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Rick Stein’s Food Heroes

Thursday, September 19, 2002 by

As summer slowly, and seductively, turns to autumn and leaves fall down to splash silently on sun-dappled gardens, it is with apposite changing of the season pleasure that we welcome back the imperiously impressive Rick Stein into our sitting rooms. As longer, darker evenings beckon and our baleful thoughts turn to the impending chill of winter, we sit back and joyously watch as our Piscine Colossus wends his merry way through England’s green and pleasant land. Eschewing the confines of his kitchen once more, Rick again embarks on an odyssey to rediscover the best of British produce and, hopefully, inveigle us all to reconsider our fundamental approach to purchasing and using food. Clearly, Rick likes a bit of a challenge (insert your own joke about his love life here).

From the opening montage, complete with bullet point words rolling across our screens (“local”, “regional”, “traditional”, “flavour”, “British”, “discover”, “journey” and “taste”) it is clear that this is the diametric opposite of subliminal messaging. Not quite a metaphorical sledgehammer, Stein lucidly directs us to his mission statement before even uttering a single word. In a homogenised society of supermarket wars and equally homogenous products, then thank God for those who are prepared to question our culinary belief system and shake us from our smug, self-induced torpor.

Filmed during the Foot & Mouth crisis, the programme opened with a handsomely framed shot of his Land Rover driving through the Lake District. Stein immediately identified with the countryside, and those who husband it. Never cloying or twee, he always managed to stay port side of anger without descending into the town/country debate or using any of the usual rhetorical arguments that surround this complex issue. In a debate in which the media and politicians are increasingly happy to simplify and marginalize as pro/anti-hunting, one should never forget that the Labour Government managed to wreak incredible havoc on the countryside by way of their mishandling of the F&M crisis. Still that’s what Governments are for, isn’t it – to bugger up something that they don’t really understand. It’s a tradition, or an old charter etcetera.

Whether it’s conserving fishing stocks or pleading with us to buy local produce, a Stein show always has one eye on the bigger picture. Education is equally as important an aspect of the show as the dishes he serves up. Rather than blather on about the F&M crisis, he adroitly interviewed, firstly, a couple of drovers who eloquently described the aftermath of a cattle-less countryside. This was then poignantly followed up by a swift vox-pop from a farmer who had, that very day, lost her entire herd to the contiguous cull. Viewing for himself the horrendous sight of a JCB transporting carcasses of dead animals into a mass grave, in this sequence alone Rick Stein managed to more than adequately convey the hopelessness and despair of a situation, without resorting to histrionics, clich├ęs or rhetoric. This collusive, fiduciary relationship that Stein effortlessly engenders between himself and the viewer is arguably his greatest talent. To be left wiser after a television programme is, indeed, a blessed thing. This truly is a working example of knowledge management.

Translating this skill to the dishes is handled with consummate ease. I was utterly repulsed by the simple fact expounded by the pig farmer regarding litter sizes of pigs. Whereas he kept his litter size to the natural norm of around a dozen, he told us that a commercial pig farmer would be looking for four to five times as many piglets from the one sow. Stein, in turn, explained patiently that this greatly affected the taste (or should I say lack of it) of pork reared thus. Once again, another piece of food for thought. Respect was the keyword here. Respect for the animal, respect for the environment.

The wild boar stew he served up looked stunning. That he did so according to a Chinese recipe was most enlightening. Quoting the style of Ken Lo (the addition of soy sauce to stew is a wonderful tip), it was heart-warming to watch one master acknowledge another. The highlight of the show, for me, was the serene cooking of a butterfly leg of lamb. Simply and stunningly executed, Stein coolly elucidated how to cut, marinade and barbecue the meat. Explaining the best method for cooking the meat, he managed to barbecue the meat to utter perfection. As the sheep farmer (a man with a worrying – sorry – interpretation of the relationship twixt a man, his wife and his sheep) demonstrated, it’s about understanding your place in your local ecology. This strand of the show is neither belligerent nor repetitious but always stimulating.

Unlike Forever Summer With Nigella, Stein will take time to point out and emphasise which cuts to look for, when to buy certain products. Abstaining from the “you-can-buy-this-down-your-local-supermarket” school of thought, Rick offers up the concept of seasonality for us to consider. He asks us to bear in mind where we come from and what can we buy locally, but never at the altar of fashion or at the expense of tradition. His search for a perfect Lancashire Hotpot was a case in point. The presentation of a perfect Hotpot (a million miles away from the disfigured ramekins served up in The Rovers Return) was complemented with an explanation as to the addition of red cabbage to the long-established classic dish. The guest chef enlightened us that the influx of Asian immigrants to Lancashire had caused the local populace to re-examine this most Lancashire of things, and adapt it to suit the changing times. This was classic Stein (as was his quasi-rant regarding being unable to get a Hotpot elsewhere in Lancashire) good points well made, leaving the viewer thinking.

However, lest this review come across as deification, there are elements of the show that are substandard. For a start, the music is appalling Enya-esque psuedo-ambient drivel (surely, no-one can top Keith Floyd using The Stranglers’ Men in Black theme). Also, Rick has a disquieting tendency to use the choicest, priciest cuts of meat for his dishes. But, then again, he has urged us to get ourselves to a farmers’ market where we can buy quality meats at affordable prices, so this is a somewhat disingenuous criticism.

As I originally said, it is a pleasure to welcome Stein back to the small screen. Where else would you have learned that yeast occurs naturally in apple skins? What other chef would rail against the lack of Hotpots in Lancashire? A little bit of politics, a little bit of geography, a smidgen of macro and microeconomics, a little less conversation and a smattering of beautiful visuals. Throw in the undoubted charisma of a talented man and it adds up to a class show.

Please Sir, can I have more?

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