The transformation of North East England’s food and drink scene.
The days of industrial strength may be long gone but Middlesbrough still has something to shout about. The city’s signature dish, the Chicken Parmesan or Parmo, made headlines earlier this year when MasterChef contestant Anthony O’Shaughnessy presented the programme’s judges with a gourmet version of this fabled delight. “This is the most original plate of food we’ve had the whole day,” said former winner Stephen Wallis. “Who knows, this could be the next big thing.”
Last Tuesday, I travelled to Middlesbrough to hunt down this unusual delicacy and taste it in its original context. The city’s Linthorpe Road led to Central Park Bar & Restaurant, a “chic bar and eaterie for burgers and pasta”, which has been “famous since 1979.” Not only was this restaurant “famous” but its Parmos were “famous” too. Intoxicated by this imaginative marketing ploy, I made my way inside.
I ordered a “breadcrumbed chicken breast, deep fried, topped with béchamel sauce & cheese then lightly grilled” with a side of roast potatoes and vegetables. The vegetables looked and tasted as though they had been sitting under a light all day. Their purpose, however, was to serve as a point of contrast to the superior main event: the glistening red-yellow escalope centred perfectly on my plate.
As I lathered garlic mayo on the Parmo’s underbelly, I thought about how to describe this dish to the uninitiated. Was it a pizza with breaded chicken superseding the dough? Had a disorientated Italian created a Cotoletta alla Bolognese using kebab shop ingredients? Whatever it was, “Parmesan” was surely the wrong name: the Parmigiano-Reggiano had been discarded a long time ago; a tangerine-coloured Cheddar cheese today embraces this Teesside schnitzel.
According to a poll conducted by the Teesside Gazette, Central Park offered not only the third best Parmo on Teesside but was the favoured spot of Michelin-starred chef Michael O’Hare. “There’s not a chance on Earth I’ll be putting a Parmo on the menu,” said O’Hare to the Gazette during the filming of television’s Great British Menu in 2015. “I hate reference to them. Middlesbrough has a lot better things to be proud of than some disgusting piece of chicken.” But the winds have changed. O’Hare has since been spotted in Central Park munching on one of Teesside’s finest. The Parmo has become an accepted culinary delight for both gourmand and gourmet.
When we think about the North East, the region’s culinary scene doesn’t initially spring to mind. Excessive alcohol consumption and the spectacle of people of all ages – children included – drunk in city centres, parks or along the coast is a more natural image. We’ve been told that what it means to be a Geordie, Mackem or Smoggie involves being able to enjoy more than a few pints or cocktails, and with the decline of industry and the demise of a whole way of life, drinking, boisterous behaviour and fanatical football support has come to paper over what has been lost.
The sensationalist Geordie Shore has done much recently to teach the rest of the world about our supposed habits, and easy as it is to criticise the show’s depiction of Tyneside, excessive drinking has been a feature of North East culture for years. Just think about 8Ace from Viz, the hard-drinking Andy Capp, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’s Oz or Geordie of the Antarctic. And it’s not just old working-class men, once employed in the region’s industrial spaces, doing all the drinking at the weekend. Fans of the Daily Mail’s shameful paparazzi shoots will note that they mostly focus on seriously intoxicated women caught in unflattering circumstances.
Public Health England has declared the North East the “binge drinking capital” of the country. 30% of adults are reported to be drinking over the recommended weekly guidelines and almost a quarter of adults are binge drinking at least once a week. The region’s prevalence of alcohol-related deaths, in comparison to the genteel South, works as another component in England’s extensive North-South divide.
But all of this is not to detract from the virtues of a good night on the town. A couple of bottles of Brown Ale, a few trebles, and a kebab or Parmo to finish it all off, doesn’t sound too bad. Neither does a stottie filled with a couple of Geordie bangers, seasoned with red sauce and paired with Nescafé’s finest instant coffee, the following morning. Heck we might as well throw in a Greggs sausage roll or one of Dickson’s Saveloy Dips to just about ease that hangover too.
In Watching Geordie Shore in Italy, I noted that the show’s dubbers had replaced references to the region’s culinary tradition with Italian dishes which the Geordies were surely not eating. A walk around Tyneside, and an investigation into the North East’s current restaurant scene, has put this all into doubt. Maybe the Geordies were really eating Melanzane alla Parmigiana after all.
