Hugo Brown

The art of cooking with British produce

The art of cooking with British produce
Image: Grantley Hall
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It’s well documented how excited, or horrified, food enthusiasts are by the Salt Baes of this world ­– gold coated Japanese steaks certainly look good on social media. But a nice potato? Some bright, green leaves? The frilliest mushrooms or a plump bulb of fennel? We don’t often hear praise for the more humbler kitchen ingredients, especially the ones grown on British shores. Things are changing, but for many raw produce still doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

You only need to look at the amount of salmon consumed in the UK to realise we don’t always care about where our food comes from. Perhaps it’s that we take for granted the availability of everything all the time. The UK has become a-seasonal – ripe lemons in April, tomatoes in January, asparagus all year round, everything in abundance 12 months of the year. Prima vera, what’s that?

But someone who does care about produce is Shaun Rankin, currently of North Yorkshire’s Grantley Hall, near Ripon. The hotel gets all of its produce from within a 20-mile radius. This means ingredients such as rosehip, nasturtium, pineapple weed, lemon verbena, spruce, elderberries (not just a Monty Python joke), meadowsweet and woodruff.

It means no lemons, no tomatoes, no almonds, no flour from Italy to make pasta. And according to Rankin this idea all starts with a concern for sustainability.

He says, ‘I want to show what the UK has to offer. The future of British cooking doesn’t have to rely on flying ingredients in from all over the world. If we teach young chefs this then it becomes their philosophy.’

It seems that Rankin’s time on Jersey – famed for its produce including cream, potatoes, oysters – had a significant influence on his culinary philosophy. There he worked at Loungueville Manor (from 1994 – 2002). Following that he headed up Bohemia in St. Helier, the island’s capital, which won its first Michelin star in 2005.

On the island he championed what he describes as ‘the stars of the industry’ – the fisherman, the farmers and, generally, those who safeguard the production of Jersey’s native ingredients.

He says, ‘The philosophy has always been there in my own cooking but now I’m going a step further using the hedgerows and working with foragers because Yorkshire has ancient woodlands.’

At first we might be baffled by some of the ingredients on the Grantley Hall menu but it’s easier than you might think to apply some of its principles to our own cooking.

Replacing basil for wild garlic in pesto is one tried and tested method, especially as the plant grows in abundance in the UK. Another benefit is that homemade pesto is a million times better than shop bought.

Grantley Hall

We all cook with tomatoes and lemons. In his own kitchen Shaun uses Rosehip to get tomato flavours (floral, slightly sweet and tart, sounds about right). Lemons are a little trickier and might require fermenting fruits such as plums which are already quite sour. An added benefit of fermentation though is that it also preserves seasonal ingredients so they can be used year round.

Rankin says, Most acids we use come from making homemade vinegars out of pears, apples. Also ingredients like sea buckthorn berries and their juice help with seasoning and balancing acid levels.’

Sea buckthorn is also the recommendation for orange flavours and fans of Camomile tea might be tempted to try Pineapple Weed. Classically bitter and sweet almonds, which are so widely used in things from marzipan to Romanesco and even cocktails (thanks to amaretto), can be swapped for Meadow Sweet. Aniseed flavours are something that we have in abundance in the UK from the mild tones of fennel to Sweet Cicely which we might use instead of chervil or tarragon.

Totally Wild UK has a selection of all of these ingredients as well as others, foraging cookbooks, courses and plenty of information. Wild Food UK also has an exhaustive database of British ingredients showing seasonality, guides to things like mushrooms and the hedgerow as well as plenty of pictures. There are also some recipes from chanterelle soup to braised Hogweed shoots. The latter can be treated like many leafy green vegetables (fried, boiled, sautéed) and the plant’s seeds are similar to coriander.

Rankin is quick to say that he doesn’t look down on others for using classic Italian ingredients, for example, because obviously these are wonderful products. But cooking and food culture in the UK can only benefit from using what is around us. We all complain about watery supermarket tomatoes while bemoaning our carbon footprint. But there is an alternative and the UK’s native ingredients can begin provide that.