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Looking at Leicestershire

From the archetypal Englishness of its rolling countryside and grand houses to the bustling multi-ethnic streets of its county town, Leicestershire boasts an eclectic mixture not only of buildings and cultures, but also of culinary delights. By Alison Davison.

Leicester has long been popular with foreign arrivals as both the Romans and, later, the Danes used it as a strategic base from which they could control the region. More recently, the influx of different nationalities has made Leicester the largest city in the east Midlands (and the 10th largest in the country) and also brought it fame as a melting pot of cultures. The city’s ethnic minorities now account for more than a third of its population.

No wonder, then, that Leicester won the coveted title Curry Capital of Britain last year. Anyone who has taken a trip down the Belgrave Road – the golden mile of curry houses – knows just how much fabulous ethnic food there is on offer, whether freshly prepared for hungry restaurant customers or available to cook from scratch in the food shops and markets.

If, however, baltis aren’t your bag, there’s plenty more to tempt the tastebuds in the county where afternoon tea was invented. Back in the early 19th Century, while staying at the beautiful Belvoir (pronounced ‘beaver’) Castle, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, experienced a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon and, to tide her over until dinner, asked for tea, sandwiches and cake to be delivered to her rooms. Thus was a great British tradition born.

Leicestershire Pork Pie shopMelton - home of the pork pie

Nothing better than the real thing

Leicestershire is, of course, home to the famous Melton Mowbray pork pie. The secret to spotting the genuine article is to check it has bow sides – because it isn’t cooked in a mould – and that the filling is grey rather than pink. At Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in Melton, home of the famous Dickinson & Morris pies, you can see the pies being made or even have a go at making one yourself.

Apart from its world-famous pork pies, Melton Mowbray’s other claims to fame are that it hosts the largest regional food festival in the country, has the third oldest market, ran one of the first farmers’ markets and offers a dozen bakers, six butchers, 16 restaurants and 14 cafés – all for a population of 26,000. The town is also the home of the renowned Melton hunt cake – a rich fruit cake traditionally served to huntsmen before the tally-ho – and Melton spicy beef, a rich stew to warm them up on their return. Pork pies, incidentally, were also originally a creation for huntsmen and filled with stock – which turned to jelly – so they would be robust enough to survive the huntsmen’s pockets intact.

Leicestershire CheeseThe pork industry was also a by-product of another famous local speciality – Stilton cheese – as the spare whey from cheese making was used to feed the pigs. However Stilton isn’t the only legendary cheese made in these parts. In 2005 Red Leicester started to be made in the county again after a break of more than 50 years. It was at Sparkenhoe Farm near Market Bosworth that enterprising dairy farmers David and Jo Clarke decided to revive the cheese – and their gamble is paying off. Their superb, vibrant-orange cheeses are traditionally and lovingly made, with each cheese coloured with the natural plant colouring annatto, wrapped in lard, clothbound and properly matured. No wonder they’re already a wow, especially in London where Neals Yard named the Clarkes’ Red Leicester as one of the top five cheeses in the country.

If Spanish is more your thing, try the chorizo made at Woodhouse Farm in Elmesthorpe. Creative farmer Andrew Wincott had the idea after attending a course at TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage HQ. This delicious cured sausage is now a popular part of Andrew’s range, alongside his nationally recognised bacon, pork and hams from the farm’s rare-breed pigs. Andrew also smokes his own bacon and kassler – a lightly cured, hot-smoked pork loin.

Leicestershire mushroomsLivesey Brothers - the biggest growers of exotic fungi in Europe

There’s more quality flesh at Seldom Seen Farm just outside Leicester, home of the famous three-bird roast. This creation – a traditionally reared goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a pheasant – first caused the phone lines to jam when Richard and Judy gave it a rave review on TV and has been going down a storm at Christmas ever since.

If you prefer something a little less traditional, try Livesey Brothers over at tiny Packington near Ashby-de-la-Zouche. The brothers are the biggest growers of exotic mushrooms in Europe – their ranks of growing sheds providing all manner of fungi from oyster mushrooms to shimeji, enoki and maitake. This paradise for fungi fans (www.themushroombasket.com) produces 30,000lb of mushrooms a week and what can’t be grown here is imported.

Liquid sustenance

Feeling in need of a drink now? Fans of herbal teas should check out Sympathy Teas at South Kilworth. Sympathy’s creations are at the luxury end of the market – totally natural, unprocessed and caffeine free – with amusingly whimsical names such as Beddibyes, Grumbly Tum and Lurgified.

Moving on to an alcoholic beverage, the natural destination in Leicestershire is the Pub Company of the Year 2007, namely Everards Brewery at Narborough. Everards is the county’s top brewer making five excellent cask beers while also running hundreds of its own pubs.

There’s more fancy stuff going on over at Market Harborough where, alongside their outside catering service, enterprising Italian chefs Danilo and Alison Trozzi have set up an online deli offering premium quality ingredients from aged balsamic vinegars to handmade pastas and delicious chocolates. All products are sourced personally by the Trozzis from small producers in Italy (www.deliziosodeli.co.uk).

The Bestway Cash and Carry in Leicester is the company’s Midlands’ flagship depot and not only leads the group nationally in terms of sales, but is also the only depot to offer a butchery and wide fresh-meat section. One of the biggest of the company’s stores in the country, the Leicester branch also offers a delivery service across the county as well as an easy ordering service. Customers can simply fax or email their requirements in advance and arrive to find everything ready for them.
Bestway Cash and Carry, 241 Loughborough Road, Leicester LE4 5PN  T: 0116 2665178   F: 0116 2667410

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