Northern Stars supper club. Pt.2: local food for local people

(This is the second article on our Northern Stars supper club… you can check out part one here)

When we had to name our team for the recent ‘A Question of Taste’ TV show, I rather glibly chose Northern Stars… it chimed with our team’s all-northern roots, and echoed North Star Deli’s title as the genesis of our team. When we hatched plans for our recent supper club after the show, that name morphed to became a genuine manifesto for the evening. I was keen to make the JoinUs4Supper evening a showcase for some of our favourite local food stars and producers… the products I’ve known and loved for sometime… and those which I take down to Miss South in London, to bring a taste of the Pennines to the big city.

The combination for the night of farmer, chef and foodie gave us a chance to share some of these tastes with friends and fellow foodies in Manchester, and now we can share them with you too.

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Firstly, Porcus. SJ Clegg from Porcus appeared on the show (uncharacteristically quiet, as noted by many who know her and her bonhomie in person) and she gave an well-received introductory talk for her brilliant pork on the night. Regular readers will have spotted a lot of references to their products on this blog: having tasted their superb pork, I now don’t buy any other kind. Once bitten, forever smitten… though I’m not sure whether my loyalty derives most from from for the fantastic rare breed flavours of their fresh meat and glorious fat (the best crackling you’ll ever have); the outstanding home-produced bacon, pies and sausages;  or the clear conscience which comes from knowing the pigs are raised to extremely high welfare standards, just up the road.

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Building the business slowly and sustainably, they’re selling through selected local butchers and market traders, direct to restaurants, and taking their hog roasts on the road. Almost everyone I know who’s sampled their products thinks it’s amongst the best pork they’ve ever had. That might sound like a big claim, but there’s a huge gulf between the quality and taste of factory-farmed vs. high welfare free range or organic pork, at every stage from pigpen to plate. Unfortunately it’s perhaps harder to source truly decent pork products than almost any other kind of meat in the UK. Allow me a couple of seconds on my soapbox here…

The vast majority of pork eaten in the UK is industrially-produced, either in large production units here, or often from Denmark, the Netherlands or Poland, where health, hygiene and welfare standards can troublingly be even more lax. One of the greatest scams going is that pork products can be labelled ‘British’, even when they’ve only been processed in this country: it’s an insult to British consumer and pig farmers alike. Thankfully, there is an alternative – there are many dedicated smaller producers trying to maintain and revive high standards of pig husbandry, and good campaigns to highlight this issue – but they’re struggling against a tide of cut price industrial imports. So next time you pick up a packet of cheap bacon or chops from the supermarket, look and think hard about the price (and the provenance). As they say, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Incredible Edible Todmorden organised an open day at the Porcus farm, a wonderful sixteenth century barn on the moors high about Tod, on the Saturday before the supper club. This timely event gave a wide public audience the chance to be inspired, educated and entertained in equal measure: we watched sausages being made, playful porkers frolicking in their free range pens, and heard about the occasional escapee. There’s a great write up about this event on Culture Vulture, giving a deeper insight into many of the issues outlined above. It’s rare to see the connection between live animals and their final produce made so explicit: in this age of modern, convenient and often sanitised food, it’s refreshing to be reminded of what, how and where our foodstuffs really are from. Porcus take their animal welfare very seriously, and the audience was incredibly engaged and interested hearing what motivated SJ, Nat  & Dan to set up their business. Personalising the provenance of meat doesn’t have to be off-putting, in fact it’s quite the opposite: most of the visitors left licking their lips after tasting the sausages they’d just made, and clutching purchases of pork, bacon and sausages to take home with them.

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For our supper club SJ selected a fine Tamworth gilt, eight months old and weighing about 60kg, older (and therefore with more flavour and better developed meat than most pork in this country). The pig was taken to be dispatched at a small family-run local abattoir, only four miles from the farm. Pigs are canny, highly-aware animals, so sparing them the disruption, confusion and trauma of a long journey is critical. It’s equally important for their mental wellbeing as is for the quality of their meat. Stressed animals release chemicals when being slaughtered, which affects the appearance and taste of the flesh, so keeping them relaxed and dispatching them quickly and quietly is crucial. If you’ve ever seen that petrol-like sheen on supermarket-bought pork, that’s stressed meat (and probably a cocktail of antibiotics and other nasties) and it tastes as bad as it looks. A million miles away from the world of the happy Tamworth and Saddlebacks on a patch of moorland deep in the Pennines.

