Bountiful Birmingham

Posted on: August 17th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

“Balti, Bournville, Bull Ring.” Ask anyone from the Home Counties what they associate with Birmingham and these three features often come to mind. Not that they are unimportant aspects of the city’s food heritage, but on their own they paint a limited picture of what the city has to offer.

And yet this stereotypical perception will soon be – if not already – a thing of the past. England’s second city, so often the butt of southern scorn or patronising condescension, now finds itself at the centre of national media attention for more reasons than curry, chocolate and covered markets.

As Richard Johnson of The Independent wrote on 15 January 2005, “The city is no longer second class…Birmingham was always somewhere you drive through; Or – thanks to spaghetti junction – somewhere you drive around.”

Sky TV, for instance, will feature its foodie developments in its new programme Taste later this month. Even Jeremy Clarkson, whose Sunday Times review of Simpson’s was littered with gratuitously insulting comments on Birmingham eating out habits, has lamented his comments in a recent interview with Nick Owen on Midlands Today.

Foremost amongst the reasons for this higher profile is the awarding of a Michelin stars to Simpsons and Jessica’s at the start of 2005. Applauded also by other major food guides and critics from the national broadsheets, these two restaurants have placed Birmingham firmly on the gastronomic map. Food lovers will travel some distance to eat here.

And yet this is only one element of the new found self confidence. Far from apologising for its supposed inadequacies, the city is now trumpeting its glories, not all of which are new.

Birmingham Bites, a new food and drink campaign to promote excellence in eating out, local produce and weekend foodie breaks, was launched in September 2005. It focuses on five elements: World Cuisine, Local Food Producers, Fine Dining, Cookery courses, and Markets Food Halls and Specialist Delicatessens.

The BBC Good Food Show, to be held at the National Exhibition Centre from 23- to 27 November, will be used to showcase this campaign. With its established reputation and big celebrity element, the event is likely to attract some 150.000 visitors. They will be able to pick up tips from local award winning chefs, taste the best of Birmingham’s local produce and win prizes provided by the city’s leading food outlets. A special feature will be the opportunity of tasting dishes from top Birmingham restaurants – £5 for two courses.

However, an exciting programme of events has already been underway since last September (2004)

On the World Cuisine front for instance, the city’s status as the Curry Capital of Britain 2005 has been enhanced by the Balti Breaks scheme. Three options – Vegtarian, Original or Red Chilli/Green Chilli options, have involved shopping expeditions with, and cookery demonstrations by, the chefs of Imran’s, Royal Naim and Al Faisal’s respectively. Thus the trade secrets of the Pakistani –Kashmiri community of the Balti triangle have been revealed, giving enthusiasts the ability to create restaurant style dishes at home.

The contribution of well established producers to the city’s culinary heritage is being recognised by the accolade of “Food Hero” Consider, for instance, Greg Pearce, Prawn star, a fifth generation proprietor of Pearce’s Shellfish which has been trading since the 1840s. More recently, Aktar Islam of Lasan Restaurant, has developed a unique fusion menu – involving much exotic fruit and vegetables – of Indian and European cooking styles. He is enthusiastic about telling how Indian dishes have been adapted to suit the western tastes. Nor has the Bournville connection been forgotten: George Dadd has been hailed the “Choc Star”. Now Chief Chocolate Taster at Cadburys, he originally joined the firm 33 years ago as an analytical chemist. Today, he is measuring and advising on the exact level of ingredients, and conducting laboratory tests to ascertain the product’s possible shelf life.

High amongst the proliferation of cookery schools and classes is Simpsons. L’Ecole de cuisine, which features one day courses of up to ten people. The experience comprises a cookery demonstration, gourmet lunch, wine tasting and kitchen tour. They are run by Top Class Food Hero Charlotte Barr, a brilliant graduate of the city’s prestigious College of Food and Tourism and once Egon Ronay student chef of the year. Her experience at Rick Stein’s Padstow restaurant, Le Caprice and the Ivy enhances her impressive CV.

The demand for quality products has seen Farmers’ markets flourishing in the city centre and its suburbs: Of particular note were the Gourmet food Market at the Bullring, and the National Market fortnight have been held in September and October

Nor have the less fortunate been forgotten in this seeming abundance. Birmingham restaurants have been taking part in StreetSmart, a national campaign sponsored by Bloomberg to help the homeless. At breakfast party held at Simpson’s to celebrate its second year in Birmingham, local organiser Roulla Xenides, of S & X Media, thanked local restaurateurs for helping to raise £8000 in 2004/05 for local homeless charities, and for continuing the campaign.

Driving the move to promote the city, is Marketing Birmingham, a public-private agency engaged by the city council to raise Birmingham’s profile both nationally and internationally. It also has an office in Piccadilly –“Birmingham West 1” –

Neil Rami, its Chief Executive, is excited about the scene: “Birmingham is a creative and cosmopolitan city with a fantastic food culture – from its markets which have been established for almost 100 years to a huge range of international, fine dining restaurants and home grown products.”

Renowned as the leading conference city in the UK, Birmingham has become a leisure destination in its own right, rather than just a place to pass through or to visit on business. Hotels have noted a 20% rise in occupancy rates at weekends, reflecting major commercial developments. The city centre has been revitalised –with a £40 million Bullring redevelopment. including the biggest retail outlet in Europe and also attracts major cultural events, both of which are serviced by an increasing range of restaurants and bars. A boulevarding city centre, with 6000 residential units available, has attracted the young professional market; indeed, every apartment in the Bullring development has been sold in advance.

Demand creates its own supply. The 100,000 professionals in the city form a demanding sector feeding off itself. They are prepared to pay for quality eating, the medium range informal style brasseries such as Le Petit Blanc and Bank benefiting the most. There has been growth in this area which has settled.

All this impacts on the restaurant scene in a symbiotic way as people seeing this want to be part of the action. Andreas Antona, chef patron of Simpsons is one such person. Six years ago, Birmingham was not right for his investment; a year ago it was.

Raymond Blanc is another: “Birmingham has a dynamism that I admire….this is a city going places, and I want to be part of it.”

And there is an industry to back this growth: the city has the largest food market in Britain, contributing £400M to the local economy annually, whilst the College of Food trains some of the best talent in the country, attracting an international array of students.

Moreover, the internet has revolutionised how Birmingham markets itself. It was first city in the UK to have a Destination Marketing Agency and also a Destination Management System using the internet for hotels and restaurant bookings. Short breaks have been promoted as part of an optimisation strategy. Food sites like Birmingham Plus will continue to inform enthusiasts of the best.

And what of the future? Given the energy, dynamism and variety of Birmingham Bites and the underlying strategy of Marketing Birmingham, the city can only go from strength to strength. Such optimism was reflected in conversations at the first anniversary party of the Hyatt’s refurbished bar, Pravda. The chocolate fountain, a reminder of one of the past and current glories of the Birmingham food heritage, was an appropriate buffet centrepiece in what was Chocolate week

January sees the publication of the Michelin Great Britain & Ireland Guide and with the undeniable momentum enjoyed by the city, surely more accolades will follow.

With thanks to Roulla Xenides, S&X Media,

– Daniel Darwood