I’ve just come back from my first trip to Prague recently and very easy on the eye it is too, it is like walking through a film set, spectacular architecture, interesting little alleys and ginnels full of super little shops, cafes and bars and mercifully free of really heavy traffic due to the brilliant tram network. However, the real treat of going anywhere for a chap like me who enjoys his food, is to get stuck into the local cuisine.
The first restaurant my partner and I were pointed to was indeed an authentic Czech restaurant and I tried the recommended “Hopl Popl”, which was roasted cubes of potato dumplings with boneless duck, smoked pork flank and white cabbage. I have to say my left arm was going numb at the thought of what I was about to eat – and it was OK, but very fatty, rather overwhelming, the taste was disappointing and I couldn’t finish it. My host asked me if I enjoyed it and rather deflated after receiving my honest feedback, he asked me where I was from and I just came out with it, “Northwest of England – it’s the food capital of England”, don’t know what made me say it, I didn’t plan it, never used the expression before, but it just popped out.
On the walk back to our hotel, my partner asked, “Is that true then? The Food Capital bit? or did you just make it up ‘cos you were in the huff”? Indignant, I retorted that of course it was true and then started to reel off some Northwest names of suppliers, restaurants and chefs. I quite got into my stride and probably added in a couple of chefs who were not Northwest based just to give my contention a bit of ballast, but she wouldn’t have know any of them anyway bless.
Fortunately just as I was starting to run dry with names off the top of my head, we passed a cheeky little tavern or hospoda as they call it and in we bobbed for a delicious and very cheap half litre of Radegast.
Over the course of the next couple of days, we did the tourist route thing – Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock. I also discovered there really was a Good King Wenceslas and we visited his tomb, which was a must for me as I’d already ticked off the tomb of St Nicholas – he was laid to rest on the tiny Turkish island of Gemile, (yeah sorry, Santa is dead, I’ve got the photos to prove it) which just leaves me to find the tomb of St Stephen of feast fame and I will have scored an unusual Christmastide hat-trick.
Anyway whilst I was whiling away the hours on my little sojourn, it got me thinking about my outburst in the Kolonial restaurant and the more and more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that my hypothesis was bang on. The breadth and diversity of the food offer in the Northwest is really outstanding and as I worked my way round the Northwest in my head my conclusion was that I was probably right. A watershed moment for me, as I so seldom am right about anything, but on this occasion, I had struck gold.
If we consider the number of truly excellent food producers in our region it is genuinely first class by any metric or standard. Mark and Maria Whitehead, owners of Hawkshead Relish up in Cumbria hold over 50 Great Taste Awards, the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse is brilliant and another Great Taste 3 star award winner, Cringlebrook from Preston is outstanding as is Muffs of Bromborough, Bradley’s Bakery over in Ashton and Southport Seafoods and finally a special mention for Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding and Grasmere Gingerbread. There are so many more – Mr Fitzpatrick’s over in Rawtenstall for instance and Saddleworth Tea, but the 1500 words the editor permits me won’t allow me to list anymore.
We have a huge portfolio of award winning farms across the region with amazing produce such as Yew Tree Farm up in Coniston, Wallings Farm at Cockerham, Park Farm down in Torporley, Foxhill Farm over on Merseyside and so many more. We have over 60 award winning meat producing farms in our region more than anywhere else in the country and yet we do not know enough about them, the hard work, skill, dedication and sheer graft that goes into rearing, nurturing and breeding animals fit for our dinner plates and they are not celebrated – they should be household names, after all what is more important than great quality food? They are all food heroes and we should be proud of them, yet we celebrate the trivial and banality of celebrity ballroom dancers or winners of singing competitions – I don’t get it.
The food and dishes that the Northwest has given the rest of the country and the rest of the world are numerous; Black pudding, Eccles cake, Manchester tart, Rag pudding, Parched peas, Scouse, Lancashire hotpot, Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, Parkin, Holland’s pies, Cumberland sausages, Barm cakes, Simnel Pie, Tatie ‘ash and of course Blackpool Rock (Sorry you’ll have to indulge me with that one) and the list goes on and on. It is just great comfort food and tastes fantastic, just real food and big hearty flavours.
Great dishes, great producers and award winning farms and top Chefs as well working in our region and delivery world class and outstanding dishes include; Paul Askew, Simon Rogan, Nigel Howarth, Steven Smith, Paul Heathcote, Matt Worswick, Garry Usher, Oli Martin, Andrew Nutter, Lisa Allen, Simon Radley, Aiden Byrne, Ian Swainson and a word for my old mate Paul Rowley, one of the best banquet chefs in the Northwest.
We are really blessed with great restaurants and a range and diversity that means that you do not have to travel very far to enjoy and appreciate truly outstanding food and the price is really competitive – it is not like the silly prices of the West End of London, try a lunchtime menu at Northcote Manor for instance, it is outstanding value.
In addition there are brilliant restaurant groups providing fantastic environments to eat and immerse yourself in the experience. Living Ventures based in Cheshire are a super example and have single handedly, changed the dining scene in Spinningfields in Manchester and rasied the bar across the Northwest – try Australasia, Artisan, Alchemist – they are sensational and my personal favourite – the Oast House. Brunning and Price over in Chester and all their brilliant pubs and dedication to producing great food for their customers and Deckers over in Rochdale and their eclectic collection of dining rooms and food houses including the remarkable Peacock Room.
I started to relay of all these thoughts back to my partner on our last night in Prague and after a while her head was nodding in agreement and like a good defence lawyer I laid my case out carefully and thoughtfully and finally sat back in my chair in our adopted bar, satisfied that there was infact no conclusion left other than the Northwest truly was the capital of food. “What about all the good beer as well and all the breweries and micro-breweries in the Northwest?” She asked enthusiastically.
At this point, I decided to it was time to get my coat, because whilst fully agreeing with her that we do have a very rich tradition of brewing and for instance there are over 60 micro-breweries in Cumbria alone, even I wasn’t going to argue the case for the capital of beer when I’m sat in Prague – a man has to know when he is beaten.