Is there a British capital of live fire food and flaming brilliance? And, if so, is this West Country city and its environs the one?
I can hear food dragons the length and breadth of the land lining up to eat my insolence, but that’s the provocative point. So, let’s talk Bristol and be damned.
Andy Clarke is a renowned food and drinks writer, TV presenter and producer. This year he was main stage host at the Tom Kerridge-inspired Pub in the Park festivals and many others and can be seen dispensing drinks and cocktail tips on ITV’s Love Your Weekend with Alan Titchmarsh.
“There are so many reasons to love Bristol, and its unique food and drink culture is one of them. Some people might think I’m biased because I was born and raised around here. But having lived in the London area for 20 years, it was the draw of the food scene that made me want to come back to Bristol to live,” says Clarke, a regular BBQ magazine columnist.
“Bristol is a wonderful, liberal city with a vibrant eating scene. The city isn’t trying to emulate any other city – it has an identity all of its own. From the unbelievable amount of small independent restaurants to some insanely good fine dining establishments, Bristol’s got something for everyone. I particularly like the food markets and pop-ups that you find dotted around the city and the culture of food over fire which is popular right now.”
He cites chefs like Genevieve Taylor, who runs Bristol Fire School and Henry Eldon as bringing “flame cooking to the forefront of the city’s food scene with amazing ingenuity”.
“With an ever-changing outlook on the future of food, I can’t wait to see what Bristol serves up next.”
Jon Finch, also a regular BBQ magazine contributor, delves into history to find the roots of Bristol’s food heritage.
“For hundreds of years, Bristol was the second most important trading port in the country after London, with its protected estuary, easy access to the sea and inland river transport. It’s a city that was built on the proceeds of global trade – some good and, of course, some bad. So, it’s no surprise with its influx of exotic spices, ingredients and adventurous travellers that Bristol became a melting pot of world cuisine. Combine that with the city’s fiercely independent culture and renowned creative spirit you have a perfect recipe for the foodie heaven that Bristol is famous for.”
Finch refers to the diverse range of restaurants, as well as the ‘Diagon Alley’ take-out food strip in St Nicholas Market.
“Even the late, great legend Keith Floyd embarked on his foodie journey in the city, operating a number of his bistros here.”
Bristol is a hotbed for barbecue too and Finch has played in an integral part in that, having established, with co-founder Ben Merrington, the Grillstock BBQ & Music Festival down on the harbourside back in 2010.
“It grew from attracting 3,000 visitors in the first year into tens of thousands of meat-crazed, smoke loving fans. If you were into BBQ, then Bristol was Mecca. Through our annual BBQ competition, many local teams were forged, as well as others coming from the rest of the country and even overseas, reinforcing and building on the live fire scene in the area.”
Finch’s first hospitality venture was in fact one of the food stalls in St Nicholas Market.
“We’d been running the Grillstock Festival for a few years and in 2012 an opportunity arose to take over one of the little 3m x 2m pitches. We leapt at the chance, installed a Fast Eddie smoker and our BBQ restaurant journey began. Each evening we’d fill the smoker with heavily rubbed pork shoulders for 18 hours of hickory smoke before shredding them fresh to order to fill sweet brioche rolls for lunch the next day,” says Finch.
“It was a simple operation but very successful and sold out to long lines
of customers every day. That small takeout stall grew into a chain of BBQ Smokehouses around the country, but the festival and the city of Bristol were always at the heart of it.”
Grillstock ran until 2017, but Finch’s passion for hospitality and live-fire cooking remains as strong as ever. He works with Dan Cooper, Weber head grill master, running live-fire cookery days on the Belmont Estate at Wraxall, near Bristol.
Finch gives live fire cooking masterclasses nationally, is the author of three bestselling cookbooks and has just finished writing his fourth cookbook, “The Wood Fired Feast”, published by GMC and out in March.
Finch, a regular contributor to many events and fire-and-feast experiences, including Black Deer Festival, also owns the Quay Street Diner in the centre of Bristol with Ben Merrington – an all-day diner with a loose Californian/Mexican vibe.
