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Just how local is local? It's a question pubs are increasingly being asked as consumers become more interested in the credentials of the food on...

Just how local is local? It's a question pubs are increasingly being asked as consumers become more interested in the credentials of the food on their plate.

It's hard to argue that supermarkets haven't made a lot of the running in this area. Campaigns by chains such as Waitrose and Sainsbury's to promote food speciality ranges linked to the region in which they're sold, undoubtedly prompted by genuine concerns among consumers, have helped to bring issues such as food miles and animal welfare to the fore.

The good news is that this is an area where pubs, with a more direct link to the communities they trade in, can pick up the baton and hopefully make up some ground. Many individual pubs already spotlight local food.

These include the Fence Gate Inn in Lancashire, named Freehouse of the Year at the Publican Awards 2007, which makes it own sausages on site and has become a focus for regional food specialities. The Fox, at North Waltham in Hampshire, named Food Pub of the Year, sources meat from nearby suppliers, including game from local shoots.

Pub groups are also increasingly finding local food provides a point of difference. Notable among these are St Austell in Cornwall, Thwaites in Lancashire and Shepherd Neame in Kent.

London brewer Fuller's has also begun to focus more closely on the sales boost a local, fresh food menu can deliver. While this was happening before its takeover of the George Gale estate at the start of last year - with pubs in the City sourcing from Borough Market, for example - the expansion into the Hampshire countryside has undoubtedly helped to beef up its regional food credentials.

This spring, Fuller's became a corporate partner of county food group Hampshire Fare. Derek Beaves, as head of marketing with Gales, had co-ordinated the brewer's support for Hampshire Fare and now combines a marketing role with Fuller's with the chairmanship of the food organisation.

"It's grown considerably since we started a few years ago," says Derek. "We began with around 20 local producers, including Gales. Now there are more than 100 from across the county." Hampshire Fare is backed by Hampshire County Council, as well as the South East England Development Agency and the South East Food Group Partnership, with a brief to support producers in the county. Along with cask beer, these now range from watercress growers to vineyards making Hampshire wines.

Crucially, Derek believes that the 60-plus pubs operated by Fuller's across the county are now better geared up to source and serve local food, while the producers have benefited from the support of Hampshire Fare.

"It's not just about saying how good Hampshire food is, it's about helping the producers to find a route to market," he says. "A couple of years ago we ran a local sausage competition and part of the prize was that we'd put the winning sausage on the menu in our pubs."

Having taken a little time to sort out the supply chain and marketing arrangements, Derek was somewhat apologetic when he phoned the winning butcher to confirm the promotion. "In fact, he said he didn't mind the delay as he wouldn't have been able to produce enough sausages straight away."

Things have moved on, with the company's pubs actively involved in the Hampshire Food Festival this June and July, and suppliers more geared up to pubs' needs. Along with special events celebrating local food and drink, there were open days at many of the Hampshire Fare suppliers, and special menus at pubs and restaurants.

Fuller's development chef Simon Howlett says: "More of our pubs are making a feature of local produce on menus and increasingly on specials boards." During the festival there's an opportunity to showcase this, with awareness of local food high among local customers and visitors to Hampshire.

Typical of the suppliers working with Fuller's is South Downs Lamb and Beef, an umbrella group for producers in the region which guarantees quality-assured meat. This enables the pubs to support local suppliers, while no individual supplier need be daunted by the quantities needed by a busy pub group.

"We can still work with smaller suppliers if a particular pub wants to use someone local," says Derek. So, at the Bat and Ball pub in Hambledon, the specials board features organic meat and poultry bought directly from Hyden Farm, a nearby family business which produces some of the area's best organic produce, although in relatively small quantities.

The pub, located opposite the pitch that claims to be the birthplace of English cricket, is managed by Jane and Tony Drinkwater. Jane says: "Both the price we pay and the amount of organic produce we can get from Hyden Farm means it works best as a special. When it's gone, its gone, but visitors and regulars like to see us supporting local suppliers."

Hyden Farm meat is also on the menu at the Red Lion, a couple of miles down the road in Chalton. The 11th century inn is billed as the oldest pub in Hampshire, and uses a large chalkboard menu to spotlight local and seasonal dishes. This includes South Down beef and lamb as well as the organic produce.

Alongside more local produce, some Fuller's Hampshire pubs are revisiting their approach to food. The Still & West, a high-profile pub in a prominent location on the harbour at Portsmouth, has recently been through a major refurbishment. As part of the revamp, an upstairs area which used to be a dedicated fish restaurant has become part of the general seating at the pub.

"We used to have an area where the tables were laid, which clearly said 'restaurant', and quite an upmarket fish menu," says Derek. "There was also a refrigerated display where the fish were kept. That all looked a little old-fashioned."

The pub has kept one of its trademarks, fish and chips sold in newspaper, but the menu has been expanded by head chef Neil Horne. "Rather than running just a seafood restaurant, we have a wider menu, with seafood specials." This includes 28-day aged grilled South Down beef and a South Down burger.

"We also found the fish display was actually putting some people off," says Neil. "They don't want to eat something if they've seen its face." With the Portsmouth fishing fleet moored close to the pub, much of the fish is caught in the Solent. However, the menu also features a charcuterie plate including Parma ham and salami Milano, as well as wild boar sausages served with Normandy mash, and even a Szechuan duck mixed-leaf salad.

Which comes back to that question of just how local does local food have to be? "People aren't too concerned that all the food is sourced on their doorstep," says Simon. "They're concerned about provenance, and the conditions in which food is produced."

Derek adds: "Serving regional food helps with tourism, while it also shows your regular customers that you're supporting local businesses. It's the same as if you pay a local plumber to fix the loos - some of that money will come straight back over the bar."

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