Steve Harris: Dorset’s food scene hitting new heights
PUBLISHED: 16:43 08 November 2016 | UPDATED: 16:43 08 November 2016
From wasabi and knobs to gin and vodka, Dorset has taken its local food scene to delicious new heights and is creating a whole new generation of food and drink heroes
In 1974, five years before he founded BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, Derek Cooper, presented a television series called A Taste of Britain. The pretext of the show was simple; to travel around the UK tracking down regional food traditions that were in danger of dying out.
Cooper introduces the Dorset edition of the programme stood in Stair Hole at Lulworth Cove, and explains that, here “as in other parts of Britain, it’s extremely difficult to find traditional food.” What I’ve seen and heard of the show seems strangely pessimistic. I know that 1974 was a difficult year in Britain, with the three-day week, IRA bombings and a government in turmoil, but to hear him sound the death knell for regional specialities like Dorset Knobs, when four decades on I have a rather splendid new tin of the things on my bookshelf, just sounds a little bit negative.
As well as those dry savoury biscuits, our instalment of A Taste of Britain focussed on crayfish, truffles, Blue Vinny cheese, and watercress. I’m delighted to report that in the last couple of years I’ve eaten and made radio pieces about the last three of those four. At Woodbridge Farm I met Mike Davies who resurrected a 300 year old recipe for Dorset Blue Vinny cheese in the 1980s. I found truffles at a secret location near Maiden Newton with James Fever and his dog Max. And Jon Old, the heir to his father’s business The Watercress Company, was kind enough to entertain me at their Dorset base just outside Moreton. From what I saw, the traditional food we were warned was dying out in the 1970s is still going strong.
In fact, I’m amazed by the produce being made and grown in the county that is distinctly non-traditional. Jon’s Watercress Company is a great example. Realising that Japanese stem wasabi liked similar conditions to watercress, and eventually could be more profitable, they decided to grow it – and very successfully. In 2012 they became the first European company to sell the delicacy. When I visited them, the King of Sweden, on a trip to Latvia, had just been served fresh Dorset wasabi!
And this dichotomy exists right across the county. Of course we still make excellent beer and cider, but there’s gin being distilled in Christchurch and Southbourne and vodka made from cows milk in Beaminster. We have local farmers producing sensational sausages, but the couple curing goat meat in their back garden in Rampisham are in an award-winning league of their own. You can buy a dazzling range of jams and condiments, including our very own Dorsetshire Sauce. Then there’s the Gillingham company that makes membrillo pastes used by some of Britain’s top chefs. And yes, there are a plethora of tea and coffee blends that enable you to have a Dorset cuppa; but if you fancy getting your caffeine fix from a steaming mug of South American mate, there’s a duo from Shaftesbury who can sort you out.
I’m proud of our county, and I think our relationship with tradition is just right. We continue to excel in the things we’re famous for. But in every town and village there are innovators pushing us forward.
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