Location, Location

I’m going for a meal next week at The Sportsman, in Seasalter, and have been researching it avidly, scanning old reviews to get some idea of what we can expect from the (rather large, pre-booked) tasting menu. Although a few dishes pop up frequently (oyster and chorizo, some kind of arrangement of lamb and seaweed), it is not individual dishes as such which form the focus of most reviews. It is the Sportsman’s location that really holds the interest – its position as a “grotty rundown pub by the sea”, as their Twitter profile has it – and the astonishing range of ingredients they wring from that location, their fierce commitment to localism.

Localism, in the world of food, comes in two main forms – localism of recipe, and localism of ingredient. Long since used to getting our spices, our fruit and our vegetables, from various colonies and allies, it is the former, I think, which is more prevalent in Britain today. Cornish pasties, Bakewell tarts, Melton Mowbray pies – all are very much a part of our everyday food culture. Localism of ingredient, on the other hand, has become privileged in Britain, a treat for the foodie classes. Although supermarkets are happy to tell you that your asparagus was grown by Dave in Lanarkshire, genuinely local produce is confined to the farmers market, and requires time and money that many are unwilling or unable to spend.

And why not? Local produce is not necessarily better. Ethically, perhaps; although the whole subject of ‘food miles’ has turned out to be more complicated than everyone thought (cf. Jay Rayner’s latest book), it’s still nice to support local businesses, maybe. Maybe not, if they charge twice as much, offer terrible service, and are in any case wealthy hobbyists with no real need to do well.

It’s different, I think, elsewhere, where local produce is still affordable and attainable, and necessary for making the local recipes. This is why the French have a word for terroire and we don’t. The best dishes from what we are pleased to call ‘peasant cuisines’ are the ones which combine a long human tradition with fine native ingredients, a powerful expression of social and natural history, heavy with a sense of place – bouillabaisse, caponata, fabada.

The closest we seem to come to this in Britain, fittingly enough, is with booze. The rolling hills of Kent, the fuzzy warmth of the West Country, find their perfect expression in the local ales and ciders (when Keats asked for a “beaker full of the warm south”, he was not talking about Biddingdon’s, though he might as well have been), while the multitudinous whiskies of Scotland, peat and smoke and ozone and brine, might be the landscape bottled.

Stephen Harris, along with Simon Rogan and perhaps a few others, seem to be trying for something similar in their cuisine. Although untethered from local culinary tradition (Harris applies techniques from French to Japanese to his ingredients), their food, foraged, farmed, boiled from the sea, is an attempt to offer up an expression or an excretion of the landscape itself, where localism is not an ethical or economic but an aesthetic choice, one seen through to its logical conclusion. I’ll let you know how lunch goes.

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