Sometimes, just sometimes, British food takes a bit of a beating. As I type this, I'm picturing a manicured fleet of whippet-thin Italians casually snaffling that last piece of Parma ham, or an elegant troop of beautiful French ladies toying winsomely with plateful of pastel macaroons; every so often one of these European visions splutters a little at the thought of what we Brits might currently be eating - eels, probably, with chips. In a pie. Between two pieces of bread, with gravy.
This is all a patent fallacy of course. British food is amazing, and here in Greater Manchester we are particularly blessed with great produce, made with dedication and enthusiasm by people who actually care. How fortunate then, that on Monday I found myself on a barge (my second in three days) with a number of these very people - local producers gathered together to showcase their products and network with potential buyers as part of the Visit Manchester "Meet the Producers" event. The whole event was organised by food dynamo Deanna Thomas, a passionate believer in high-quality, local, seasonal produce; she is also inordinately fond of bringing like-minded people together (I'm thinking of renaming her Cilla and buying her a hat) - hence the event, which I'm pretty sure took place on board a barge so that I couldn't execute a smash and grab with all the choicest food items. Over the course of a gloriously sunny two hours, we heard from and sampled produce from each of the following...presented here in order of being grilled by Deanna, waving a microphone.
1. Great North Pie Co. I wrote about Neil Broomfield and his award-winning pies after Mr Liz hoovered up one of the Lancashire cheese and onion variety at the Whim Wham Cafe a few weeks ago; it reappeared here, along with a deliciously pink goat's cheese, beetroot, red pepper and hazelnut offering. Neil will cater for private events, and also hauls his tasty wares round a number of farmer's markets (full list on the website) - we bought some at the Cheadle Maker's Market recently and Mr Liz had eaten one before we'd even made it back to the car.
2. Mrs Love-itts. This lovely Rochdale-based business also makes pies, but had brought along some of their Scotch eggs for us to try. They make them in pretty much every flavour you can imagine - I sampled the caramelised onion, the hot chilli and Stilton variants, and all were sublime - firm, quality, well-seasoned pork meat packed with flavour. They also have great local names - The Curry Mile is the madras version, and The Smithfield is the vegetarian version, made with couscous. You can find them at 24 North Parade, Newhey, Rochdale OL16 3RD; tel. 01706 849852.
3. Manchester Veg People. This enterprising co-operative of Greater Manchester organic growers and restaurants works together to provide fresh, seasonal food at prices that reflect actual, fair costs of production. Alan Creedon, who essentially acts as an agent for local growers, was our boat representative - it was his birthday, and we celebrated it by toasting him enthusiastically and then nicking all his beetroot.
4. Falshaw's Farm Shop. Located on Nabbs Farm in Bury, this fabulous shop-cum-cafe has its own on-site butcher using only the beef and lamb from their own farm. Sadly for the greedy barge-goers, their speciality is their ice-cream, made on the premises using milk from their own cows...and not remotely suitable for travelling long distances on such an unseasonably warm Manchester day.
5. Irwell Brewery. Now, the way to make yourself instantly popular on a barge trip is to be the one who brings the beer, and Peter Booth from Irwell Brewery was no exception. Based in Ramsbottom, the brewery is behind the new twice-yearly local beer festival - the next is in October in aid of Mountain Rescue - and currently refuses to sell to supermarkets because they are not willing to offer even cost price; you can, however, catch their beers at various Greater Manchester pubs, including The Mark Addy. I clanked my way off the boat with a handbag containing an illicit bottle of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" India Pale Ale, which a delighted Mr Liz proclaimed "deliciously light and pleasantly hoppy" (he went on to say "you are the BEST WIFE IN THE WORLD", although this part did technically remain unspoken).
6. Chocolate Cafe. Another booming Ramsbottom independent business, the Chocolate Cafe has deservedly built a devoted following, and is the current holder of the Manchester Food and Drink Awards title of "Best Coffee Shop or Casual Dining Venue". They also sell their exquisite chocolate products via mail order - or, you can simply contrive to sit next to Paul Morris and his plateful of amazing truffles on board a barge at some point.
7. Bury Black Pudding Company. Well, I couldn't really pretend not to have tried this, what with Mr Liz sending me to Bury Market to pick some up at every possible opportunity. I used to think I didn't like black pudding, but this is the real deal, and it's delicious; Managing Director Debbie Pierce also claims that it is healthy (being all-natural, and full of iron), and whether this is true or not, Mr Liz must NEVER BE TOLD, as he will begin asking for it EVERY DAY, particularly if he believes he has the full force of medical evidence on his side.
8. Bradley's Bakery. Linking seamlessly into our next producer, Mark Bradley had brought along two of his award-winning pies, including the Pork and Bury Black Pudding seen here. Even nicer was the Steak and Cow Heel Pie, inspired by Robert Owen Brown's menu at The Mark Addy and prompting tears of joy and reminiscence in Mr Liz when I took one home for him - he said it reminded him of Wigan, in the 70s, in a good way. It also just might be the nicest pie I've ever had, and this coming from someone who normally leaves half the pastry is quite a compliment. They are based in Ashton but - and again, Mr Liz MUST NOT KNOW - will actually do overnight pie delivery, by courier, because they understand that when you need pie, you need it quick.
9. Of Crust and Crumb. This small Artisan bakery, run by Paulina and Peter, is currently on the move, but their lovingly crafted loaves, rolls, baguettes and focaccia can be found at a number of stockists and farmer's markets which are listed on their website. Half a seeded loaf can also currently be found in my bread bin, but it's delicious, and you're not having it.
10. Oliviccio. Yes, yes, yes, I know - olives are not traditionally native to Greater Manchester. Oliviccio, based in Saddleworth, import the finest fruit from Greece, but then use local herbs and garlic to dress and stuff the olives. I sampled as many of these as I could before Carl and Nikki chased me off with a stick, and found my favourite to be the chilli and garlic - fresh firm olives in a marinade with real bite. You can find the whole product list on the website, along with the farmer's markets they attend; they can also deliver in the Saddleworth area.
11. And last but not least, an honorable mention for Altrincham's Burt's Blue Cheese - Claire couldn't attend, but very kindly sent three of her beautiful semi-soft blue cheeses for us to eat in her absence. Which I did.
And yes, you've interpreted the list correctly - I had essentially been allowed to board a vessel filled with beer, black pudding, pies and Scotch eggs; I'm pretty sure something similar would feature in Mr Liz's last supper. And just to cap it all, splendid Mark Addy chef Robert Owen Brown had come in on his day off to man the kitchen - purely because he believes in local produce.
It's not an easy time for any business at the moment, let alone the small independent producers, but every single one of the lovely people I met today deserves their growing reputation and success. And those imaginary Italians? They'd choke on their Aperol spritzes if they heard even HALF of the conversation that took place outside the Addy later that afternoon regarding BADGER ham...perhaps that's one food item that we won't be seeing aboard a barge any time soon.