And it is to the Quay Street Diner we head for lunch and if I had any doubts about Finch’s food eulogy to the city, they were silenced by his sublime smash burger – beef patties, burger cheese, grilled onions, pickles and Diner burger sauce – and as for the piggy stardust fires (smoked bacon bits and bacon dust), if we didn’t have to catch The Wave, the artificial inland surf lake, my children would still be there eating them now.
Max Lahiff is a recently adopted son of Bristol and his backpack has got badges from all round the world. As he plays Premiership rugby for Bristol, it is an excuse to get a feed at The Pigsty, Home of the Hog and the Jolly Hog crew, purveyors of fine sausages and all things pork, led by former Bristol, Harlequins and Wales, rugby forward Olly Kohn. A co-owner of The Pigsty restaurant is Harlequins and England prop Will Collier, who would have locked horns a few times with fellow prop Lahiff.
Slow-cooked pork belly with crackling and apple sauce, BBQ pulled pork, a signature burger, crispy pork belly bites. BBQ loaded fries, and the scotch egg – dear god, the scotch egg, Jolly Hog Proper Porker sausage meat wrapped around a soft-boiled egg and coated in crispy panko breadcrumbs. Rumour has it that this scotch egg is used at rugby training, placed on various parts of the field to encourage props to get to the breakdown quicker.
We all know rugby players and front-row forwards in particular love food, but Lahiff really, really loves food and is really good at cooking it too and a big fan of the fire.
“I travelled a lot growing up, experiencing different foods and cultures – Australia, Egypt, Singapore, Nepal, China. It became a culinary education too. I was always curious about cooking,” says Lahiff, whose parents are Carolyn Trevor and Patrick Lahiff, who run Trevor Lahiff Architects, an award-winning London practice specialising in one-off, high-end residential projects for private clients and developers.
In architectural terms Max Lahiff is a Doric column, with a physique which would probably get him on the Olympus team, coupled with the strength to bench-press the Parthenon. There is a Corinthian spirit there too and, while as single-minded as they come on the pitch and relentless in his pursuit of being the best he can be, his singular interviews, with rich, baritone language and soaring, sometimes bonkers, metaphors suggest the world of media, broadcasting and even acting beckon when he unbinds from his last scrummage.
I reckon Lahiff could do Shakespeare but give him a soliloquy and he might start freestyling – Hamlet in a jockstrap. One Bristol Bears pre-match interview nearly broke the internet as, ahead of a game against Wasps, he spoke of the visceral nature of rugby, “the gladiatorial confrontation,” reaching so deep he ends up “talking to my ancestors and missing lungs”.
A natural storyteller, his cooking videos are great value too, a lot of fun, food and fire, and Lahiff also has the advantage of nutritional knowledge and dietary discipline – proteins, calories, carbs – as a professional athlete, taking care of his body and getting the balance right. The gym helps too.
“Eat healthy and eat well and cooking is great for your mental health too. Every rugby household I’ve been in over the years I’ve ended up as the chef,” says Lahiff, which when you have had housemates of the culinary calibre of England players Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph is apparently just as well.
Lahiff started his professional rugby career at London Irish and had spells at Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and for the Melbourne Rebels in Australia, where he loved the Victoria food scene and, through his father, might have ended up in Wallaby international colours. There was a spell at Bath and now down the road with the Bristol Bears.
His Damascene live fire moment was in Sacramento, USA, where the meat served by an old timer from a smoke barrel at a street festival “blew my mind”.
His last BBQ before meeting his ancestors – some beef short ribs, brisket, mac ‘n’ cheese, gherkins and jalapenos. “Smoke and fire speak to me.” And it was a delight to speak to Max. Expect to hear a lot more from him.
Next was a trip to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which had me contemplating a meal at the Goram & Vincent smokehouse at the neighbouring Avon Gorge Hotel, but alas it was closed. Next time.
And, finally, a random street ramble that took in Big Nath’s BBQ, a popular pop-up – try his fall-off-the-bone ribs with his own sauce – and down to the harbour and The Ostrich pub with its Portside BBQ.
A gauntlet has been set alight and thrown down and I’m willing to listen to the competing, compelling merits of rival towns, cities, villages, even hamlets.
It will mean visiting, eating and drinking, which will further reduce my chances of catching a wave at The Wave when I return – surf and turf indeed.
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