British food doesn’t just have a bad reputation it is a world-wide joke. “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad,” said former President of France Jacques Chirac to Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin in 2005. “The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease.” British food is said to be bland, tasteless, boring, stodgy, over-cooked and over-boiled. Nothing is fresh, all the food emerges from a tin, plastic packaging or the freezer.
If this was true in the past, it probably isn’t today. But there are some good historical reasons for the inadequacy of our cuisine. Britain’s rapid industrialisation divorced peasants from the land and inhibited the preservation of a cucina povera which so invigorates the culinary traditions of France and Italy today. Over-crowding and insufficient wages during the Industrial Revolution forced millions to survive on a subsistence diet. Malnutrition was rife, and fresh food, other than potatoes and a little meat serving as a condiment, was often difficult to find.
Inside the grand mansions of the landed gentry, the Victorian élite turned their backs on traditional British cooking. Chefs were encouraged to cook an anglicised version of French dishes. For the upwardly-mobile middle classes who sought to imitate the aristocracy, this idolisation of French cuisine led British traditions to be viewed as inferior by great swathes of the population, even if the traditional roast beef, mutton and pork meals were loved by many.
As the 19th century progressed, the working classes found a bit more money in their pockets, and they could begin to try honey, fruit – in the form of jam and imported bananas – tea and other foods which were impossible to afford or find earlier in the century. But food was never distributed evenly in the household. When the working-man made it home with his wage intact – and hadn’t squandered too much of it on the drink – he was served first, and given much of what the family could afford.
The mines and factories were gruelling enterprises and so it was imperative that he receive enough calories to be able to perform at work. His wife – the household’s head chef – and offspring were fed only what was left. Growing children were often stunted by an absence of fat, dairy, fruit and vegetables in their diets and frequently went hungry.
What you ate and where you ate depended above all on what class you belonged to. In the first years of the 20th century, the middle classes could afford to eat fish, a variety of meats, green vegetables, fruit, marmalade and salad, while the poor on occasion could just about find bacon and eggs for breakfast and an occasional joint to join their potatoes or bread and dripping for dinner. By the 1930s, 40% of the rich ate in restaurants, while only 4% of the poor could afford to do so. It would be a long time until eating out regularly would be commonplace. The workers had to make sure they could feed themselves well first.
One way the collieries attempted to keep North East miners out of the boozer was to supply them with a vegetable allotment, which helped some move towards self-sufficiency in food. Keeping pigs or chickens was also a past-time prized by working men. “I’ve known me father to go to the garden and fetch the whole dinner in,” said Throckley miner James Brown in Bill Williamson’s sociological study Class, Culture and Community. “Howk the tetties, cabbage, and kill a hen. That was our dinner.” Brown often kept four or five pigs at time. Some were saved for Christmas, others were fattened up and sold to the cooperative butcher, but most made their way to the family dinner table as an “almost continuous supply of ham.”
Those that couldn’t put ham on the table every evening often had to make do with vegetables. A typical day in the life of Wor Da, the essential Geordie patriarch, is described in Scott Dobson’s humorous Larn Yersel’ Geordie. Wor Da would wake up from his “usual ‘broon ale’ stupor” at 7:20am, wash, shave and then go downstairs to eat an enormous leek before work. After returning from a post-shift drinking bout at the club, he would check the barbed wire around the leek bed, feed the leeks pig’s blood and aspirin and then take the whippet for a walk.
Leek-growing and other competitive practices such as pigeon racing are often mocked today, but they were once deadly serious activities across North East England. “Leeks, oh I think they’re fantastic,” says Jarrow-born William Robertson in the 1976 documentary Land of the Giant Leeks. “It’s a great hobby, I love it. I dream about them. It’s like a fever in the North, it’s absolutely fantastic.” Gardeners would compete with one another to see who could grow the longest and fattest leeks. Leek broth would be distributed during the show and the community’s women and children would be invited into the pubs to see the prize-winning vegetables.
