On land and sea, there’s a whole wealth of produce awaiting us

Patrick Wilkin, from Swallow Fish of Seahouses, inside the traditional smokehouse.
Patrick Wilkin, from Swallow Fish of Seahouses, inside the traditional smokehouse.
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In an era of horsemeat scandals and a drive to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, why do we still transport food from Africa and Argentina and ignore what’s on our doorstep?

Northumberland and the north of the county in particular offer a wealth of produce from meat and fish to fruit and vegetables.

Fishing aboard Guide Me, skippered by Alan Dawson.

Fishing aboard Guide Me, skippered by Alan Dawson.

This autumn, Visit Northumberland is celebrating the diverse culinary offer with a Taste of Northumberland campaign, promoting the area as a foodie destination for visitors.

But as locals we have the opportunity to eat and drink local produce all year round.

If you are concerned about where your meat comes from or what might be in it, you need look no further than game, which is available from a number of estates.

The terrain in and around Alnwick is well suited to a wide variety of game species and Northumberland Estates’ gamekeepers are devoted to managing a habitat of more than 28,000 acres, which is home to pheasant, red leg partridge, wild grey partridge, grouse, wildfowl and deer.

Emma Whittingham, author of Game On Northumberland, and Garry Whitfield, Northumberland Estates head gamekeeper.

Emma Whittingham, author of Game On Northumberland, and Garry Whitfield, Northumberland Estates head gamekeeper.

And as Estates’ head gamekeeper Garry Whitfield, whose ancestors have been keepers going back around 300 years, attests, ‘You can’t get anything more natural than game’.

Game offers perhaps two issues to those unfamiliar with it and the first is to do with the concept of hunting and shooting game.

But as Garry explains, the gamekeepers’ role at Hulne Park is as much about conservation and sustainability as anything else.

At this time of year, the birds will eat natural food, although assistance is given to them over the winter months.

However, if estates such as these aren’t managed, all you are left with is ‘foxes and crows’.

“Those birds live a perfect life until their time comes,” Garry said. “In terms of the deer, you could leave them be, but you would get too many bucks and they would start killing each other and you would have injured animals wandering off and dying.”

The other problem people may have with game is not knowing what to do with it, but that is where author Emma Whittingham comes in. She has produced a book called Game On Northumberland, which has a selection of recipes for different types of game.

“I promote the game for Garry,” she said. “It’s not my main job, but it’s something I’m very passionate about.

“My favourite is probably pheasant, because it’s so versatile. You can use it all and get three meals out of a brace of birds.”

In times of recession and squeezed household budgets, it’s not just the breasts that are useful with the whole bird able to be used for different things – even the carcass can be used to make soup. And people’s tastes are changing. Garry said that 80 to 90 per cent of the Northumberland Estates’ game used to be sold to Europe, while now 80 to 90 per cent stays in the UK.

From the moorlands that are home to grouse, you don’t have to travel very far in north Northumberland to reach the sea and all that it offers.

The North Sea off Seahouses is home to a variety of fish such as codling, mackerel, pollock, pouting and ling.

And even as novices, a few hours on board a ship skippered by fisherman Alan Dawson with his local knowledge shows how readily it can be found.

Caught and filleted on board in mid-afternoon, by early evening I had fried the fillets of codling and mackerel, which is about as fresh a Friday supper as you can have.

It isn’t just the raw product either, head back to shore and just behind Seahouses harbour are the traditional smokehouses of Swallowfish, run by Patrick and Karen Wilkin.

The business is based in The Fisherman’s Kitchen complete with the original smokehouses, which have operated on the site since 1843. The site is even credited as being one of the possible places where the kipper was invented.

Today, they use the very same methods of smoking as were performed all those years ago, using traditional oak sawdust which has no additives, preservatives or colourings of any kind.

As well as smoked produce, which cannot always use local fish due to limits and quotas (the herring is sourced from Iceland, even though it can be found off the north Northumberland coast), Swallowfish also offers a wide range of fresh, seasonal fish and seafood from the North Sea, provided by a close network of trusted suppliers.