Wild at Heart
Noel Fitzjohn of Fitz Fine Foods talks to Linda Cooke about the wild ingredients at the heart of his product lines.
Noel Fitzjohn of Fitz Fine Foods is an erudite and earthy fellow with a great big pair of hands, which are always busy working. They have not always worked with food - his apparent dexterity has seen him restoring antiques, designing signage and fixing engines over the years. These days though, his hands are gainfully employed picking and preparing the rare and delicate wild foods that are the cornerstone of his business.
Fitz Fine Foods specialises in artisan pates, terrines, confits and condiments, all handmade on Noel's estates in France and England. French favourites such as Pâté de fois gras, wild boar terrine and confit de canard share table space with some of Noel's more off-beat produce, such as his foraged mushrooms and wild fruit and vegetables.
The Fitz Fine Foods adventure began seven years ago when Noel and his partner threw themselves into a refurbishment project in the Limoges region of France. It was here that the two of them fell in love with the wonderful produce of the local markets. Almost instantly the pair were inspired to start their own food business and they have now been trading at Borough for approaching five years.
Noel tells me he has always been a great lover of food. In his 20's he was inspired by the idea of self-sufficiency, which led to him keeping and slaughtering his own animals and growing his own organic food. "Although at the time I didn't realise it was organic!" says Noel. "It was just food." He has always enjoyed cooking and fondly remembers those heady days spent working with his own ingredients.
Noel learned about foraging as a child and has gone on to develop a canny knack of understanding the environment he inhabits. He explains how, after it has rained, the natural downwards flow of the water will determine where and when the best wild mushrooms will grow. Noel assures us that when it comes to mushrooms his outlook is one of safety first, avoiding any fungi that might possibly be risky, sticking to the safe options like field and horse mushrooms.
Noel also finds real enjoyment in sharing his knowledge with Borough Market's customers and offering recipes and tips. He gets a real buzz from the knowledge that the products he is selling have been made with ingredients that he has personally found and picked.
Together with the hand-foraged mushrooms, he sells other foraged goods from his forest land in France, such as wild asparagus and is also a big champion of wild garlic. "It is one of the unsung heroes of the food world," he says, "and I tend to use it in just about everything!" He picks his wild garlic in a small forest in Little Bayham, Kent, where he has beengranted permission to gather this delicate herb.
One of the most popular lines on sale at his stall is a wild garlic mustard which, he says, "is simply flying out". To make this delicious condiment, the garlic needs to be sorted and washed before being blitzed in a food processor, then boiled for pasteurisation. The flavour-packed water from this is then drained onto the mustard seeds, which Noel orders wholesale from Canada. These are left in the fridge covered with a loose muslin lid for around four days. When ready, the best Fleur de Sel salt from the Camargue in France is added, together with some really good quality French red vinegar and a touch more of the garlic. It is then pulsed in the blender. Noel sometimes also adds some dark leaf spinach for extra colour, which is bought fresh from the market during his fortnightly trip to France.
Noel's handmade mustards have become an increasingly important part of his offering. He says they have taken off, despite his initial suspicion that they would prove to be a fairly niche product. In total, Fitz Fine Foods now sell 32 different types of mustard, including Devilled mustard - a blend of chillies, tamarind and the intriguingly named jaggery.
Noel's popular lines of condiments, pates and terrines share the stall with whatever unusual items of fresh produce are currently in season which provide a wonderful opportunity for talking and sharing. In 2010 he showcased the most beautiful medlars and wild quince he had ever seen, and still remembers the wonderful perfume that engulfed his stall.
Noel Fitzjohn's energy and passion knows no bounds and he is a font of arcane knowledge. To an urbanite like me, there is something innately magical about his ability to source such wild and fresh ingredients from the land. Just what he will pull out of the black hat next remains to be seen, but it's bound to be an attraction not to be missed.