Right now, none of us is able to explore the far reaches of our own town, let alone the far reaches of the UK – however much we might want to.
By a happy accident of timing though, we’ll get to watch chef James Martin do just that. Jealousy is guaranteed – but if we can’t escape to the huge, sandy shores of Northumberland, or the rugged Northern Irish coast ourselves, at least we can sit in front of the telly and soak up the digitised, Technicolor imagery of them, and imagine ourselves sat on a rocky outcrop, cooking up a plateful of mussels with Martin.
The restaurateur and Saturday morning telly chef’s latest series and accompanying cookbook, James Martin’s Islands To Highlands, sees him track up and down the UK, from the microclimates of the Channel Islands (for Jersey Royal potato season) to the game-filled landscapes of Scotland.
“We do take it for granted,” says Martin, 47, speaking several weeks before the coronavirus pandemic broke. “I don’t think we appreciate what’s on our doorstep.”
During a nine-month spell of travelling, he and his crew got to experience sights you just might not expect of Britain; like the Isles of Scilly – “20 miles off the coast of Cornwall but the beaches are the colour of chalk, it’s just incredible” – and the astounding Shetland archipelago.
“Shetland is like being born with new eyes, it sounds really weird, but the colours, the clarity of what you see is surprising,” says Martin, trying to grasp the words to do it justice. “There’s no pollution there for sure, but it’s the clarity of everything, you do feel as though you’ve been reborn with new eyes – that’s all I can describe it as.”
They also visit Puffin Island off the coast of Newcastle – “[There’s] over a quarter of a million puffins breeding on this island, and three quarters of a million seabirds – it’s bl**dy unbelievable seeing that” – and swim with seals off Scilly.
Martin admits to having felt a little “trepidation at first” when faced with the slick, hulking creatures. “You don’t realise how big seals are – there was a couple of hundred where we were swimming, and they come right up to you,” he remembers. “It’s fantastic, it’s one of those life-changing things you feel very privileged to do – to have even seen.”
Then there were the food producers he encountered along the way. Martin learnt about salted coley, called piltock, in Shetland (he really loved Shetland, can you tell?) used in fish cakes called ‘hairy tatties’: “The coley takes on the texture of hair, it’s quite cool.”
While in Northern Ireland he met kelp farmers on Rathlin Island, and a 14-year-old who’s one of the few producers of wasabi outside Japan, with help from his scientist dad. “Taste-wise, it’s amazing,” buzzes Martin. “You can buy it online and it all comes from this kid who had this idea, and literally produces it in his back garden. Brilliant.”
While Martin – a proper “farmer’s lad” who gets “a bit freaked out if I’m in a city for more than a couple of days” – is animated when talking about the landscapes, wildlife and producers he discovered, there’s a weariness that steals over him when talking about food culture and shopping habits in the UK (and this was before people began stockpiling).
“To fully understand food, you’ve got to appreciate how difficult it is to produce, and where it’s from, and then you’ll respect it a lot more, and respect the people who produce it,” he explains fervently. He also considers artisan farmer’s markets “gimmicky” and “a tourist attraction” when we ought to be buying from everyday markets like they do in Europe, or at least from local fishmongers, butchers and grocers.
Choice is another problem. “We don’t eat a variety, we eat too much convenience food, without a shadow of a doubt, but we don’t have the variety of what we should have,” says Martin. “We still get fobbed off with the same stuff.”
You have to demand different ingredients if you want to eat them he says, and while things are changing (“20 years ago, we wouldn’t have had galangal!”) there’s still much to be done. For instance, we eat a lot of cod, but what happens to the cod cheeks? “You’ve got to ask for them!”
Cost is an issue too. “We have this obsession with buying, dare I say it, cheaper and cheaper food,” says Martin, and unlike America and Europe, where produce is largely celebrated and beautifully displayed, “everything here is laid out on bloody plastic for convenience, and I don’t understand why. It’s not showing off the ingredients at their best, it’s just price sensitive and ease of purchase.”
He says it’s particularly frustrating when the produce in and around the UK really is spectacular, but so much is shipped abroad, like Dover sole (90% of sole fished in Hastings is shipped abroad), langoustines (98% sent elsewhere) and the eels hauled up at Loch Neagh. “All of those get exported to Holland – all of them! And it’s weird, you’ll be staying in northern Europe on your holiday and think, ‘Oh I’ll try this’, not realising it’s from right on your doorstep.”
Martin wants us to adopt that holiday feeling on a more daily basis, and approach dinner as a pleasure, not a financial corner to cut. “It’s one of the true enjoyments of life, that we all have to eat, all of us,” he says, noting how in France it’s the norm “to sit and enjoy a meal, have a conversation, eat bread and wine. When does that happen in the UK? It’s normally sat watching TV.”
Perhaps now we’re all stuck inside, we might spend more time around the dining table together instead. And if so, we can mainline Martin’s travels, and his feeling that “food is my life, I can’t see why people wouldn’t enjoy it.”
James Martin’s Islands To Highlands by James Martin, photography by Peter Cassidy, is published by Quadrille.
Wise Living Magazine may receive a small commission to help support the running of this site from purchases made from links on this page. Affiliate links do not influence our editorial or articles published by Wise Living.