Foreign flavours, British farms: the future for UK agribusiness?

Posted on 13 December 2013

On the surface, the past few years have been a foodie’s nightmare in the UK. A growing awareness of environmental issues, coupled with high-profile food scandals (remember those horse burgers?), have increased consumer concerns of mass-produced and imported goods. This, just as our palates have become accustomed to flavours from across the globe. But hope is at hand, and in this case quite literally. Plenty of our favourite “foreign” foods are now being produced in the UK, showing that not only are globalisation and immigration changing our palates, they’re changing our catering industry too, writes Jemimah Steinfeld.

Chillilicious is Scotland’s first and only chilli farm, run by Patricia and Stacey Galfskiy. Photo: Chillilicious

Chillilicious is Scotland’s first and only chilli farm, run by Patricia and Stacey Galfskiy. Photo: Chillilicious

Want pak choi? Mau Chiping, who moved from China to the UK in the 1970s, produces it in abundance at his farm in Kent. Fan of cured meats? Trealy Farm in Monmouthshire supplies pretty authentic chorizo and bratwurst. Down in Devon, you can take your pick of pecans, almonds and olives at Otter Farm. And none of this says anything of cheese, which has gone far beyond native Cheddar and Wensleydale of late. A startling statistic is that our country actually makes more mozzarella than Italy. And it’s good stuff too. In 2010 Britain’s own Cornish Blue took first place in the prestigious World Cheese Awards. According to Juliet Harbutt, organiser of the awards, Britain had 700 home grown cheeses on display against 600 fromages from France. Even though we failed to keep the title in the three years since, we continue to dominate the league tables.

We are taking to heart the old adage if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and in some instances growing ‘em. Grapes are arguably leading the pack here with enormous grape farms that are industrialized and very modern, they employ all sorts of methods and modern machinery in the form of tractors from Fastline and processing plants to make the most out of every acre of grape plantations. Only a few decades back wine was seen as something “posh” and foreign. Not any more. Now the UK has become the biggest importer of wine in the world, showing just how much of a taste for the beverage we have developed. Spurred on by that, we have started producing more ourselves. The English Wine Producers, the marketing arm of the UK wine industry, says there are now over 400 vineyards in England and Wales, covering some 3,500 acres, which produce sparkling and still wines.

Even chillies are enjoying a renaissance as our tolerance of spice improves. In London the South Devon Chilli Farm, which lists Jamie Oliver among its fans, is producing chillies in abundance. According to Kaz Lobendhan, one of the farm’s directors, polytunnels are used to replicate conditions in which chillies flourish in their home countries. Meanwhile in Scotland, farmers at Chillilicious have a flourishing trade. They currently hold the title of being the most northern chilli farm in the whole of Europe. Speaking to Stacey Galfskiy, one of the farmers, she explained how her business partner (her mother, Patricia) has always grown chillies and decided “to take her casual spicy condiment to the next level.”

“We live in a varied culture that embraces many cultural culinary backgrounds,” Galfskiy said when asked about our growing proclivity towards spice. And there’s another reason for the success of chillies, she added:

“People are moving away from supermarket bought, cheap value products and realising that buying local or even UK based helps our economy – which benefits everyone.”

Indeed, as Galfskiy highlights it’s not just good news for our stomachs; it’s good news for our GDP. Food is one of the most important sectors for the UK economy. Approximately one in seven UK jobs depend on the industry, the government estimates. Diversifying our produce to keep up with our tastes has and will continue to have a trickle-down effect. Hence the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently singled out the curry as a key area of innovation. In a 22-page report it recommended exploiting changing weather patterns to grow crops that were previously uneconomic, drawing attention to coriander – now produced in abundance here – as a good example that it can be done. The curry, after all, is not only as British as fish and chips, it is incredibly profitable – a £4 billion annual industry. Exploring the option of growing certain spices and grains is a logical next step in the love affair.

James Swift from Trealy Farm, a charcuterie, acknowledges all of these positives for UK agribusiness. Swift’s love of cured meats was nurtured from a young age, owing to a French mother.

“I grew up eating a larger variety of meats not necessarily native to here,” he told me.

He then had a dawning realization: Britain produces excellent meats, it just doesn’t always know what to do with them. High-quality meat was going from farm to shop with little TLC in between, unlike on the Continent where curing formed a huge part in the middle of the process. From observing these differences (and noting our increasing appreciation for a slice of charcuterie or two), the idea of Trealy Farm was born. Now the farm, which has operated for around 10 years, employs five people directly and many more indirectly. Swift works with around 40 farms to get the best meat. “So I think we are doing our bit on a wider employment level,” he noted.

Even smaller operations have a promising future. Such as Trotter’s Independent Condiments, the brainchild of Byam Trotter. Trotter was struggling to get a job post-uni and mid-recession. When his parents returned from a trip to Italy with a candied fruit and mustard combo called Mostarda, which they could not source anywhere in Scotland, his mother began experimenting with her own recipe. She taught one to Trotter, who decided making and selling his own Mostarda would be a nice pursuit while job hunting. Four years on and his Mostarda is going strong. The company now employs two other people and is expanding.

While Trotter and his colleagues make the condiments themselves, they still import some of the raw ingredients. But Trotter told me he is constantly keeping an eye out for local alternatives. If the UK food industry continues along this trajectory, Trotter might not have much longer to wait. As our passion for flavours from around the world continues to grow, our ability to replicate these flavours on – and in – British soil grows too. Foodies can let out a sigh of relief.

Jemimah Steinfeld is a freelance writer based in London.