As an avid home cook eager to learn about new ingredients and culinary traditions, I look forward to Central Market’s annual Passport event, a two-week long event. The Texas-based specialty grocery store started with a festival honoring the cuisine of Argentina, centering around celebrity chef Francis Mallmann grilling a whole cow in the parking lot. Every year since, I’ve enjoyed discovering traditional food, wines, spices, coffees, cheeses, produce, meats and seafood from Greece, Mexico, Italy, France, Brazil and Spain. Passport is the best way for most of us to discover the flavors from countries to which we can only dream to travel.
Non-Brits may be underwhelmed by this year’s Passport UK – after all the British Isles have held the reputation of a horrible cuisine for decades, and deservedly so. After WWII supplies were scarce at best. Families made do with whatever was available, combining leftovers and inexpensive ingredients to create masterpieces like Bubble and Squeak. Truth is, Britain’s culinary offer has come a long way in recent years, combining ancient artisan methods with a revived and thriving small farm system.
If you are from the Isles or have visited, you’ll find familiar flavors from artisan Stilton to jarred piccalilli, Scottish oatcakes and smoked salmon, Irish butter, house-made meat pies, Earl Grey-brined rotisserie chicken and lemon shortbread. For those of us acquainted but not knowledgeable, a bunch of surprises await. For me, the revelation was the world-class sparkling wine from Southeastern England. I got a tasting tour at the West Gate store In Austin from two experts – Wine and Beer Manager Andy Christiansen, and Jeremy Jackson, Cheese Department Lead and an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional – from some of the more unique selections available in Texas for the first time.
According to Christiansen, England’s wine growing region shares the same ancient sea bed limestone soil as that of Champagne, producing wines that are incredibly similar in flavor profile. However, because of the region’s cooler temperature, the wines have a brighter acidity. Here, sustainability is the overall theme, relatable to the grower Champagne movement, with an emphasis in estate-grown fruit and traditional method production.
The Balfour Brut 1503 and the award-winning Brut Rosé from Hush Heath Estate in Kent wowed immediately. Hush Heath comprises 400 acres, 130 of which are vineyards producing award-winning sparkling wines and apple ciders from their orchards. Toasty on the nose and wonderfully balanced with acidity, these wines are as food-friendly as they come, yet perfectly suitable by themselves. Nyetimber’s “entry-level” Classic Cuvee sees more than three years on lees in cellar, producing complex aromas with honey, almond, pastry and baked apple, but try to get your hands on one of the few bottles of the 2013 Tillington Vineyard offering. Hattingley Valley in Hampshire produces a lovely rosé that is so easy on the palate yet complex enough to impress and perfect to pair with a basket of fish and chips. It also boasts a 92 score from the Wine Advocate.
Jackson, who is a fountain of cheese knowledge, turned me on to interesting selections including the rare Kirkham’s Lancashier from Neal’s Yard, the last farmhouse raw-milk Lancashire in the world, made by third-generation cheesemaker Graham Kirkham. It is creamy yet crumbly, with a pleasant tang and distinct texture. The Welsh slate cavern-aged cheddar from Dragon is made from a special recipe and matured for at least 11 months before transporting to the slate caverns in Blaenau Ffestiniog and left to age 500 feet underground. This traditional ageing process takes place in original mining caverns which have been converted into cheese caves. Cropwell Bishop Creamery’s traditional rennet Stilton is aged up to 15 weeks which renders a creamy texture and strong flavor, perfect to pair with Port or pears. Their potted Stilton is velvety soft, suitable for vegetarians, and presented in a beautiful ceramic jar that make it a perfect gift. This is one of the products that bears the special seal that marks it as a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II.
Central Market is also one of only five retailers in the world offering Mey Selections, Scottish products hand-picked by Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay, to highlight the best that farmers and producers of Scotland’s Highlands can offer. The line includes smoked salmon, Whiskey cakes, biscuits, and specialty cheeses that are not to be missed.
Indulge in opportunity to try some of the UK’s finest food products and ready-made dinners inspired by traditional recipes, or take a cooking class and learn to make them yourself. Passport UK ends on October 2, 2018.