With Britons turning in their droves to the organic way of life, now could be an opportune time to consider the future of your food offering. Nigel Huddleston reports.
Walk down the aisles of Britain's supermarkets and you'll be bombarded with signs for organic products - everything from shallots to shampoo and from beef to bath salts. It may have taken a lot of persuasion, but the great British public finally seems to have taken organics to their hearts. The UK is now the world's third-biggest market for organic products - worth in excess of £1bn year. Some 4% of the agricultural land in the UK is organically-farmed or was in conversion to becoming organic as of last March, with some 4,000 registered producers and growers and another 2,000 processors and importers making a living from organics.
One of the nation's most famous chefs gave his backing recently when he addressed a Soil Association conference. Jamie Oliver said: "If I was a mechanic, I'd work in an Aston Martin garage. It's the same in my kitchen - I want to work with the best possible food." More and more licensees and pub chefs are, putting the quality and source of fresh ingredients at least on a par with making decent margins. The London pub group Singhboulton was the pioneer with the Duke of Cambridge in Islington, opening with a far-reaching ethical policy that included not just organics, but also a commitment to recycling and using electricity from solar or wind power.
Selling organic cuisine to the clued-up Guardian-reading trendies of north London is one thing; doing it in parts of the country where more conservative views tend to take centre stage is something else. But there's a growing legion of licensees who seem to realise that organic food has growing consumer interest and that means giving positive support to smaller local suppliers. Celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson is the latest to get involved, in the revamp of the Angel Inn at Heytesbury, Wiltshire, shortly to reopen with a specialist menu sourced organically. The pub is one of two new acquisitions by Greene King, and the second, the Highwayman's Haunt at Chudleigh in Devon, will also have an organic theme. But it's not just going to be putting organic food on the menu, it's going to be producing its own in the pub trade's answer to The Good Life.
Growing your own offers obvious cost savings, as long as you have the land and the human resources to do it. Highwayman's Haunt licensee Ashleigh Rosier says: "We have four acres of land which is great to have, but unless you make it earn for you it's not so good. I thought we were in as good a position to grow organic produce as anyone else, and that we could sell on anything that we produced that we didn't need for the pub." But to become a complete organic pub takes a lot of effort, ingenuity and more red tape than most licensees can probably stomach. As Ashleigh points out, growing organically does not necessarily entitle you to market yourself as an organic pub. He adds: "Some of our meat is organic too, but I'd defy anyone to produce a totally organic menu with a decent range and choice on it. "We change our menu every six weeks and it includes 10 starters and 10 main courses, so to come up with a totally organic menu every time would be impossible. Our main thrust is that we use local apples, fish and organic produce wherever we can."
When the pub's own fruit and vegetable patches start to chip in, it will obviously be a boost to its revenues and its margins, even taking into account the cost of employing a full-time gardener. Ashleigh says: "To grow cabbages is going to cost me between 2p and 4p a head, whereas to buy them in is going to be more like 80p. Even with a relatively small plot of land like ours we can produce about 1,000 head of cabbage." The Highwayman's Haunt also has its home-grown strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants."You can't find anything else on the open market that tastes the same," he insists. The pub's ethical stance into meat sourcing goes as far as obtaining veal from an RSPCA-approved supplier. "We have people who come here and eat our veal who say they wouldn't have it anywhere else," says Ashleigh.
The Swan Inn at Inkpen on the Berkshire/Wiltshire border is another producing its own organic products, principally because owners Bernard and Mary Harris were local farmers before taking on the pub. They went organic on the farming front 15 years ago and their commitment to organic produce now extends to a range of three organic draught ales from Hungerford brewer Butts, and a list of some 33 organic wines. But as an extra revenue channel, the pub also has a farm shop, selling not only raw materials from the farm but ready-meal versions of some of the meals from the pub menu, including steak-and-ale pie, Thai green chicken curry and lasagne.
The Harris' farm is accredited as organic as well as just producing organically. Mary Harris says: "When we bought the house with land we didn't have the equipment for sprays so we were growing organically anyway without thinking anything of it. "Eventually we thought we were farming organically so we might as well get ourselves registered as such.This was a long time ago before it became really fashionable." Although times and consumer tastes may have changed, going organic still has its downside for the unaware. Mary says: "Obviously it costs more because you have higher overheads. We now employ two chefs, which we didn't before, and of course the ingredients are more expensive." Jamie Oliver thinks the cost of organic food is overplayed. He says: "It costs more because it's natural and is produced the way that food should be.Young people will happily spend £60 on a night out,but will laugh if you suggest going to a decent restaurant and spending £45 on a good meal."
The Swan empire has its butchery facilities handling meat from its own beef cattle and bought-in lamb, chicken and pork. Some of the farm's beef finds its way into the pub and the rest into the shop, which sells everything from organic olive oil to Ecover detergents. Although the Swan was ahead of the organic game, consumer tastes are at last catching up with such pubs, says Mary. "We have a lot of people among our customers who are committed to buying organic, but we've also got a lot of people who come to the pub to eat our food just because it is really good," she adds.
It's not just the ethics that come through in those who are making a living from organics, but the passion for what they do. As Jamie Oliver recognises: "Being an organic farmer is a labour of love and if you're a small producer then a lot of love goes into what you do. I love farmer's markets and buying from small farms." For pubs it means they can have traceability and control over the sources of their natural ingredients and that's proving to be very appealing in the modern food environment.
Singhboulton leads the way Singhboulton runs the only two certified organic pubs in the UK, which means all its food and drink is organic, with the exception of fish and game. Both of its London-based pubs - the Duke of Cambridge and the Crown - are certified by the Soil Association. The pubs were set up to be organic by its founders Esther Boulton and Geetie Singh, who believe that business has a responsibility to the environment and organic is the only way forward. They also believe that organic produce tends to be of a better quality with a better taste.
The pubs - which offer a rustic style of uncomplicated British food, with regional Mediterranean influences - change their menus twice a day. They also sell more than 50 organic wines and lagers. Geetie Singh explains: "People enjoy coming to the pub because they know it is guilt-free food and when they are eating here they don't have to worry about where it has come from." She says that the food at the pubs is no more expensive than other gastro pubs. "People pay a differen