But North Easterner’s didn’t just go crazy for leeks. Countless regional treats have been handed down over the years. Pan Haggarty, Singing Hinnies, Caraway Seed Cake, Tyneside Floddies and Lardy Cake were made by housewives well into the 20th century. And Craster Kippers and Berwick Cockles are still sought after today. (I’m not sure if I’m ready to try Pigeon Pie, Sheep’s Head Broth or Pig Trotters but that’s just me.) Most famous of all are Ham and Pease Pudding and the Stottie Cake; essential “bait” that was often taken to work in a “bait box” (Teessiders called this a “Tommy Box”) and eaten on the job. Those “geysen’d” or “Kizzen’d” could have a sip of “Watter” which was taken down the mines in a canteen. But if you were really “clammin’” you would have wait until you got home for tea.
These dishes were inextricably tied to their local roots. But big business rapidly found that money could be made on a scale the local butcher and baker would find unfathomable. Food and drink soon became processed, manufactured and sold en masse in the 20th century. This industrialisation of food and drink allowed Lucozade, Tudor Crisps, Fentimans, Newcastle Brown Ale, and above all, Greggs, to enter the market, and their products reached towns and cities right across Britain. With the invention of the microwave, you didn’t even have to cook anymore, you could just turn a dial and watch your meal rotate through the machine’s grey window. Cheapness and uniformity – more than quality, healthiness and freshness – were highly-valued. No North East business exploited the bottom of the food and drink market like the Gosforth-born Greggs the Baker.
In the last few years, Greggs has been experimenting with several initiatives to try and modernise their outlets. The Geordie giant had previously focused on a doctrine of continuous expansion, gobbling up lesser bakery chains and refitting them with the Greggs logo. But as times have changed, pasties, pies and sausage rolls don’t seem to give as much satisfaction to the corporate belly as they once did. Greggs needed to reinvent itself. The North East – home to nearly one Greggs per street – was chosen as the research site. Safe in its homeland, the bakery chain could experiment and see what worked.
In 2011, Greggs opened its first Greggs Moment – a 104-seater coffee shop – in central Newcastle. Attention was here shifted towards Italian-style coffees – cappuccinos, macchiatos, espressos – and a new range of slightly more up-market cakes and biscuits. Five more shops opened, including one in the MetroCentre, but it didn’t seem like Geordies wanted Greggs to be anything but Greggs. Profits fell and so did share prices. In 2013, the corporate giant discarded its attempt to become the next Starbucks.
Since 2013, Greggs has begun transitioning out of the bakery market as nobody seemed to want to buy a loaf of bread with their sausage roll any more. This was far from being true in the North East. Nostalgic Geordies had relied on the baker for their stotties for years. To this day, Greggs still makes an exception for them. But the Geordie giant had other plans.
“Food on the go” was suddenly in, as were Italian espresso machines, but prices weren’t going to rise too high. Corporate had already found a way around George Osborne’s new Pasty Tax, and were intent on making savings for you the customer. Hundreds of stores were soon fitted with small seating areas; customers would only be charged an extra sixteen pence per sausage roll for dining in. For clients worried about their waistlines, Greggs began offering a “Balanced Choice” range, alongside a variety of salads, porridge and granola yoghurts. Feta and Slow Roasted Tomato Pasta Salad joined Strawberry Water and Mixed Berries on the menu. You could even buy a loose banana or apple if a Steak Bake made you feel too guilty. Greggs had finally done it. They had elevated themselves above Dicksons, Cooplands and the beloved Greasy Spoon.
It sounds fantastical to say now but even just a few decades ago eating out was an uncommon experience. A trip to the Chinese – first established in the 1950s – or the Indian or Italian – since the 1960s – would be a yearly treat, saved for a birthday or special event. In the pubs, a pickled egg or a bag of pork scratchings would pair irresistibly with your stout, nobody would think of ordering a Chipotle, Grilled Onion and Manchego Pepper Cheeseburger with their pint.
Pubs and clubs were for drinking in, having a bit crack or a fight only. You might head along to the chippy for your batter fix and indulge in a Mr. Whippy from your local red-faced Ice Cream Man, but you certainly wouldn’t take Wor Lass to a restaurant before your weekly night on the town.
Restaurants were originally located within hotels and would be visited on occasion by the middle class or those travelling for business. Here, you could find the finest of Anglo-French cuisine: Variete d’Hor d’Ouevres Royale, Consomme de Volaille au Madere Veloute Clarence, Supreme de Sole Meuniere Montreuil, Tournedos Grille a la Dreux, Celeri Brazie a la Moelle, Pommes Duchesse, Faisan roti aux Cepes Bordelaise... listed one dreary menu card from 1924. And if you weren’t satisfied by that spectacular selection, you could find Thick Ox Tail, Clear Mock Turtle and Shrimp Sauce at the Savoy Restaurant on Dean Street in the 1930s. Mmm!
