Archive for January 4th, 2009

The end of the Big British Food Map

Hullo, eyedropper returns! Rested, fresh faced and with some new exciting projects in the offing, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2009, but before I tell you about any of those let’s tarry a while and pick over the still warm carcass of 2008.

Me on the Road!

Me on a single track A road in Northern Scotland

The Big British Food Map

My year was dominated by the big British Food Map project I undertook Channel 4. A seven-month road trip around the whole of Britain that saw me guided to the most interesting food in each region by you, the Great British public (and though my time as narrator and designated driver is over you can still add places). Naturally it would be an understatement to say that it was the trip of a lifetime, and to my knowledge no one has really done a food census of this magnitude before. UKTV Food Heroes comes close, but that’s just centered on producers and farmers. I on the other hand visited everything, including Michelin starred restaurants, fish and chip shops, micro breweries, vineyards, jelly makers, molecular gastronomists, cafes, delis, pubs, farms and lochs.  I wrote a conclusion article for Channel 4 and you can read that here [I’ve seen things…], and watch the videos here.

But I’d like to flesh out that conclusion for you. First off and formost, the project showed me that this country is far more stunning, fun, beautiful and generally brilliant that we ever give it credit for. The UK has some magically places, they’re just tucked away. Secondly, the people I met let me into their businesses, their homes and their lives and I’m indebted to them as the project would have been nothing without them. I saw life at the very sharp end of many small businesses, where cash flow is tight and yet where innovation is high. Where what’s dreamed up over breakfast can be put into production in an afternoon. Their skills, their belief and commitment enrich this land to the better.  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Channel 4 for backing me and commissioning the project, and Ford for sponsoring it and lending me the eco-car.

For much of the time I was given free reign to go where I wished, seek out whoever I thought the most compelling and follow leads and stories as I see fit. That creative and editorial freedom was a real god send. In a sense the project was a new media equivalent of the old Picture Post photo assignments from the 30s, when editor Tom Hopkinson would say to photographers such as Bill Brandt ‘go off and photograph the North’, and they’d return months later with a bag of film and a story. So this is in effect a new media ‘content’ essay.

Another thing that made the project a success (as well as ingratiating me with my interviewees) was that I, for a short while at least, was living in their communities. There was no “I’ve got to be back in London by tonight”. Sometimes I spent hours with them, long after I’d got more than enough content. In this respect the project became much more than a job, it became a way of life. Often we’d share a beer, talk shop, I’d be invited to stay for something to eat, or asked to comment on some new recipe or invention. When you’re a small enterprise involved in any aspect of food production it’s often hard to find the time to stop and take stock. It’s also hard to find someone to talk about your business to.  Everyone I met was willing to talk to me, some were shy granted, but all were rightly proud of what they were doing. Many were flattered, not because I’d turned up, but more often that a member of the public, one of their customers, had recommended them.

Asking the public’s thoughts, tapping into the wisdom of crowds and getting out there and living it are what made this project exciting for me, and I hope for the users too. As I looked over the suggestions it was interesting to see what the people of each region defined as good.  Greater Manchester and bits of the North West for example had a high number of butchers and they obviously take meat seriously. Eating out in Scotland consisted of lots of restaurants contained in hotels, which was interesting. 

Its other key strength was the technology. When I filmed John Wallis in April when his crop was ready he said ‘That Jimmy Docherty was here last week” “when will that go out on telly?” I said. “They told me August.” “Really, well this’ll go out next week” I replied. John’s crop is Cornish Earlies, because of his location on the very tip of Cornwall his crop of spuds are the first up in the UK. Come August everyone else’s are well up and he’s lost his competitive advantage.

Often I’d interview and shoot a video on the Monday, edit in the evening, upload the video to Brightcove and pass the article to C4’s content partner Zone and the whole thing could be live by Wednesday.  Finally because it was just me and a small hand held Canon HD7 camera, the interview soon relaxed, there’s was no lights, no production crew, and it didn’t take up too much of their time. Terra e Terra in Brighton didn’t even know I was coming, yet after a chat I found myself downstairs in the kitchen filming the chef plate up.  Also with a small camera I was able to often get the subject to film me ‘having a go’.  I’ll admit to a certain Generation Game feeling when doing this, but thoroughly enjoyed everything from trying to make scotch eggs to icing cakes to feeding pigs. 

