The days when ‘British produce’ conjured images of suet pudding and sausage ’n’ mash are over. Today, forward-thinking chefs are using stellar UK ingredients to elevate their authentic international cuisines. For reasons of sustainability, creativity or quality, they are minimising imports, buying local and forging fascinating supply lines. Say hello to these united nations of food, then check out our roundup of the UK’s best gastro pubs with rooms.
For years, Mexican chef Santiago Lastra refused to cook Mexican food in Europe. He couldn’t get the right ingredients nor justify contributing to a “broken” global food system by importing them. But then came Copenhagen.
Arriving in Denmark in his mid-20s, Santiago was fascinated by how new Nordic cooking coaxed unexpected flavours from local ingredients. Slowly, it dawned on him: by manipulating spicy horseradish or citrussy ferments he could create “Mexican flavours, locally”. Santiago spent months nixtamalising Scandinavian grains (usually, a process in making corn dough) to create corn-free tortillas that had an authentic nixtamalised calcium flavour: “That was the last piece of the puzzle.”
Opening KOL in London last year – British ingredients, Mexican flavours – required similar research. Santiago imports select dry goods (such as chocolate corn and smoked chillies “to help Mexican indigenous communities and preserve heirloom varieties”) but getting across what Britain had to offer in fresh, micro-seasonal ingredients was not, he laughs, “something you can Google”.
From Northumberland’s Gilchesters Organics (KOL uses its flour in sourdough seafood tortillas) to Miles Irving’s Kent company, Forager (“a really inspiring character”), the now 31-year- old Santiago travelled across the UK to find the wild garlic or sea buckthorn he needed for KOL’s trout tostada, langoustine taco or “carnitas” pork cheek with cabbage, gooseberry, pear salsa and black beans.
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“It’s really important that it tastes Mexican,” says Santiago, who might combine aged kombucha, Douglas Fir pine and edible marigold to mimic oranges. Seasonally specific to Britain, that improvisation produces “a unique restaurant experience”.
From £70; kolrestaurant.com
Chaat Cart, Manchester and Sheffield
Aarti Ormsby set up Chaat Cart for a simple reason: “I couldn’t find the Indian food I grew up eating.” But in channelling the flavours of her Indian childhood, the 43-year-old is also challenging the ignorant assumptions that some diners make about Indian food.
“There’s this misconception that Asian and Chinese food has no quality ingredients, that it’s about spices but the ingredients aren’t great. I don’t think that’s true,” says Aarti. “Indians are very fussy about produce and, to me, it was important to have ingredient provenance as part of our identity.”
At its food hall kitchens at Manchester’s Society, Stockport Produce Hall and Sheffield’s Kommune, UK meat and seasonal vegetables underpin Chaat Cart’s street food dishes. Some suppliers are locked in – fish from Sheffield’s JH Mann, some meat from Littlewood’s butcher in Marple, veg from Stockport Market – but Aarti is also constantly changing dishes as new supplies become available.
In recent years, the Chaat Cart team has cooked specials of masala cod cheeks or bone marrow roti, used Colchester oysters, British goat and venison from Cheshire’s Lyme Park. Mutton and hyper-seasonal veg might crop up in its weekly tiffin boxes, which give Aarti “creative freedom to use what’s good”.
Aarti has to import some items, such as spices and tamarind. But she sees no sense in using imported fresh produce: “Air freighting, it’s difficult to get the flavour and freshness we have in India. It wouldn’t be as good.”
Mains £6.50-£11.50 (Manchester); societymanchester.com
La Locanda, Gisburn, Lancashire
As the son of Modena farmers, chef Maurizio Bocchi is acutely aware that, in its simplicity, Italian food requires exceptional ingredients that travel “from land to fork in the shortest time – freshness is key”.The 55-year-old was drawn to rural Lancashire and the famously food-obsessed Ribble Valley precisely because of its rich variety of produce. Maurizio has to import some ingredients to create his authentic regional dishes (wine, olive oil, charcuterie) but “Gisburn is so near to farmland and one of the UK’s oldest cattle markets. Our lamb is coming from nearby Pendle and the guy has had the same breed of lamb for 400 years”.
Almost two decades into running La Locanda, a handsomely transformed stone building, Maurizio is as excited as ever as he talks about plans to source British-made violino di capra (goat prosciutto). He’s foraging more to further gild his deliveries from local suppliers such as Scott’s Game or Johnson & Swarbrick, creators of the nationally renowned Goosnargh chicken.
If politics has intensified La Locanda’s localism (“With Brexit, you have to focus more on what you have on your doorstep,” says co-owner Cinzia Bocchi), it’s ingredient quality that really grips Maurizio. He talks lovingly of making a local vegetable mostarda for his pigeon salad or of stuffing Gisburn Forest rabbit with Tuscan sausage and English cavolo nero. “For cabbages,” he says, “Lancashire’s soil is second to none.”
Mains from £14.95; lalocanda.co.uk
Harajuku Kitchen, Edinburgh
Kaori Simpson met her Scottish husband at a student environmental society. “You know, like tree-hugger people,” laughs the chef-owner at Harajuku Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant that – as Kaori is still keen to minimise her carbon footprint – uses mainly Scottish produce.
There are exceptions, including rice from Italy and seaweed from Japan. But Harajuku and its new street food spin-off in St James Quarter fully utilise the local larder. “Scotland has an abundance of beautiful seafood,” enthuses Kaori, a Slow Food member who feels it would be unacceptable to import sea urchins or hamachi (so-called yellowtail tuna): “That’s a luxury you don’t need. I’d feel guilty having those.”
Instead, the 47-year-old, whose Japanese parents ran a restaurant and katsuobushi processing plant in Manila, has built a network of trusted suppliers, such as Eddie’s Seafood Market in Edinburgh and Shaw’s Fine Meats in Lauder, which provides the pork for Harajuku’s gyoza and panko-crumbed tonkatsu.
In particular, Harajuku’s relationship with social enterprise Cyrenians Farm continues to grow. As well as seasonal items such as courgette flowers, the farm cultivates specialist lines for Harajuku, such as daikon. “We’re talking about wasabi, too,” says Kaori, “but that’s ongoing research.”
Mains from £9.85; harajukukitchen.co.uk
The Red Duck, London
“Thirty years ago,” says chef Chi San, “everyone was looking for exotic ingredients”. But contemporary cooking is about sourcing amazing produce close to home: “Foremost, it has to be quality, then as local as possible.”
It’s a policy Chi practices with aplomb at his crowd-pleasing Chinese restaurant The Red Duck. For example, it sources seasonal pak choi and mushrooms from UK farms, and 35-day-aged ribeye steaks from grass-fed British cattle for its stir-fried beef.
Chi loves traditional British beef breeds: “People say wagyu melts in your mouth but you want to feel you’re eating meat rather than chewing butter.” But such sourcing is also a matter of reducing food miles where it can (the Duck cannot avoid importing black beans or soy sauce). “Having two daughters or maybe getting older,” says Chi, now in his early fifties, “you care about what you leave for the next generation.”
Originally born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, Chi moved to London as a child and later worked in many incredible East Asian restaurants. He has exacting standards and searched for many years for a supplier of birds for his crispy duck, opting for Irish specialist Silver Hill. Owned by Northern Ireland’s Fane Valley, Silver Hill’s own-breed ducks are renowned in Asian restaurant circles.
Chi puts the ducks through a rigorous 24-hour stock simmer and double-roast regime, thus maximising their perfect fat-to-meat ratio. “If it’s too lean,” warns Chi, “you don’t get that flavour.”
Mains from £10; theredduck.co.uk