Earlier this month I spent 10 days in England, visiting friends from grad school in London, Hove (near Brighton), and Diss (near Norwich). I was there for fun, but it was impossible not to see with Ethicurean eyes just how far ahead of America the UK is when it comes to chewing the right thing. Here's the first in a series of post(card)s about SOLE food stories I stumbled across while on vacation.
I was on my way to eat lunch at St. Johns in Farringdon (another postcard to come) when my eye caught the word "FARM" repeated on a cafe's signage. Much like Carrie Bradshaw transfixed by the words "shoe sale," I was drawn inexorably across Cowcross Street.
Inside, I found rustic crates full of crisps (potato chips to us Yanks) purporting to be made with English potatoes and no artificial ingredients, and refrigerator cases full of sandwiches like Dorset Farm Ham & Keens Mature Cheddar with Gem and Hawkshead Green Tomato Chutney on a Flourish Granary Loaf, salads and soups with similarly lengthy farm-y pedigrees, and even juices proclaiming they were made from English apples. There were large blown-up photos of a cute longhaired pig farmer and other producers. The coffee was fair trade.
Alas, although I picked up all the literature, I can't tell you much about FARM other than what I learned from the café's literature and website, FarmCollective.com, for the shop is a brand-new venture that had opened mere days before I stumbled on it.
Nothing's been written about it yet that I can find. The website says the café is committed to serving seasonal, sustainable food sourced from UK farms. The founders, Dom and Craig — no last names given, nor discoverable on the Web — seem like an earnest pair, committed to bringing traceability to the quick-and-convenient lunch market. Says Craig on the website:
It's simple, consumers are changing, no longer passive in their choices, no longer wanting to be compromised by quality or ethics and this is especially so in their decisions around food and nutrition. The Holy Grail for brands is to allow consumers to own and involve themselves with the things they consume and choose to have in their life – think back to the local butcher, baker, milkman; bygone days' maybe but these institutions acted as social glue, trusted, respected, honest and real. To create a slice of this in a modern day World not only puts a fire in my belly as a business but fuels me emotionally.
All of FARM's food, both the prepackaged and the hot specials, is supposedly made on site, sourced from small English farms that meet the Farm Collective's Provenance Charter, which is heavy on sincerity and light on specifics. The offerings looked pretty tasty, and at least according to the bald office worker eating in the bay window, the Dartmouth Smokehouse Kiln Roasted Salmon with Potato Salad, Cucumber, and Mixed Leaves was. (See menu.)
The Farm Collective's founders are clearly hoping to tap into the enormous market in England for what are known as "ready meals" — the prepackaged sandwiches, salads, curries, stir fries, and the like that one can find at Marks & Spencer, Pret a Porter, and any number of other shops on every corner and train station. There are definitely issues with these meals, which are just a gourmet version of fast food, frequently made with free-range eggs and organic greens; most are still higher in salt and fat than home-cooked versions. They appear to be here to stay: The English spent £1.6 billion on ready meals in 2005 and ate nearly half of all those consumed in Europe.
So a would-be chain devoted to making such meals, plus a few daily hot specials, from locally sourced, seasonal ingredients is likely to be a surefire hit in this country, where the average citizen can actually define "carbon footprint," instead of thinking it's a new Nike offering. Hypothetically, its success could really give a boost to some small farms.