An interview with Angus D. Birditt: food writer, photographer & researcher
Having written and worked for numerous food and farming organisations (the Sustainable Food Trust, Farms to Feed Us, Pipers Farm, Pasture for Life…) Angus D. Birditt founded the award-winning platform ‘Our Isles’ as a place to enjoy and explore articles, photography and exhibitions on good food, nature-friendly farming, rural heritage and the natural environment. he want on to write a collection of poetry called Our Isles (Pavilion Books) and A Portrait of British Cheese (Quadrille Books)
What made you get into doing what you do?
I have always been passionate about good food and drink, especially regional and seasonal food, knowing the place and people behind it. But I initially started off my career in the food & drink industry as a food producer. It was in my last year at university when I founded the food company, The Bridge Lodge, which sold wild food products. It was a time when the Welsh Government placed ‘food’ on the same funding level as ‘tourism’. This was brilliant, giving us free consultation on building our business and researching our nutritional values, funding opportunities, and perhaps most importantly, gave us access to large food and drink festivals and international trade shows hosted across the UK.
Over the course of a couple of years attending these food fairs, festivals and trade shows, my knowledge and experience grew about what good food really was, meeting food producers directly that were placing quality over quantity. There were some food producers, however, that were not, and due to their brilliant marketing, were being lauded as much as those who were brilliant producers, so you really had to see the wood through the trees! The whole experience really encouraged me to question the food we were eating, what was good in terms of quality and the impact to the environment, animal and human welfare, and single out those food producers who were doing something exceptional.
What is your philosophy for your food?
My two passions in life are good food and the natural environment, and with that, the wildlife that calls it home. So, my philosophy on food is that we should be eating food that is produced in line with nature as much as it is possible, using its natural cycles and wonderous seasons to produce good, healthy, diverse and nutritious foods. I’ve always been told that ‘Mother Nature knows best’, and I agree, we’ve been here a lot less than she has!
One of my biggest pleasures in life is to enjoy simple, good food that has been made in respect with its natural environment. Take a fresh, juicy, crispy, slightly sour autumnal apple. Now, imagine that that apple has been grown in a traditional orchard, managed in line with nature (i.e. no chemical use, margins left for wildflowers for pollinators to thrive, and perhaps pasture-fed ruminant animals mowing lanes in between the trees to improve soil health), knowing that, I guarantee you that you’ll enjoy the taste of that apple so much more!
Food that evokes a true essence of nature, connecting us to the place and the people (and in some cases, the animals) who produced it, is my philosophy.
Farmhouse dairy, pasture-fed meat, raw honey, natural wine and cider, all these things you can count me in!
Describe a typical working day
My typical working day is very varied, which I love. I’ve got a rather short attention span when it comes to sitting down and working a 9-5 job for a week, so I need to be doing various different things to keep my mind active and happy.
Perhaps describing my typical working week is best. I work part-time for Pasture for Life as a content creator, portraying the impressive things they get up to from farming with nature to research and hosting events. It is an organisation spearheading pasture-fed food and farming, which, if I’m doing my job right, has a multitude of benefits to the health of planet, animals and people. Pasture for Life is built up of hundreds of pasture-fed farmers, researchers, policymakers and a core team. What I particularly enjoy doing is narrating the stories of their farmers and food producers out in the field, capturing them working with nature to produce nutrient-dense foods.
In the other 3-4 days in the week, I write and photograph on topical and relevant subjects in the food and farming industries, from capturing farmhouse producers like farmhouse cheesemakers, to narrating the truths and transparencies about our food system. Working for the Sustainable Food Trust, under its CEO (and maker of Hafod Cheddar) Patrick Holden, was inspiring to learn about the often-hidden truths in our food industry.
I also love travelling to different places and experiencing the local food and drink. On most weekends, I would travel somewhere to sample its local delights, from a regional cheese and seasonal produce to a new café or restaurant.
What’s the best part of your job? And do you have a favourite memory from work?
