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Birmingham's food revolution

The city’s food has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade and more excitement and innovation is bound to follow, writes Jon Card

There was no pig on a spit at the Independent Birmingham Food Fair this year, although I did try some pig’s cheek with delicate slices of apple and nuts. There was also very little in the way of balti, although there was one stall with a great range of samosa and South Indian cuisine. There were artisan chocolates, craft beers, paella and breads of every variety. For sure, Birmingham did not fulfil the expectations of someone unaware of what has been happening to the city’s food culture for the past decade. Its food is not dominated by working class staples and it’s certainly not all about Balti. It’s an altogether more refined and eclectic affair, a mishmash of cuisines encompassing many cultures and some fusions, too. There’s no single identity, except perhaps for one thing. The majority of the businesses at the fair, along with the best restaurants in the city, have all been founded in the past decade. If there’s one word to describe Birmingham’s food scene, it’s ‘recent’.

City council leader Sir Albert Bore remembers what Birmingham’s restaurants were like during the 1980s and 1990s. If there was a visiting dignitary in the city, “we used to take them to Stratford, there was the Plough and Harrow in the city and that was about it,” said Sir Albert. Birmingham, in fact, does have a long history of food innovation, from Bird’s eggless custard to Cadbury’s and HP. However, none of this had translated into fine dining, or anything much remarkable at all, save for curry, until the turn of the century.

WARM GLOW

But in 2005, as the city centre’s transformation began, something happened which caused all of the nation’s press to sit up and take notice. A Birmingham chef won a Michelin star. Glyn Purnell, then head chef at Jessica’s, gained the big ‘thumbs up’ from the tyre manufacturer-sponsored guide, and the city was suddenly on everyone’s culinary map. It came the same year as Simpson’s moved from Kenilworth to the city, bringing with it a star of its own, and now the food critics were making journeys north.

Still, writing nice things about Birmingham has never come easily to London-based culture writers. The words of the Daily Telegraph typified the reports: “For a city twinned with Lyon and its gastronomic delights, Birmingham has failed miserably in the dining stakes. The quality of the baltis has never been in doubt, but there was a warm glow over the city yesterday when two restaurants produced the first ever Michelin stars”, it wrote.

Subsequent reviewers of the city, be they about food or anything else, have always felt it necessary to mix any praise with disdain. The British have been slagging off Brum since the time of Dr. Johnson and they can’t seem to shake the habit. It’s affected the psyche of the city’s inhabitants; even the most passionate Brummies can’t help but reference Birmingham’s darker past when pointing to the present. When Glyn Purnell opened his second venture in the city, the cocktail bar Ginger’s, he reflected on how much had changed. “I love the idea that you can open a cocktail bar in Birmingham - if you’d have told me that 15 years ago I would have laughed at you,” he said.

But good things on the food front have been happening at a pace since 2005. Two more restaurants have since gained a prized Michelin star. First there was Turner’s, headed up by chef patron Richard Turner, who’s all-black interior eatery is the toast of Harborne. Then came Adams, run by husband and wife team Adam and Natasha Stokes, who headed to Birmingham via Scotland after realising there was a growing market for fine dining. Potentially, there are more on the horizon, with Carter’s of Moseley, Loves in the city centre and Lasan in the Jewellery Quarter all gaining favour from critics and diners but, so far, not impressing the Michelin.

So surely now the disdain and surprise can be put on hold? “Birmingham has gone from strength to strength as a food city, but I think it still takes Brummies by surprise. Those in the food world will readily quote that we have four Michelin stars, but surprisingly many locals aren’t aware,” says Ahmed Ahmed, organiser of the Birmingham Independent Food Fair. Indeed, the city’s food has been noted by writers and critics across the world, but this is still Birmingham and British preconceptions die hard.

AFFORDABLE

Food culture is much more than fancy restaurants pushing out meals at £40 per head. So thankfully, the city’s food scene hasn’t just blossomed at the top-end. There’s also been a growth of the more affordable, mid-market places, including a reasonable number of independents, alongside the more predictable brands which can be found in cities across the UK. Recently, the restaurant known as Chez Jules rebranded to Le Truc and moved from premises near New Street to the edge of China Town. Le Truc provides good quality French cuisine to the masses and had a stall at the recent Birmingham Independent Food Fair. I was served little pots of goat’s cheese and beetroot, as well as the pig’s cheek and apple I mentioned before. Just a few minutes’ walk away is Cafe Soya, which must surely be one of the most poorly presented restaurants ever to serve really good Chinese food.

STREET FOOD* *

Across from Chinatown and into Digbeth, the number of decent eateries, or indeed good places, looks limited in this bleak, post-industrial landscape. But this was actually the setting for one of Birmingham’s most important developments. The Digbeth Dining Club brings food on the street on a weekly basis for the ‘after work’ crowd, before they head out on their Friday night revelry. The stalls are run by a number of exciting and innovative businesses selling Mexican, pan-Asian and ‘soul food’ of more than one variety. Ahmed says the events have impacted on the street food scene right across the city. “The street food scene, which has really blossomed, thanks to events like the Digbeth Dining Club, is focused on artisan food served informally, and together with the farmers’ markets and fairs has added to the city’s already strong restaurant and cafe scene,” he says.

MOVEMENT

As I moved from stall to stall at the food fair, it was clear to see the confidence of all those presenting. This confidence could only be bolstered by the hordes of people descending and paying good money to sample the many tasty morsels <a></a>on offer. The city has developed a genuine food scene and it’s going to get bigger. Scenes develop from a nucleus of actors that convince others that things are possible. This attracts more and more to the centre, and soon the whole area is populated by other players doing similar things. Such a movement is already underway in Birmingham, so it should come as no surprise that more accolades and awards are being bestowed upon the city’s food entrepreneurs. The critics will have to find new ways to describe the city.

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