Gastronomy professor Alan Harrison tells Richard McComb why the time is right for a dining culture club.
He is a self-professed “budget beanpole”, but Alan Harrison is on a mission – he wants Brummies to not only eat more; he wants them to eat better.
Alan believes the time is right to exploit to the city’s food renaissance by setting up a new branch of a society dedicated to nurturing a love and appreciation of gastronomy.
Alan, who holds an honorary title of professor of gastronomy, bestowed by a Swiss university, wants to establish a West Midlands outpost of the International Food and Wine Society (IFWS).
It claims to be the world’s oldest gastronomic society, with more than 6,000 members in 130 branches in 30 countries, from Helsinki to Hong Kong. If Alan’s plan comes off, Birmingham will be the latest place to add its name to the member cities.
The organisation was founded in 1933 by gourmet and wine connoisseur André L Simon, whose stated aim was to “bring together and serve all who believe that a right understanding of good food and wine is an essential part of personal contentment and health, and that an intelligent approach to the pleasures and problems of the table offers far greater rewards than the mere satisfaction of appetite.”
Alan, from Ross on Wye, is already a member of the IFWS Hereford branch but feels the time is right to set up a base in Birmingham.
His timing is impeccable, with Birmingham having been recently crowned the nation’s “foodie capital” and trumpeted as one of the 45 must-see travel destinations for 2012 – because of its restaurants and food culture – by the New York Times.
Explaining the reasons for the Birmingham branch, Alan says: “It is to do with putting the Second City first. We are just as good as London, but we want a bit of street cred. We have got to start small as a society – but let’s get going.
“If we are going to get this fast rail link to London, let’s get people coming up from London to Birmingham to eat rather than the other way around.”
Alan says he has been impressed with the number and range of the food interest groups in Birmingham, including organisations dedicated to wine appreciation, and hopes to draw on these for new IFWS members.
He is also interested in attracting private individuals who would like to share their love of gastronomy with like-minded individuals.
Alan, a retired tourism advisor who has worked in 15 countries, says: “I hope to capture this market and find places for food and drink-related events.
“Matching wines and food seems to be a key interest for people. On other occasions we might have a cookery demonstration. We might go to a hotel in the afternoon and a chef will do a demo for say 20 people.”
There will be meals at top restaurants, where members will ponder the technical know-how of chefs. The staging of hosted events will be key to the success of the new branch.
These might be lavish meals staged in members’ homes, to which everyone contributes financially. A typical dinner might cost £25 per person, with a pound or so of members’ fees being used for advertising and promotion and a pound being donated to a charity that helps local people.
Alan says he is keen for the society to have a community perspective. There will be public events, at which people might be invited to taste new foods and drinks, and there will collections for charity. Alan says: “At the same time as enjoying themselves, people will know they are doing something to help the community.”
The branch would probably meet every two months.
Alan’s own love of food started as a young man when he trained in hotel management, which he saw as a way of finding out about the world of gastronomy.
Now aged 70, he has seen radical changes in the nation’s food culture. When he was at college in the late 1950s, he says the frozen pea hadn’t been invented.
“Adults had been through the war and had experienced British restaurants and Lyons Corner Houses and they were the bee’s knees. But shortly after, things started to pick up. People started to think about going to Greece on holiday. It took a while for people to realise there was more to life than fish and chips.”
Alan worked in the kitchens of The Savoy and recalls dinner costing £20. “That was three or four weeks’ wages for some people,” he says.
“It was good. You had lobster thermidor, consommé, sole mornay.”
Alan concedes that a gourmet’s lifestyle is not always a cheap one, although it doesn’t have to be extravagantly expensive. Indeed, one of the challenges of setting up an organisation championing the love of good food and wine is confronting the notion that food is cheap.
“My bugbear is despair at the British way of looking at food. The French live to eat. We eat to live,” says Alan. “The gourmet society I am trying to promote is more in tune with the idea of living to eat.
“I just love food. I don’t just use it as a fuel but as a medium for entertainment.”
* For more information on the new Birmingham branch of the IFWS, go to www.birmiwfs.org