The current Tyneside scene couldn’t break further with those restaurants of the past. It offers the greatest variation of cuisine in the North East and is often reasonably priced. The jump up from a sausage roll to a Courgette & Tumeric Chickpea Cake isn’t too extreme; only will Kenny Atkinson’s House of Tides Tasting Menu really break the bank. At the coast, Adam Riley’s Fish Shack has drawn rave reviews and offers one of the best restaurant views in the North East. Lindisfarne Oysters, Craster Kipper Wraps and Pan Roast Halibut Chops can be munched on with your feet in the sand. Just don’t forget about the tide.
Middlesbrough’s Bedford Street, comes in second place, and although it sits opposite one of the most unsightly concrete towers in the city, it is worth a visit, if you can put the Parmo down that is. A two Michelin-starred restaurant is located somewhere in rural County Durham; if you can find it and your pockets are deep enough then I’m sure it’s worth the trip. Depressed and deprived of much more than good scran, Sunderland comes in third place. Let’s just hope that some extra sun will shine on them in the coming years.
To illustrate just what Tyneside has to offer, here is a sketch of the current food scene. In increasing order of sophistication, there are fast food restaurants; independent greasy spoons; corporate bakery chains of an unworldly or worldly nature; meal-deal-touting supermarkets and chemists; corporate world food restaurants represented best by Grey’s Quarter; shipping container villages selling craft beer and street food; independent foreign and British run bistros discounted during “Restaurant Week”; Michelin Guide recommended eateries often rooted in Jesmond; and the crème de la crème of them all, House of Tides, Newcastle’s only Michelin-starred restaurant.
But such a long list, doesn’t quite do justice to have much the scene has changed in recent years. Connoisseurship and foodism have made their ways into even the least respectable chains. The nation’s fascination with cookery shows and exotic ingredients has infiltrated everywhere.
One thing that stands out today is just how homogeneous the upmarket bar and restaurant scene is, even if their eclectic menus try to fool us with all those new foreign words. Concrete walls, exposed brick and ventilator shafts decorate interiors, craft beers with eccentric names are listed at extreme prices and measured by the third (don’t take a trip to the faux-rusting By the River Brew Co. on the south bank of the Tyne if you’re looking for a full pint), condiments are served in buckets, and protein, carbohydrate and fat contents are spelled out at the bottom of the menu.
Those that want their food to be free of things are more than catered for. Food is described as Dairy Free, Gluten Free, Fat Free, Carb Free, Meat Free, Refined Sugar Free, Chemical Free, Animal Exploitation Free and the strangest of them all Heat Free. I still haven’t understood the appeal of eating vegetables or cakes raw but everybody else seems to have jumped on board with this one. The Naked Deli, whose motto is “NUTRITION, CLEAN, NATURAL, HEALTHY, PALEO, ORGANIC,” draws in the crowds on Chillingham Road to their “clean” baked beans, pickled kombucha and raw Snickers and Protein Bounty Bars. “THERE IS NO DIET THAT WILL DO WHAT EATING NAKED DOES,” screams the café’s interior, and it seems that all you have to do to look like the next Love Island contestant is to stop eating “dirty” food, pick up some goat’s cheese and pomegranate quinoa and never exercise again.
Across the road, Dirt. Health offers something similar. “We all have two homes – our planet and our body,” reads a column in the café. “Our mission is simple: To nurture both to becoming healthier, stronger and more connected. We think globally and act locally.” But while their hormone and chemical-free Chia Pudding Breakfast Pot sounds absolutely delightful, I think today I’ll just stick with that Kenyan and Ethiopian Blend Fairtrade Flat White.
This tension between the local and global may become more strained in the coming years with the rise of climate change and the upcoming changes to our trade agreements. There may, however, be a silver lining for those trying to make a few pence. Free from having to abide by the EU’s geographical indication laws, global foods could possibly become “local” in a no-deal Brexit world. But in the end, all I can say is that I really hope that we won’t have to suffer the indignities of Middlesbrough mozzarella or Gateshead gorgonzola.