Celebrating 300 editions of the Local Foodie
- Credit: Becky Alexander
300! What’s that? The number of coffee shops we have? No! This is my 300th food column for The Herts Advertiser, so this week is a little different from usual. I am going to look back at the 10 years it has taken to write those columns and see what has changed, and what it has been like!
“St Albans is a city of food lovers. We have fantastic markets, restaurants, cafes and food shops, and of course some of the best pubs in the country. So, it is time to celebrate this fact with a new column, devoted to the best food and drink that St Albans, Harpenden and the villages can offer.”
That is exactly how I started my food column 10 years ago. In many ways, that statement holds true today. We DO have an amazing food scene and I think it has grown and diversified in that time (even in this weird year).
First things first. I am often asked how I got the job as the food columnist for this paper. Matt became the new editor in 2009; I had met him briefly at an event and emailed him to see if he would like a food column – “wasn’t it strange that we didn’t have one?” He replied “OK, write one and we will see how it goes.” It’s now one of the longest running local newspaper columns in the UK, and one of the very few that isn’t tied to advertising and freebies.
The idea was to focus on the small independents – the restaurants, pubs and cafes, but also the food producers, market stalls and makers, with a focus on the people behind the business. I choose, and still do, what to write about. I try to find the positives in whatever I feature – I am not here to negatively impact on someone’s business. Regular readers tend to know what I like, and can work out if I am not completely keen on something! If I really don’t like a place, I don’t write about it. I tend to pay my way, unless there is a big budget launch, but these are rare, and even in these cases I tend to go back unannounced in my own time to see what it is really like.
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My articles in that first year featured Soko coffee (now Charlie’s), Chilli Raj, Chez Mumtaj, Earthworks, the beer festival, Childwickbury Christmas market, Luton Hoo apple gala, fruit picking at Hawkswick, Poulter’s fish stall, Lussmann’s fish and chips and the Camp fish bar. Happily, most of those are here today, or will be again soon. Many restaurants and cafes have gone in the 10 years, or changed ownership, showing the challenging nature of running a hospitality business. On the whole, the food scene locally is more varied and vibrant than when I started, with a wide choice of who to write about, and we try to give equal coverage to the one-person business as the big-budget venue.
Over the years the columns have had a stronger focus on the environment. I have written about meat-free Mondays, Fairtrade, refuse the straw, plastic-free, veganuary, reducing plastic use and more. I see some traders and venues making conscious changes around these issues, although this year has set us back in progress sadly.
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So, what have been the biggest changes?
Versatile, flexible and cheaper to set up, we now have more streetfood than ever before. Creative and trend-led these have introduced us to new tastes from Darlish ice cream to Tara’s vegan food. Food and drink festivals are now community highlights and I look forward to their return.
Herts has a long brewing history and attracts beer enthusiasts – Mad Squirrel, Farr Brew and The Beer Shop are at the front of this trend. We also now have our own gin distilleries such as Black Bridge and Spirit of Herts.
We can now eat our way around the world, with excellent Turkish, Italian, Moroccan, Spanish, Pakistani and Greek outlets, to name just a few.
Vegetarian and vegan food
Even just 10 years ago it was tricky to find interesting vegetarian food locally, but now almost everywhere has vegan options, helping us all to cut back on meat consumption.
No longer just a place to take a break between shopping, these are now destination places to work, meet friends, date, to escape the house! Coffee shops are social meeting places that any age can visit, and they are now hubs in our community.
Rise of foodbanks
We also have more people needing to use foodbanks as a result of cuts and austerity; we cannot ignore this devastating situation, even in affluent Herts. If you feel able to donate cash to help run these vital operations please go to www.stalbansdistrict.foodbank.org.uk
So, what have been the highlights for me? I loved meeting the young chefs at the Young Chef of the year competitions, and hearing about where they go on to next. I enjoyed judging the Festival food awards for many years, and presenting awards to local legends, including at the Cathedral. I have enjoyed judging many baking competitions, from schools to village greens, although testing over 40 chocolate cakes one Easter was challenging! I was delighted to write the foreword for The Hertfordshire Cookbook.
Most of all, I like meeting the people behind the businesses, and hearing their enthusiasm to create something new. It is a privilege to be part of a creative, resilient community who love what they do and want to make where we live a better place to enjoy. It is a complete honour to share their stories with you.