Knives (and forks) out
From oysters cultivated in sewage-tainted waters to the most expensive lamb in the country, these were the dishes that were killing it in 2022!
Chosen by our food critic
1. Gigot d’Agneau, or Lamb Vauxhall Nova
One of my most memorable gastronomic experiences in 2022 was lamb. But this was no ordinary lamb. Reared on a West Country farm by a single farmer who, in the past few years, has lost not only the seasonal workers on whom he relied but also the EU subsidies that compensated for the low prices he typically got at market for his produce, it was revelatory. With a UK system to replace the EU subsidies still outstanding, and as inflation drove veterinary costs skyward, this year Terry Wellcombe’s flock of animals was reduced to a mere handful of creatures, which he duly nurtured by hand as he considered financial ruin.
Yet a diet of the greenest grass and the attentive animal husbandry that is only made possible by stress-related insomnia has resulted in meat unparalleled in its sweetness; herby and creamy, the perfect foil for the rosemary and garlic which studded the leg of lamb I roasted at a low temperature and served with a 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape.
And, while the cost of production has certainly increased, Terry is at long last able to charge a decent sum for his lamb, which provides some financial relief! A leg of this superlative meat commands the same price as a second-hand family hatchback, so it’s not to be sniffed at. But it is most certainly worth it, and Terry’s experience points to a possible future for sustainable and affordable farming in the UK, post-Brexit! Yay!
2. Granola payola
Not everything I ate this year was ‘expensive', by any means.
Music industry stalwart Miles Thunder’s arts and crafts haybarn on his Manley Cotswold estate doesn’t double as a recording studio – he has put his former life of rock and roll behind for a different type of rolling: oats!
Yes, these days, Miles is all about granola. He grows many of the grains on his Cotswold farm, importing only the ingredients that he or his team of 12 assistants cannot grow onsite. After careful roasting and maturing, he serves it to his bed and breakfast guests with freshly churned milk from his herd of Friesians — or oat milk for the lactose-free.
Sustainability is important to Miles: when I ate there, the toasty nuts and oats I had for breakfast were accompanied by a simple topping of ruby loganberries he had picked by hand on a recent salmon fishing trip to Iceland, flown in on a private jet to maintain ‘just-picked’ freshness. Breakfast was followed by a yoga session hosted by Miles’ glamorous wife, Tilly, who also offers ‘touch the grass’ workshops in a specially cultivated meadow in one of the family’s 50 acres of farmland — ideal for stressed-out guests tied to their smartphones.
Rooms at Manley start at £500, including bed and breakfast. Yoga and other wellbeing treatments at additional cost.
3. Mangos in the Midlands
2022 was a bad year for many fruit crops in the UK due to the heatwave. But while berries shrivelled and higher temperatures became, you know, bad for the planet (sad emoji), I discovered this year they have at least brought one unexpected benefit that Greta should know about: it is now possible to grow mango, guava and pineapple in the UK!
On a nondescript industrial estate in Nuneaton, 24-year-old Nate Winglory is doing just that. Having studied archaeology at university, he “turned down a career digging for gold, to actually grow some.” He chose his site for the wealth of abandoned tarmac that surrounds the former umbrella factory, which he raised to the ground over one weekend. The concrete aprons and many cement roadblocks around the site heat the microclimate on this industrial wasteland by up to 5 degrees in summer, which means tropical fruits are right at home in Warwickshire.
His Alfonso mangoes are so sweet and fragrant you could close your eyes and imagine you were in South America if it weren’t for the sound of Magic FM on the body repair shop radio over the road. And, while his plants are very thirsty, as each British summer becomes the hottest year on record Nate believes climactic conditions will soon be suitable for growing agave, a plant found in Mexican deserts. Nate has ambitious plans to make Mezcal, in due course, cut with limes from the same site.
4. Just like honey
Veteran rock star Gary Raid moved into his West Sussex Tudor manor house, Badsley Constant, five years ago. The house is mentioned in the Domesday book (“…and so am I!” quips Gary), and it has one of the oldest orchards in the country.
Having discovered dilapidated beehives beneath the apple tree branches, Gary employed bee expert Benedict Smith-Hive to reintroduce bees, giving him free rein to get the hives buzzing again. A long-time lover of honey, Gary was introduced to what he calls “nature’s gold” by Mick Jagger, as a way of soothing pre-gig vocal chords.
Gary restricts his involvement in apiculture to playing a 12-string acoustic guitar (used on five of his best-selling albums) to his bees every evening in the summer. He believes this provides “sonic nourishment” and claims the ballads result in more mellow honey, while the punchier numbers performed by Gary and his full band at Hivefest, an intimate festival he holds each summer in the grounds of his house, make for an almost peppery honey instead.
Tasting the unctuous prize, it’s hard to disagree. A tagine of chicken, tomatoes and Gary’s honey, cooked by his son-in-law, Wilf — chef and owner at two-star Stoke Newington ‘back to basics’ restaurant, ‘CAFF’ – was rich and sweet, without being cloying. There’s certainly a real buzz about Gary’s honey, and I’m not talking about tinnitus!
5. Fruits de la Merde
My gastronomic high point of 2022, however, involved shellfish. Earlier this year, I visited an oyster farm on the south coast of England at the invitation of ‘John’, who wished to remain anonymous for reasons that will become clear.
A former merchant banker, John’s hopes for a satisfying second career in sustainable shellfish production took a wrong turn when his oyster beds became overwhelmed by sewage as a result of planned yet perfectly legal outflows undertaken by the local water company. Frustrated at being unable to sell his oysters to local restauranteurs only too familiar with the sewage problem faced on the coast, in exasperation, a drunken John one night tried a few of his oysters from different parts of the bed, situated at various distances from the source of the sewage outflow.
He noticed that his oysters developed a particular, though not unpleasant, tang from the effluent that now surrounds them. After much experimentation and some degree of gastrointestinal discomfort, he found the perfect place in his bed; an area where the oysters had gained a sufficiently gamey flavour from the sewage but weren’t riddled with Norovirus, a nasty bacteria commonly found in effluent.
John compares his oysters with the Japanese delicacy, fugu, the delicate flesh of which may also include a lethal poison. Certainly, eating his ‘prairie oysters’ brings the risk of dangerous health complications from Norovirus, which adds a certain frisson as the briney flesh of each bivalve slides down your throat! But as they taste like a particularly salty, well-hung Snipe, and feature a nose of sideboard kedgeree with an aftertaste of TCP (or 10-year Laphroaig), John’s oysters were a definite highlight of the year.
Here’s to 2023!