Be carful what you wish for.

Obviously it wasn’t all plain sailing; parts of the trip were difficult. I felt I gave Wales short shrift for example, but then getting content out was difficult.  Also at times it was hard work, three 500 words articles, 36 pictures, daily diary and accompanying image and one or two 3 minute videos a week for 30 weeks meant by the end the creative batteries were running low. From a practical point of few it’s worth remembering that there was just me on this project, no crew, no assistant, no help. I was responsible for organising everything, right down to where to stay, and let me tell you when you don’t know where you’re resting your head that evening it concentrates the mind somewhat. Thankfully I never had to sleep in a car however.

Naturally there was a lot of driving involved, a fair few traffic jams, and getting clamped in Newlyn ment I contributed £80 to their local economy. I tried to keep to the A roads mainly, they’re prettier than the motorway and often you’d spot a sign saying ‘farm shop next left’ and you’d be off on another adventure. It was also at times quite solitary, you’d speak to people face to face but often about food, in the evening it was just yourself for company, that takes a bit of resilience. To counter act this I learnt to throw myself into situations and conversations. My conclusions? A good pub in the late afternoon is the best time to make new friends. In York for example I arrived on the Monday no knowing a soul. By the Friday night I’d made friends with the staff at the Transport museum and was dancing till 3am in a Chinese restaurant that had turned into a disco.

 New skills

 When I began the project I really was mad about the writing, enjoyed the photography, and wasn’t too keen on the video.  Over the course of the seven months those feelings completely changed around. From a writing point of few I’d emptied the tank in terms of creative ways to describe say, farm shops.  The conversation would go like this.  Me: ‘so tell me about the place’. Them: ‘Well it’s all from our farm…’ By the end you’d be praying for a hook, a way in, dying to hear something like ‘Well I used to be an erotic dancer but gave it all up to grow broccoli’.  Photographically it was good to be out shooting again, I shot over 11,000 images, some factual for the articles, some for my own enjoyment, other as reportage.  I’ve concluded that I’m still lousy at landscape photography, people are my thing.  The video work turned out to be the most fun however. In the beginning I imagined myself taking a sort of Nick Broomfield lite documentary approach. The video of John Wallis’ early Cornish potatoes or Jesse Paterson’s smokery barely featured me. By the end I’d added more video diary elements, come out from behind the camera and really began to enjoy the art of presenting and interviewing. Often I’d asked questions I knew the answers to, on behalf of the viewer, and my goal was to come across as enthusiastic amateur and encourage the interviewee to give us the tips, facts and guidance.  In the media today people are always bemoaning the lack of on the job training, well that’s what I was lucky enough to have, and because I was presenting, directing and editing each week I could see what worked and what didn’t.

 “I wish I had your job” was something I heard a lot on the trip.  In one instance I met a lawyer in Newcastle who was deeply unhappy in his job and longed to encourage his passion for food but just couldn’t make the leap. To him and everyone else I who wants to have a food adventure, I say do it.  Not wishing to belittle my talents, but all I really did was talk to people and more importantly listen. That all good journalists do, the only skills you need are a nosey nature and the ability to tell stories, plus a medium to tell them in. I genuinely believe that everyone I met would extend the same time and interest to any one who was interested. If you’re in a restaurant and want a chat with the chef, just ask. If you’re in a deli’s strike up a conversation with the person serving you. We’ve sort of forgotten about the art of shopkeeping in the age of the check-out girl.

Your turn

You don’t have to give up your life for seven months to have mini food adventures, you can pick an area like Suffolk or Somerset or Cumbria, find a restaurant with rooms, a good B&B or cottage and just have a nose round. My great hope for 2009 what with the sinking pound and rising Euro and airport travel hell is that we’ll finally wean ourselves off the love affair with the Continent-is-best idea, perhaps some of you will say au revoir to Provence and arrive derci to Tuscany and rediscover what’s in Britain.  Get in a car and drive for an hour or two and you can be somewhere totally different, have a little explore, and come back 48 hours later with a boot ladened with booty.  Anyone who tells you this country is a culinary hinterland is as ignorant as they are stupid. A quiet food revolution has happened in Britain in the past 10 years, I know because I’ve been lucky enough to have seen it. People are making interesting artisan food again, please, go out and find it.


More on the rest of 2008 and what’s in store for 2009 soon….




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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
January 2009
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