While British ‘street food’ used to mean burger vans, chippies on wheels or, if you were very lucky, doughnuts or warm chestnuts, today it’s a very different story. A new and increasingly vibrant street food scene is developing in Yorkshire.
Not only are some of the region’s food festivals getting in on the act with dedicated street food areas – as at the Malton Food Lovers’ Festival – but like its London-based counterpart ‘Eat.st’, the recently formed ‘Northern StrEats’ association has begun promoting the Northern street food scene, supporting would-be sellers and established hands to forge links with festival organisers and local councils.
Street food’s popularity lies in its cheap and cheerfulness, its ability to be fast, filling and fascinating in equal measure. It can also be greatly entertaining. Whether it’s a sizzling wok or flipping burgers and pancakes, street food is about being able to see all the preparation and cooking taking place in front of you, not hidden behind the kitchen door.
‘It’s a real revolution,’ says Cathy McConaghy, founder of Northern StrEats and owner of Lulabelle, a retro camper van, from which she dishes out tea (from vintage tea pots) and homemade cakes at festivals and fairs across the UK. ‘Five years ago we accepted that we’d pay £10 for a greasy burger at a festival and not really enjoy it, but now people want to bring back a flavour of what they see on the streets of Thailand or the Caribbean.’
Fellow StrEat member Andrew Critchett, from Leeds, who runs ‘Fish&’ – a mobile fish and chip shop with a twist – agrees, and says three-course meals in formal restaurants are dying a death. ‘People want more informal dining now,’ he says. ‘They go to Spain and have tapas and want to have something similar here – sharing platters and more experimental food – and street food ticks those boxes.’
Vibrant, fragrant and portable food certainly proved popular at this year’s Malton Food Lovers’ Festival which introduced a new street food section last year – and has never looked back. The diverse and eclectic mix of food to eat on the hoof included rare breed sausages from James and Lucy Haxton at Yorkshire Meats based in Habton House, Malton; specialty venison burgers from Round Green Farm Venison and crispy, fresh pizzas from Mike and Caroline Newland’s portable wood-fired pizza oven Pizza A La Cart.
Artisan Cooks, run by Clover Hudson and David Hunter, also brought their seafood bar concept in Harrogate to the show, cooking up shell-on crevettes (giant prawns) in garlic butter, and a lobster and shellfish roll – lobster, prawns, crayfish and squid tossed in garlic butter and served on little gem lettuce on a granary roll.
‘We try to cook everything on the spot to produce a restaurant quality dish – it’s a bit of luxury, but at the same price as a burger and chips,’ says Clover. ‘People are looking to try new food experiences and street food has an element of theatre which customers enjoy.’
Moreover, while other countries may have developed their own distinct street food dish, Clover believes British street food’s uniqueness lies in its versatility. ‘I think as a country we are willing to adopt all types of ethnic food, from Jewish cuisine to Indian and Bangladeshi curries and Asian food. Our niche may be our adaptability and ever evolving interest in new food experiences,’ she says.
Cathy adds that while Britain may have been slow to catch on to the idea of making more of street food, the country was now making its mark.
‘The British difference is in the high quality of the food and the fact we’re supporting local business by using regional foods,’ she says. ‘We are also more eco-aware – part of Northern StrEats membership policy is that everyone is expected to use biodegradable disposables for example.’
In many ways, British street food is about international food but with a British spin, and Andrew’s ‘global seafood street food inspired goodness’ based in a mobile beach hut in Commercial Street, Leeds is just that. ‘Fish and chips has always been part of our heritage but its image has remained little changed for 150 years.
‘I started experimenting with different flavoured batters, testing the concept at pop up restaurants and festivals and then I set up my mobile catering business,’ says Andrew. ‘We now have a unit in Leeds city centre, painted like a beach hut, which offers traditional fish and chips but it’s miles away from the old fashioned deep fried offering. ‘We do lemon and lime and chilli-infused batter, with fresh, crushed chillis; a masala spiced batter; and a sourdough-crumbed batter with lemon thyme and rosemary. We also do different pan-fried fish such as mackerel with a variety of slaws and beetroot and rhubarb chutney, sourced locally.’
Cathy also brings her own unique and ‘very British’ take on street food from her retro van with bunting, vintage teapots and cake stands, silver serves and homemade cakes – including her best-selling Chocolate Guinness Cake – and freshly brewed Yorkshire Tea and Taylor’s Coffee.
And although in many ways she’s not strictly ‘street’, the mobile nature of the business and the performance element still apply. She ices all the cakes on the day and encourages children to decorate their own cup cakes.
‘Street food brings together everything I love; cooking, baking, travelling in my camper van and meeting people,’ says Cathy, winner of the British Street Food Awards in 2010. ‘I love life on wheels, I’m not tied down to a fixed abode and it’s flexible – we can be somewhere different every weekend.’
Although street food has been slower to take off outside London, it’s now picking up pace with more than 20 street food sellers signing up to the Northern StrEats group, and Cathy and Andrew planning to set up regular street food markets across the North.
‘Part of the battle is that different councils have different ideas and policies about selling food on the street – there’s a lot of bureaucracy,’ adds Cathy. ‘Some don’t have a clue what street food is and think it involves lots of noise and rubbish, and the laws governing street food are still based on the 1837 Peddlers’ License. But we’re continuing to work on promoting and educating people about it.’
Andrew believes the future’s bright. ‘I think street food is here to stay,’ he says. ‘Councils like Leeds are beginning to recognise the important role of street food in adding to the visitor experience, and with so many high street shops closing, street food can help to revitalize these areas with a mix of independent retailers and add to the customer experience.’
Cathy has more of relaxed approach to the future. ‘I don’t know where I’ll be next year, I may do a couple more seasons, I may not,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, that’s the beauty of street food – it’s a transient thing and most sellers just say “let’s see how we go”.