleep1. Jack was paid for his newsletter.
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