South West is best: Bristol's foodie community enters combat with Covid-19
Capital of the West Country, Bristol's food scene has been the envy of many cities for some time and in the face of adversity it continues to lead
Crowned late last year as the best culinary destination in the world at the World Food Association's Food Trekking Awards, which declared the city "a class by itself", Bristol has topped lifestyle poll after lifestyle poll in recent times, and some of that success can be put down to its vibrant, innovative food and drink scene.
The COVID-19 crisis has encouraged plenty of enterprising thought among the area's various industries, and after what seemed like a few mere moments frozen in wholly understandable panic, Bristol’s restaurant chefs and foodie organisations galvanised, springing into action to put their skills to good use, ensure the community’s most vulnerable would be fed, and raise money to support independent food producers and suppliers.
A cross-sector collective of restaurants, farmers, growers and community food organisations that have come together to feed those who need help most during the coronavirus chaos, Bristol Food Union comprises the likes of down-to-earth duo Dominic Borel and Ben Harvey – the cousins behind a couple of Britain's best pasta restaurants. Big fans of Pasta Loco, and its little sister Pasta Ripiena, include Tom Parker Bowles and Jay Rayner, who bestowed top marks when they visited each respectively. The Union gang also includes Great British Menu's Josh Eggleton, the Michelin-starred Somerset chef that you may also have seen at the helm of The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes on Channel 4. This televised social experiment saw a handful of people living with dementia – everyone from a former judge to the former fastest milkman in the west – staffing a pop-up restaurant to prove to employers that a diagnosis doesn't have to mean the end of a career.
So, you get the picture; the Bristol Food Union is a crew of all-round pretty good eggs. "It's been a crazy couple of weeks, but we are so proud of this city and how we come together in times of need," they said, on sharing the news of the initiative. It's working in collaboration with local outfit FareShare South West, which redistributes surplus food from the hospitality industry to the vulnerable, and homelessness charity Caring in Bristol, which has just launched what's believed to be the UK's first food delivery service for the homeless. The Union has created six secure production kitchens around the city to support Caring In Bristol to feed the homeless, the vulnerable and adults who have recently left the foster-care system, and chefs have been hard at work making hundreds of portions of mac and cheese and minestrone soup.
"A group of restaurants, including us, got together in the days before restaurants were shut," says Tess Lidstone of Box-E – a locally lauded eatery housed within a shipping container in Bristol's trendy Wapping Wharf. "We wanted to support each other through a very tricky time but we also knew that there was a lot we could achieve to help those who would be suffering during coronavirus, while we weren’t cooking and serving in our own places. And so the Bristol Food Union was born.
"We have so much love for FareShare and Caring in Bristol. We know how hard they work and how essential their services are from collaborating with them before, but now even more so. The SquareFood Foundation is fantastic too. There are so many chefs and food producers who are chipping in to make the biggest impact we can. I have never been more proud to be a Bristolian."
Husband-and-wife team Tess and Elliot knew it wasn't possible to adapt their bijou restaurant Box-E once government restrictions had been put in place. "We didn’t feel it was right to ask staff to work for a non-essential service to do something like delivery. Instead we have been cooking meals for families who have been slipping through the net with the lack of free school meals and much more." They’re also putting together more than 400 boxes of essential food and supplies for young people who’ve just left foster care. "Total Produce have kindly lent us their vans to make this happen and Ashton Gate Stadium have given us a space so we can pack safely, observing social distancing. The future for our restaurant is up in the air. We hope that we will get some government funding so we can reopen but it will be tough for many of us. In the meantime we will do what we know best – cooking and loving people."
An impressive £7,000 of the Bristol Food Union £20,000 crowdfunding target has been raised already, with West Country band Massive Attack having notably chucked in a hefty £5,000 chunk. If you can help financially, click here to donate, or click here to find out more about donating surplus scran or volunteering with FareShare nationally (17 organisations make up the national network).