The best part of my job is getting out and about, exploring new places and meeting new people. It’s a time when I am always asking questions, always learning. Travelling a lot, I get to meet a lot of interesting people, and what I love to do is make connections between those people, perhaps on a collaboration between them and me, or between them and someone else, building relationships and creating innovative projects for the love of good food and the natural environment is something that certainly drives me.
A favourite memory is probably on visits to farmhouse cheesemakers, experiencing the whole process of making cheese. Stonebeck was a wonderful experience, meeting the Hattans on their beautiful, isolated farmstead in Nidderdale.
When you are at home, what is your staple dish for the family?
We love a good spag bowl, using local pasture-fed meat when we can. We are lucky to have an organic, pasture-fed farm down the road from us who we source our beef mince from when we’re making it. Of course, the spag bowl needs to have a good heap of grated cheese on there, Old Winchester is always a gooden!
What is your favourite place to go eat?
I have so many favourite places to eat, so I can suggest three places I love to go when I’m in the area, which are all rather different. The first, for a real treat, is Quo Vadis, headed by the wonderful Jeremy Lee, a classic British restaurant serving some unique dishes in the heart of Soho in London, their smoked eel sandwich and towering meringues are both a-must.
The second place is a pizza place called Hangin’ Out, deep within the Snowdonia National Park. This is a place I love to visit after a long walk in the Welsh mountains. They love to use their local Brefu Bach cheese on their specials, which pleases me greatly.
The third is Brassica Restaurant in Beaminster, Dorset. They are a delightful small restaurant in the town’s quaint square that specialise in serving local, seasonal produce.
Do you have any other hidden foodie gems you think are worth people knowing about?
Plenty! If you’re heading to the West of Scotland, head to the Isle of Mull and to the Isle of Mull Cheese’s Glass Barn. This vine-covered barn not only has breath-taking views of the island and stretching seas, it serves good coffee and you can buy their farmhouse cheeses.
The second hidden gem is Fermento, an Italian family kitchen in Cockermouth, Cumbria. I am a sucker for tiramisu, and this charming Italian restaurant does one of the best I’ve tried.
Do you have a favourite cheese at the moment? If so, why is it your favourite?
My cheese preference certainly depends on my mood! I am enjoying the three raw milk farmhouse Wensleydales at the moment – Fellstone, Yoredale and Stonebeck. All made to the same ‘Dales’ recipe, they are all so different and delicious in their own way. I visited all three producers and Andy from The Courtyard Dairy to write a piece on their recent resurgence (https://www.ourisles.co.uk/theresurgenceoffarmhousewensleydale)
What couldn’t you live without?
Well, probably most dairy delights like milk and cheese, but as I travel a lot, I couldn’t live without my brown leather boots that have guided me over thousands of miles on these isles, plus my rucksack that is normally filled with a hole-bitten Guernsey jumper, beetroot juice, an apple, a squashed sandwich, water and quite often a chunk of cheese!
Where do you look for inspiration?
Going for a good walk in nature is where I get to unwind and gather inspiration for writing. Visiting food markets, festivals and producers is also where I get inspired, meeting new people who are doing interesting things. I spend a lot of time working remotely as well, so it’s always nice to visit a town or city and explore its food scene to spark inspiration.
What are your plans for the future?
Plan is to keep learning! Food and especially farming at the moment is in a new phase of development. The two industries need to evolve quickly to reserve the effects of climate change, and done correctly, farming can be a solution to it. Learning how this can be done is fascinating. As I have been doing since A Portrait of British Cheese was published, I will continue to promote the book, talking at various events and share the wonders of farmhouse produce. I would love to write another book soon, I have so many ideas!
What’s your favourite way to cook cheese (if you have a brief recipe that’d be great!)
I’m delighted to share a recipe from my book, A Portrait of British Cheese, using Shropshire or Sparkenhoe Blue made by the Clarkes at Sparkenhoe Farm. Read the recipe here >. I love to have this recipe for any lunch or dinner, either piping hot at home or served cold on a long walk with a fresh salad.