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Bristol and the West: On the food map

Fresh ingredients from the West Country Diverse and delicious locally sourced ingredients are the base for fine dining experiences

The West has always had a unique food heritage, so what is it that cemented its place on Britain's food map?

A few years ago, when one of Bristol's celebrated chefs, Freddy Bird, was based in London, he found it "disappointing coming back to Bristol and eating".

The head chef of the acclaimed Lido restaurant says there were "always some great restaurants but they were few and far between".

"It was kind of completely behind the times. Now I think there's a real selection of great quality restaurants. Bristol's really, really blossoming I think in that respect," he says.

From the West Country kitchen:

Mary berry's West Country gratin

Make Mary Berry's West Country gratin

Try Tom Kerridge's mussels in cider and cream

Create a cider sling cocktail

Many will be showcasing their food as part of the Bristol Food Connections Festival, and Eat Drink Bristol Fashion - a pop-up food festival in tipi tents featuring the region's top chefs.

Cider, meat and fresh fruit and vegetables produced locally in the counties of Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire all helped make a name for the West.

Add to that the proximity of fresh seafood from Devon and Cornwall, Bristol's creative food enthusiasts and talented chefs, and it was bound to be a recipe for success.

Eat Drink Bristol Fashion is in its third year, and the brainchild of chef Josh Eggleton, from the Michelin-starred Pony and Trap.

Josh Eggleton agrees the best cooking starts with the best, local ingredients.

"I've spent my whole catering career in Bristol, 15 years... what makes Bristol and Bath so good is you can drive 10 minutes in any direction and you're in the countryside, we're surrounded by amazing produce," he says.

For more than a thousand years, the supply and trade of food has been integral to the city's economic and cultural life, according to the Who Feeds Bristol? report, commissioned by NHS Bristol and written by Joy Carey.

Port trade helped shape the food culture - in the 1300s wine was brought in to Bristol from south west France, later freeze-dried cod was shipped in from Iceland, and in the 1600s sugar was a major import.

But Joy Carey, from f3 Local Food Consultants, says diverse home-grown diversity has really put the West on the map: "The South West region produces some 23% of England's cattle and sheep; has some 5500 dairy farms that produce 37% of England's milk. The region is also home to 38% of England's organic farmers."

Over half the farms in the West are less than five hectares, according to Defra figures, "so clearly smaller scale family farms have played an important role over the years", says Joy Carey.

Clifton Suspension Bridge and Avon Gorge Bristol's port trade has seen interesting ingredients brought in over the centuries

Although many have been lost, there are still networks of smaller independent dairies and abattoirs that serve smaller scale farms and help to maintain regional supply links, she says.

For creative chefs like Freddy Bird, being able to forage and get hold of unique foods quickly makes a huge difference.

"I suppose the obvious difference [compared to London] is being able to go out and pick your own stuff... and get fish so quickly."

Bristol is home to many BBC food and farming-related programmes, from BBC 1's Countryfile, The Hairy Bikers, Nigel Slater, Farming Today, to Food and Drink.

And when BBC Radio 4's Food Programme moved to Bristol, the Food & Farming Awards, held on Thursday, did too.

Clare McGinn, the BBC's head of audio and music in Bristol and editor of the Food Programme, said it felt like a "great fit" as the city's creative spirit and street food scene "is buzzing".

Party Boy bagel Bagel Boy's bagels have been hugely popular and the key ingredients are all local

"It's no surprise that Bristol is starting to make waves nationally as a vibrant, happy, creative and surprising food city because it does attract and grow talent," she says.

"This is a place of clever chefs, adventurous local food producers and growers, curious brewers and cider makers, passionate campaigners, witty food writers and bloggers and there's a great entrepreneurial spirit with food businesses popping up all over the city."

There's a strong creative, pop-up, street food and "Do It Yourself" culture. One business that has boomed in the year and nine months since it opened, is Bagel Boy.

Festival of flavour

Freddy Bird

Mitch Church, one of Bagel Boy's directors says they started as part of the Beats Street Food Collective, before setting up a couple of pop-ups, doing festival catering and now a small restaurant.

"A lot of people to begin with said they didn't like them - the ones you buy in a shop, five for a £1 are different to the ones we sell, they are mass-produced factory ones," he says.

"They're all made by hand, a lot of bagels you buy in the shop aren't made traditionally, they're steamed, not boiled, but ours are made by Everything Bagel who are based in Portishead," Mitch Church explains.

Bagel Boy now gets through about 700-1000 bagels a week.

"We do classics like smoked salmon cream cheese, salt beef - which is our biggest seller, but then we kind of wanted to mix it up a bit, there's only so many traditional ones you can do, we have a big menu.

"We sell lamb pattie with hot chilli mayo... before we started this, I didn't really cook, our growth through learning how to cook is in the menu, with different combinations."

Joy Carey says the energy of so many food entrepreneurs "from the independent butcher who buys direct from local farmers, to the innovative chef who serves up fabulous seasonal dishes, to the community gardener who teaches kids to grow vegetables, to the wholesaler who know exactly which fields grow which variety of plums and cherries and apricots" makes the city unique.

Eat Drink Bristol Fashion tipis The Eat Drink Bristol Fashion pop-up showcases cooking and the collaborative culture

"The food entrepreneurs and the food networks haven't waited for politicians, or for big amounts of funding. Instead they have focused on turning their ideas into reality," says Joy Carey.

"Over the last five years there has been a lot more work going on behind the scenes to highlight what's already happening and to connect more people up in order to work together," she says.

Eat Drink Bristol Fashion is an example of such collaboration.

Josh Eggleton says: "The great thing about Bristol is that it embraces anything that's going on - so we have amazing diversity.

"Three different restaurants in Bristol have won Michelin stars in the last five years, but also a lot of restaurants are opening up with a huge amount of diversity, lots of different cuisines, and Bristolians accept that - they don't want fine dining, they don't want fancy French food."

Then there is the bread, says Clare McGinn.

While the traditional sweet and spiced Colston Bun is not often seen, "this is probably the best city in the UK to find independent bakers who fire out loaves and pastries which take your breath away and blow any shred of self-discipline out the window", she says.

In June 2012, the Bristol Good Food Charter was launched, with a commitment to look at and plan for healthier and more sustainable food.

Food was also a key factor in the city winning the European Green Capital title for 2015, says Clare McGinn.

"Most of all, food is accessible and fun here. A trip to St Nicholas's Market on a Wednesday lunchtime is a good indication of the variety and choice available."

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