Going Green, deliciously, in Great Britain

Travel is an inherently messy business, something that produces a fair amount of ambivalence –angst, even, at times — in the eco-sensitive travel writer. So it’s particularly gratifying when I find a destination that makes it easy to reduce my impact along the way.

England is just such a destination, with recycling bins everywhere, a vibrant “Buy Local” campaign and public transport that aces ours in every way. EasyJet, the budget airline I booked for my side trip to Spain, made it easy to offset my carbon footprint by checking a box and paying a few extra dollars to plant trees or invest in renewables. Picturesque walking and cycling trails crisscross the nation, and people actually use them — a lot. And a couple of our destinations — Totnes and Dartington — I later learned are important innovators in a desperately needed transition movement toward a sustainable economy.

In London, we toured the Borough Market, a celebration of all things delicious, with a strong emphasis on locally sourced, sustainably grown food.  This market was pulsing with color, aroma and flavor when we arrive on a Thursday morning, with everything from artisanal cheeses and breads to fresh morels and artichokes to pig snouts and sausages vying for shoppers’ attention.

The Borough Market has been a key player in Britain’s food revolution in the past five years. “This Market is part of our new food story,” said Adrian Bevins, a London-based food writer who gave us a whirlwind market tour.

Enter Peter Gott, a hog farmer from Westmorland County. Dressed in plaid flannel, suspenders and bright red socks, he could have played the part of a British country gentleman farmer on TV, if such a role existed.

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Gott was among a handful of regional producers who brought this market back to life.  “Ten years ago, this place was derelict,” he recalls. “London was a desert as far as food was concerned.” A market stood on the South Thames since the Roman times, and in this very spot for the past 250 years, but industrial agriculture and the advent of the supermarket had reduced it to a few produce stands amid all the parking lots. “The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were being taken over, pushed out by the factory farms.” 

Gott read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and decided to do something about it. He and a handful of other producers organized a monthly market that grew month by month. Soon it went biweekly, then weekly. Word about the “Farm to Fork” movement began to spread, and a snowball effect began. Big-name chefs like Jamie Oliver became regulars, sourcing their restaurants at the market and through its producers.

Randolph Hodgson, the founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy, was another founder. His company has been credited with saving the craft of English farmhouse cheesemaking in Britain from being driven into obscurity by the corporate cheese industry.  As I heard his story I sampled a savory Cheshire cheese and a Westcounty farmhouse cheddar, heritage cheeses that linger on in the tasting-room of my mind. But it was the crumbly Coolea Irish cheese that stopped me in my tracks and made me go back for more.

Here’s a quick tour of the Borough Market:

But the Borough Market was just the beginning. Nearly every restaurant showcased on our Visit Britain tour made a point of choosing locally sourced and sustainably grown ingredients. Here are a few:

Alfie’s, the delightfully offbeat restaurant named for a dog at our pet-friendly hotel in London, the brand-new and trendy Bermondsey Square Hotel in Southeast London; 

Ottolenghi, an amazing experience packaged as a restaurant near Almeida Theater. The restaurant is described as Mediterranean which to me means hummus and falafel — which is fine with me — but the dishes I sampled here were something else entirely, and each was a work of art.

Rick Stein’s fabulous Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, which together with his other four local restaurants and cooking school have transformed this  picturesque Cornwall fishing village into a foodie’s paradise;

Jamie Oliver’s truly inspiring Fifteen Cornwall, a spectacular restaurant overlooking the surfers on Watergate Bay. This restaurant doesn’t stop with locally sourced ingredients; Oliver hand-picks 15 local Cornwall youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and teaches them to be socially conscious chefs.

Michael Caines Dining in medieval Exeter, Devon County, a hotel restaurant whose chef is so famous his restaurants need no other name;

Last but certainly not least, we dined right on the farm in rural Devon in an innovative “field kitchen” at Riverford Organic, winner of the London Observer’s 2009 Best Ethical Restaurant award. The establishment offers farm tours right along with your meal and markets tens of thousands of fresh “veg boxes” around the country.  This one was my personal favorite, and I’ve now got the cookbook to prove it.

John Brand: From Farm to Kitchen

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It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.

His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.

“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.

Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.

“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”

It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.

“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”

Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.

He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.

“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”

Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.

Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.

What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.

Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.

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The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.

Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.

It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.