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Only a couple of miles away, on the other side of the valley at East Lee, lies Pextenement organic farm. Here too, welfare and natural balance is key to the quality and success of their products. The farm’s dairy herd produces wonderful organic milk, and they also supply superb rose veal to local outlets. That’s not only a great product in its own right, but a welcome alternative to the more common practice of slaughtering young male calves as they can’t be used as milkers. It’s brilliant to see rose veal is gaining popularity again, allowing consumers the chance to enjoy this undervalued meat.

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However, in the last couple of years Pextenement farm has become better known as the home of Todmorden’s first cheese makers. The Pextenement Cheese Company slowly expanding their range to include cream, hard and blue cheeses, as well as the great coulommiers we featured on the night, Pexommiers. I’ve written before about this great camembert-type cheese, which gained a Silver at the British Cheese Awards in 2011, and I’ve tend to ferry Pexommiers to London whenever I visit Miss South. The good news for Londoners as you can now buy Pexommier from Good Taste Food and Drink in Crystal Palace, or online direct from the dairy. They’re slowly expanding their range of outlets across the north too, with The Cheese Place in Prestwich being the first in Manchester, and their small and mid-sized Pexommiers have been turning up in restaurants in Yorkshire and Lancashire recently. Their cheese is definitely on a roll…

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I first met Carl Warburton from Pextenement around the time the first cheese were launched at Hartley’s Crumbly Cheese stall in Tod market in 2008, but I’d never visited the dairy to see behind the scenes. Lucky for me I was able to have a tour behind the scenes when I went to collect the mini Pexommiers (or ‘Toddlers’) . He and his colleague James were in mid-shift, turning dozens of young soft cheeses, and they explained the process as the slightly sweet. Carl’s put a photo gallery showing the production of the mini Pexommiers on Flickr, and Gerry Danby’s Pause for Food blog has a really good in-depth article about the company and their cheeses.

Even before I picked up pork and dairy goodies from the hilltops I’d been down to Todmorden Market to pick up some other fresh local specialities. Hazelwood’s greengrocer stall on the outdoor market always has a wide range of fruit and veg, including a great selection of mushrooms, fresh herbs, and seasonal veg grown in the North West. I got down to the stall early on Wednesday morning, just after a fresh delivery of Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb had arrived direct from Oldroyds in the Rhubarb Triangle between Leeds, Morley and Wakefield. One of a small number of Yorkshire producers still forcing rhubarb, Janet Oldroyd Hulme has done perhaps more than anyone to reverse the fortunes of this wonderful Northern speciality. I’d not cooked the pastel shades of Yorkshire forced rhubarb until I moved to the White Rose county, and I immediately fell for its delicate charms. Despite this I’ve still not made it to theWakefield Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb though, which attracted record numbers last month. I’ll try not to collaborate on a supper club at the same time next year!

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Next to Bill’s stall, Christine and Colin sell more regional delights, including Leagram’s Organic Lancashire cheeses, a huge range of locally-produced eggs (I buy my free range hen and duck eggs here every week) and a great selection of pork and beef products, including Porcus’s sausages and bacon. You can have a closer peek at these stalls, together with the Porcus hog roast, in this 360° panoramic photo of the market. However I was there to pick up a haul of the Lancashire Black Puddings we were using alongside our own creations, as well as a few of the veggie V Puds. It’s rare for me not to have a link or two of Andrew Holt’s black puds in the fridge: another essential regional delicacy.

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Finally, another vital ingredient comes exclusively from Todmorden: in this case a cracking 8.8% Vintage Oat Stout from Barearts. Brewed and sold exclusively in Todmorden, no visit to Tod is complete without a drink in the magenta-hued Barearts Gallery and Beer Shop. Trevor Cook brews an ambitious and accomplished range of craft beers, which are only available direct from their beer shop or website. It’s well worth a visit. The beers often pack a punch but deliver fully on flavour too: most beers are triple fermented, bottle conditioned and often well hopped with a range of heritage varieties. Trevor and his brewer Andrew have been unafraid to experiment, brewing rare speciality craft beer recipes and adding an idiosyncratic and often brilliant take on more established classics. Over time the cellar’s built up an impressive selection of beers from light ales and bitters to rich stouts and barley wines, and now they’re selling many of the older classic as vintages. Laid down for months or even years, these strong beers and ales offer complex, confident and wondrous flavours which really benefit from age. I’ve stashed a few dusty bottles in my own cellar, but tend to drop in to stock up on the latest offerings when I can.

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Having enjoyed their hospitality and beers for years, I can highly recommend sampling from their extensive range of bottles in the aforementioned Gallery and Beer Shop in Todmorden. Trev’s wife, Kathryn Mernagh Cook, is an artist whose work is dedicated to the nude, and is exhibited extensively on the gallery walls. They also host a regular range of musical events and beer samplings in this, the only licensed nude art gallery in the country. Definitely another set of Northern Stars…

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