Now, especially as the Brexit deadline looms at the end of March, is an important time to really embrace British food, says the chef, admitting this was one of the “fundamental reasons” for wanting to do the book and series in the first place.
“I’m a farmer, and this is an amazing country we live in. There are some amazing people producing some amazing food – whether they cook it, serve it, make it, or brew it,” Martin enthuses.
Like a love letter to Britain and its food, James Martin’s Great British Adventure takes viewers and home cooks on a journey the entire length and breadth of the land – from the Isle of Wight for feta and halloumi and Wales for the beef and lamb, to Northern Island for langoustines and Scotland for “the best fruit in the world”, along with many other gems in-between.
“It was one hell of a road trip,” Martin says. “I’ve always wanted to travel but I spent 10 years on Saturday Kitchen in the studio. I was doing home comforts that were all based here, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I wondered what it would be like, to venture out.”
He did venture out – and the result is a showcase of the best of the best; from cooking with Michelin star chefs and some of Martin’s personal food heroes – including Clare Smyth, Sat Bains and Michel Roux Snr (“I pulled my black book of chefs out”), to uncovering little known food producers and suppliers in rural locations.
It’s these people Martin is most passionate about: “The lamb farmer working in -7C up in Scotland, getting up at 5am in the morning, isn’t doing it for a new Range Rover every year – he’s doing it because he’s the seventh generation of the family, and we need to keep supporting that. If nobody shouts about it and we just travel all over the world all the time, that’s not good.”
He’s almost overflowing with stories of fascinating people and underrated produce from his exploration of the British Isles. There’s the vinegar producer in the Orkneys who set up his business in his dad’s garage, a breed of acorn-fed hairy pig called Mangalitsa in the New Forest – and another, Middle White, farmed on the Wales-Gloucestershire border. “It’s the best pork you’ll ever taste, and used to be really famous in the Thirties but now we all want pigs to look like they’ve done 100-metre hurdles, with no fat on them, but that’s where the flavour is,” says Martin.
“There are 200 Middle White sows in the world and this guy has got 100 of them – they’re rarer than the king panda” – but only because we don’t buy their meat. “People are creatures of habit,” Martin adds.
Plus, we import a lot of meat from Europe. Whatever your stance, a departure from the EU will have some bearing on this, and the British food industry in general. “There are positive and negatives,” Martin says. “Fishermen hopefully should be better off because they’ll stop exporting Dover sole and langoustine. But the offset of that is that the floodgates [of import trade] will open to New Zealand and, if we don’t sort out this bloody mess, it will decimate the lamb industry overnight.
“Everyone knows about Welsh lamb, but people always want cheaper and cheaper food – New Zealand can produce masses of it and we can’t compete against them.”