Finding samphire, Chanterelle mushrooms or heritage tomatoes on a pub’s menu is now a marker of quality and no longer a quirky experiment with the British public’s taste buds. It means the produce going into the kitchens is fresh, seasonal and picked for quality and flavour not price. Our pubs have been at the forefront of the British pub food revolution for years, championing the very best seasonal ingredients to go into our dishes and a key partner in this endeavour is the source of our fruit and veg.
Premier Fruits is based in New Covent Garden in Battersea and delivers to our 170 pubs 52 weeks a year. The company was started by Jason back in 1987. “I began as a man in a van. My grandad bought me a van and loaded it with 40 boxes of tomatoes and I drove round the West End selling them to all the Italian restaurants.” This entrepreneurial spirit sits at the core of Jason’s business, Premier Fruits, even if he no longer drives the vans himself.
As he guides us through the concrete labyrinth of the market, he is constantly interrupted by other market traders who have worked with Jason for years. “I’ve got keys to most of the units in this market,” Jason says as he leads me to a stall named The Mushroom Man. “If I need some mushrooms, I can let myself in here, take what I need then come by later and drop off what I owe.”
The unsociable working hours of the market (we arrive at 8am by which time we have missed all of the trading, which starts around midnight each day) plus the disconnected nature of the market site itself lends itself to a true community spirit, such as you might expect from a soap opera. There are rivalries, love interests and plenty of wheeling and dealing.
Jason’s business is now one of the largest operating out of the market and it’s this get-up-and-go outlook that has driven the growth: knocking on people’s doors was the modus operandi when he first started. Nowadays, he was a big support team working with customers on a daily basis but it is Jason’s charisma and absolute passion for what he’s selling that has fuelled Premier Fruits’ success.
The sheer variety of his produce is astounding. He proudly shows me a box of squashes of all shapes, sizes and colours. I ask him about the heritage ‘trend” and whether it’s here to stay. “Heritage simply means a seed handed down through generations, grown for flavour and taste not industrial use.” From his perspective, a renewed focus on flavour and quality and, therefore, biodiversity can only be a good thing. He tells us that food trends have a measurable effect on what customers are ordering. “People are eating a lot healthier these days. If one influential person is doing something special with avocados everyone wants it. How supermarkets market their image and products has a knock on effect for us.”
He comments that the improvement in quality of Young’s pubs’ menus has been astounding but admits fish and chips is still his favourite dish.
In the case of some of the produce Jason is selling, it can take just 24 hours to go from field to fork, an incredible achievement by anyone’s standards. Nutbourne Tomatoes is one such example. Based in West Sussex on the edge of the South Downs, Nutbourne’s dozens of varieties of tomatoes have been popping up on plates in all of our pubs over the last year, especially with the growth in popularity of brunch dishes and salads.
As Jason leads me through their cavernous cold store, it’s incredible to see, up-close, just how many varieties of fruit and veg we are consuming in the UK now. I wonder whether constantly working with such healthy food all day has a reverse effect on Jason and I ask him if he gets his 5 a day. The answer is hardly surprising: “Yes, every day. I try everything we buy”.