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Merchant Adventurers

 

In the footsteps of Merchant Adventurers 

You may know the brands, but do you know the personalities behind them? Sandra Lawrence meets up with some unusual explorers who bring delicious goodies to our doorsteps 

Merchant adventurers are the stuff of romance, evoking the ancient Silk Route, exotic spices, rich fabrics, heady perfumes. Think Marco Polo, Walter Raleigh, Errol Flynn.  From Roman times and beyond, the lure of travel and discovery has sent adventurers to the four corners of the earth in search of new hedonistic heights.

 

You might assume that the era of the Merchant Adventurer is long dead. Now that everyone travels and we have restaurants of every world cuisine on every street corner, surely there is no room for the old-fashioned explorer who risks life and limb to bring back gastronomic treasures? 

But you’d be wrong. Out there are our latter-day Walter Raleighs, bringing back modern equivalents of potatoes and tobacco to whet our appetites.   

Mark Leatham is one of them, with a culinary ancestry to live up to, as shown in his company’s name, Merchant Gourmet. A teenage spent in Greece made him realise the potentials of olive oil and the delights of  Mediterranean food.  “We had a Spanish cook who would create dishes from whatever I shot as a child - rabbits, pigeons, anything. I discovered that finding my own food was fun.” 

Leatham enjoys searching-out things that people would love if only they knew about them. He discovered a man in the Camargue who grew a new form of red rice, “but the way it was packaged made it look like birdseed,” he winces. Leatham re-packaged it, and turned it into a best seller. Then the “Italian Revolution” in sun-dried tomatoes happened, and Leatham really found his forte – sun-dried vegetables, including the deli-counter staple, Sunblush Tomatoes.  

Mark Leatham’s voyages of discovery have taken him from Argentina to Canada, from Austria to South Africa. He never knows what he will find – “I’ll often look for one thing but find something else,” he says. Like the time when he went to Austria to hear the mating call of the Capercaillie Grouse and was incidentally served a dish with a dressing he had never tasted before. He loved the roast pumpkinseed oil that it turned out to be and now imports it as part of a range.   

There are unexpected hazards in being a Merchant Gourmet. “Everyone wants to make the Englishman drunk,” he sighs. He is often given weird foods just to see if he will eat them. “I didn’t much enjoy the live raw snail,” he admits, “and didn’t actually try the snake wine…” 

Whilst Mark Leatham imports foodstuffs, Charlie Bigham has taken a different angle. As the founder of Bigham’s Global Gastronomy, he has been influenced by the cooking techniques he saw on his travels after leaving a “sensible” lifestyle to travel the world in a van. “I remembered that when I was working in the City, I detested “convenience” food – all those nasty microwave pre-cooked dishes full of additives,” he shudders. “While we were travelling through India, we would stop by the roadside and have a wonderful meal cooked in a single pan, using fresh ingredients, ready to eat in a few minutes.” 

Inspired, Bigham came home and started experimenting with dishes that could be cooked at home using the single-pan techniques he had witnessed. He came up with a series of ready-marinated meats, prepared vegetables and sauces, which could be cooked at home in the same amount of time that it would take to reheat a take away. “It allows people to do a little burst of cooking themselves,” he explains. Global Gastronomy products, including influences from India, the Carribean, South East Asia and the Middle East can be found in places such as Harvey Nichols, Waitrose, Selfridges and other upmarket food stores.  

Travel is still a part of Bigham’s life – “I had a fantastic dish at a traditional restaurant in Isfahan, chicken with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses,” he says. “I wouldn’t have stumbled upon that if I’d just been on the phone to a supplier.” 

Closer to home, Adrian and Michael Daniels, co-founders of The Gate vegetarian restaurants, are Merchant Adventurers virtually in their own back yards. There is nothing they would rather do than ramble through the British hedgerows to find new and exciting ingredients. 

“We’re after a chicken-of-the-woods,” says Adrian Daniels as we tramp deep among the trees at Hampstead Heath, five minutes from the restaurant. “One of the things I miss, being a vegetarian, is Chicken Tandoori and this fungus has a distinctly chicken taste to it. It’s only an occasional find but well worth the effort.”  

The Daniels brothers, from an Indo-Iraqui background, have a deep respect for the free gifts nature provides. “My first improvised meal was when I was working on a farm in Israel,” says Adrian. Everything closed for the weekend, so he created something from vine leaves, mint and other “found” food, surprising the farmer on his return.

Like all mushroomers, Daniels is secretive about his sources. He doesn’t make me walk blindfold – as some would - but I am sworn to secrecy when we actually find a gnarled, dead oak sprouting alarmingly with the kind of mushroom my mum would have told me was poisonous. “This will be a special tonight,” he says, deftly cutting handfuls of the golden yellow fungus with its delicate peachy folds and placing them carefully in a wicker basket. “These are impossible to cultivate,” says Daniels. “Our customers look forwards to this sort of thing, but they have to be flexible – you can never tell what you will find.” He spies some elderflowers in a hedgerow and wades through the nettles (“the blue nettle flowers are good in salads”) to cut more goodies for his basket. We leave what look to me like some perfectly edible mushrooms under the tree (“No - you can’t eat those”) then squelch around further on a vain search for wild garlic. 

Back at the restaurant, Adrian has barely put his basket down than his brother has his nose in it. “What did you get?” he wants to know. The chicken-of-the-woods is proudly displayed. It is agreed that I “need to try some” – a good enough excuse for the brothers to cook a little of the delicacy. As we solemnly chomp on the pan-fried fungus I have to agree that it does taste like chicken. “That’ll fool a few people this evening,” grins Michael.

  


 

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