Jay Rayner celebrates Lancashire's food economy
PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 September 2017
Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic, broadcaster and musician with a pathological hatred of food served on slates, talks to Roger Borrell about Lancashire's big food conference.
Jay Rayner isn’t the sort of chap you invite to a party if you only want him there to say nice things about the hosts.
In interviews, he displays every sign of being fully house-trained but you know he won’t suffer a sudden bout of shyness if asked his opinion on anything culinary. Or, maybe, anything at all.
Food criticism is what he does best, eloquently in print as The Observer’s restaurant reviewer, affably on air as the chairman of BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet and sometimes, as a MasterChef judge, with the sort of bluntness that wouldn’t disgrace a badger’s rear end.
That should make for an interesting day out when Marketing Lancashire stages the county’s first Taste Lancashire food and drink conference at Clitheroe’s Holmes Mill on September 6.
According to the hand-out, it aims to bring together food entrepreneurs, retail bosses, agricultural leaders, international trade experts and influencers from the hospitality industry to ‘challenge, inspire and celebrate Lancashire’s food economy’.
Jay is the main speaker and, you suspect, he’ll be the main challenger, too. He is a good choice despite being what he calls a ‘metropolitan fop’. In truth, he is one of the few reviewers who can find his way out of the capital without a team of Sherpa guides to point him north.
However, he’s quick to point out that visiting the provinces also suits him as he tours with The Kitchen Cabinet, his one man show and as the pianist with his band, The Jay Rayner Jazz Quartet, which has a new album due out.
In recent columns, he has sung the praises of two Lancashire Life Food & Drink Award winners – the Parkers Arms at Newton-in-Bowland and the White Swan at Fence. ‘It’s clear there is a lot going on in Lancashire at the moment,’ he says. ‘I have friends in the Ribble Valley and the Trough of Bowland so I have an interest in the stuff that’s eaten around there and I’m also interested in how the regions promote themselves.’
This is where he may well have his audience pricking their ears. ‘People use the well worn slogans of regional and seasonal, but just saying it’s local isn’t enough any more – you need to go beyond that. Much of it is about networking to spread the message by being more sophisticated than just shouting “local”.
‘There’s a gastro pub I know in Sussex that has a message board saying “Sourced locally when best.” That’s the right approach – don’t patronise someone producing crap just because they are two miles down the road.’
Having said that, he accepts there is much to admire from the county’s local producers. ‘I’ve been up to Lancashire with The Kitchen Cabinet – we don’t go anywhere unless there are good food stories nearby and Lancashire always has plenty.
‘People in Lancashire might not want to be reminded of this but it was Fergus Henderson who put the Eccles cake on the menu at his St John restaurant in London and reminded the world of the wonderful things that can be found in Lancashire.’
There are two things he won’t be promoting at Holmes Mill. ‘TV programmes like The Great British Menu can give out the message to chefs that food has to look a certain way to be successful. If that’s the case, they are in trouble.’
The second risks inducing a severe attack of hypertension – not a good thing in a food critic. ‘I’m very much against gimmickry,’ he says through gritted teeth. ‘And especially food presented on slates. They should be banned.’
Slates aside, we certainly seem to have the building blocks required to turn Lancashire into a destination for foodies. Food and drink is worth around £734 million to Lancashire’s visitor economy, which has grown by £129 million over the last six years. It’s a sector that supports around 13,000 jobs.
That’s due in no small part to the quality of our chefs. ‘There is the diaspora from a place like Northcote which has trained a generation of chefs who have gone elsewhere to ply their trade and the good news is that there is an increasing feeling you don’t have to go to London to do that,’ he says.
‘One of the messages I want to put across to Lancashire producers is the fact that London has pulled away from the rest of the country economically, which isn’t a good thing, I know. But that is also where you will find an enormous number of customers with money to spend.’
He cites the late Reg Johnson and Goosnargh chicken as a prime example. ‘When you see Goosnargh chicken on a menu in London that really means something. It sends a message. But we mustn’t forget there are several areas of Lancashire where they have money and are prepared to spend it.’
Jay is particularly looking forward to taking a look at Holmes Mill, which has been restored and reinvented in a £10 million programme to create a brewery, bar, restaurant, hotel, gelateria, food hall and leisure facilities.
It’s the brainchild of James Warburton, who owns several successful gastro-pubs and hotels in the region. ‘I know of him and what he’s done and I stayed at Mitton Hall while recording Kitchen Cabinet at Stonyhurst, so I’m interested to find out more about him and the county.’
The Taste Lancashire food and drink conference specifically is for businesses connected to the county’s food industry and tickets are available to purchase via the Marketing Lancashire website - www.marketinglancashire.com.