Imagine being able to identify not only where a cheese was made but also the season it was produced simply by the taste, smell and texture. For food guru Bob Farrand, this was one of many specialist skills he learned as a 14-year-old boy working in what would now be known as a delicatessen. Taken under the wing of the proprietor, “Mr Perrott”, the three years he spent working at the shop on Saturdays, evenings and holidays would prove to be some of the most formative of his life.
“It wasn’t known as a delicatessen back then of course; in those days, it would have been known as a ‘high-class provisioner’,” says Bob, who grew up in Shaftesbury, in Dorset, where he has since retired back to with his wife Linda. “But the point is, I was very fortunate to learn a whole host of specialist skills from Mr Perrott – from the fine art of curing and baking hams to dating the cheeses – many of which are sadly now a dying art.
“These days of course, the supermarkets want cheeses to taste the same week-in, week-out. But, back then it was absolutely possible to gauge the time that a Cheddar had been produced. For example, in the spring they would have a rich creamy blast of grassy flavours whereas in the autumn they would have lovely notes of hay and in the winter a more acidic flavour that came from the silage fed to the cows.
“Suffice to say, it was a wonderful education – and it was Mr Perrott who instilled in me my lifetime love of food.”
If Mr Perrott was still around today, he would surely be beaming with pride at all that his young protégée has gone on to achieve. As the founding father of the Guild of Fine Food, Bob is the man behind such high-profile events as the Great Taste Awards, regarded as the Oscars of the British food world, and the World Cheese Awards. He also founded a whole host of well-known publications including the prestigious Fine Food Digest.
Although now retired, having handed over the reins of the business to his son John and daughter-in-law Tortie, he remains a passionate advocate for high-quality locally-produced food – and as vehement as ever in his criticism of the supermarkets.
“I have always felt a great sense of injustice when it comes to the supermarkets,” says Bob. “It was largely thanks to them that people lost their willingness to enjoy seasonality – and it also became incredibly difficult for the small producers to compete. In fact, that was one of the main reasons that we launched our Great Taste Awards – to provide a showcase for the small, independent producers.
“In truth, I had no idea the awards would achieve the levels of success they have done, but I think it’s mainly because we refused to compromise in our vision. Because we only charge a nominal fee to enter, they are truly open to everyone – so even the tiniest business is in with a chance. And even for those who don’t receive a star, we always provide helpful feedback from our panel of independent judges.”
While he accepts that things have improved for local producers over recent years – thanks in part to organisations such as Local Food Britain championing their corner – he still feels there’s a long way to go in redressing the balance. For example, he gets particularly frustrated at the wording used by supermarkets in their marketing.
“I get so angry when I see them market their bacon as ‘bred in the open-air’ – because, in reality, whilst the animals may have been bred to sows in the open-air, they will very quickly have been shipped off to indoor barns where they will spend most of their short lives. This makes it impossible for smaller farmers, who genuinely want to improve their animal welfare, to compete.
“It’s the same with phrases such as ‘farm fresh’ and ‘our family butcher’ – which are totally meaningless. It shouldn’t be allowed.”
Considering the future of British food in general, he remains cautiously optimistic that things are at least heading in the right direction. He is also hopeful that Brexit might help to improve things for independent producers.
“If it actually happens, it is going to bring the focus very much onto our home-grown food, as importing from abroad is likely to become much more expensive,” says Bob. “It could also be an opportunity to put right some of the things that have gone wrong in British food.
“For example, back in the war years, when all the countries were trying to figure out how to feed their populations, other places such as France, Spain and Italy took the decision to do this by trying to make regions and even villages self-sufficient. However, here in Britain, a more industrial approach was taken with much bigger farms serving much wider areas. Perhaps with the advent of Brexit, we will see a much greater emphasis on local again.”
All of which brings us back nicely to Mr Perrott and his own passion for the finest local produce. Who knows, perhaps we will yet see the days when, once again, a cheese can be identified by the season.
Tags: food and drink
Great Taste Awards