Over the last few years Neil Buttery has worked under many guises: Teacher, Academic, Research Scientist, Cook, Blogger, Food Historian, Businessman and now Supper Club Host. Before embarking on a career based around ‘English Food’ Neil was on an entirely different course, working as Headteacher of a school for children with behavioural problems, but after achieving all that he could from teaching he left and went back to university. After earning himself a PHD in Evolutionary Biology, and following that a move to the US, Neil found himself working as a research scientist. It was whilst working in the US that Neil decided to begin his blog, Neil Cooks Grigson, where he methodically works his way through the entire recipe list from Jane Grigson’s ‘English Food’. Since then another blog has been added to his arsenal, ‘British Food History’, which marries his love for food and history. When Neil returned to the Uk in 2012 it was a mere two weeks before he’d taken the first steps start his first food-related business; a market stall (named ‘The Buttery’) at Levenshulme market. Four years down the line, Neil now runs Levenshulme market with two others and has secured a collection of loyal customers who keep returning for his British foods: his baked goods and potted meats, amongst others. In addition, once a month he runs supper clubs, alternating the theme – pudding or offal, and has plans for a restaurant and cookbooks in the coming years. I met him recently at his Offal Club in Levenshulme, Manchester.
Why did you start the blogs? I think moving to America – just me and a bag – gave me the balls to think, ‘If I can do this then I can give a business a go.’ I thought, ‘If it goes horribly wrong I’m not going to end up on the streets.’ The first cooking blog, Neil Cooks Grigson has now been running for 6 or 7 years. I have two these days; I’m a bit of a geek. I thought I had come up with this wonderful, original idea of blogging a cookbook. Of course no-one else would have thought about that. I really wasn’t a massive blog reader, so I wasn’t even aware of the whole Julie and Julia thing.
Why specialise in ‘English Food’? I’d been cooking for a while and it was a serious hobby, but other than a Shepherd’s Pie and a Roast Dinner I didn’t cook a lot of English food; I mainly cooked Asian and Italian. ‘English Food’ by Jane Grigson appealed to me because I didn’t know a lot about it. I was curious. A lot of the recipes in the book sounded awful, but I was really keen to try them out. I mean, it had to be interesting if I was going to blog about it. I was massively surprised by how good some of the recipes were; it turns out that ingredients are only really included in recipes because they’re tasty. For example, people eat kidneys and livers and brains because they’re actually nice. There’s no gruel in any modern recipes because it isn’t nice. I’m actually on my second copy of ‘English Food’ now because the first copy fell apart – I’ve still got my old copy with the recipes ticked off as I went along. Since starting the blog I’ve realised that Jane Grigson didn’t intend that you cook all of the recipes, some were in there out of interest, but I suppose I’ve signed myself up to this now so I kind of have to do it. At some point I started to find the first blog restrictive in a way because I’d ended up getting so interested in the history of food. I just wanted to write about what I’d been researching and not necessarily include a recipe. Also there’s no Jam Rolly Poly or Fish and Chips in ‘English Food’. There were recipes I felt were missing, and the second blog has filled in the gaps. ‘British Food History’ is about anything that I fancy really. It’s almost like a ‘best of’ the other blog. There’s no point putting the bad ones in there – and there have been some bad ones. Some have been awful.
What’s been awful? English Rarebit. Obviously we all know Welsh rarebit – everyone loves that. Well the English tried to get in on the rarebit wagon for some reason. It was a slice of toast, thinly sliced cheese, with a glass of red wine chucked on it, and then it was cooked in the oven. It is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten. Wine and cheese – that’s delicious. Everyone knows wine and cheese are delicious, but not hot wine, with mushy bread and congealed cheese on top. That is the closest I’ve been to actually being sick. Herring pie was bad too – that went straight in the bin. It was horrible: a layer of herrings, a layer of bramley apple, a layer of onions, salt and pepper and some mace.
Best dishes from ‘English food’? There are dishes like ‘Lambs head in brain sauce’, which was probably one of the most extreme recipes in there, which have been absolutely delicious. It was the brain that was a revelation. Thanks to Jane Grigson, my most favourite discovery has been sweetbreads which are the thyroid glands – they are the best thing in the world. They taste a bit like oysters, with a lot of iodine in them, also they taste of the sea slightly and they are sweet.
Have you got a favourite recipe? Yeah. There have been some amazing ones. The really English recipes that you’d never think to make yourself like ‘Game Pie’ and a ‘Raised pork pie’, ‘Sticky toffee pudding’ and ‘Suet pudding’. Quite a lot of the recipes were quite contemporary at the time they were written, but obviously that was in the 70s – people just don’t make those kind of recipes now. There’s some great and slightly misleading names like ‘Stuffed Monkey,’ a Jewish pudding somewhere between a biscuit and a cake. I can’t imagine there being a combination of fat, flour and sugar that would taste bad – it’s alright. I ate it.
I recently found a recipe for a custard tart that had been served at Edward IV’s coronation; Geoffrey Chaucer was there! I made that custard tart. I didn’t care if it tasted horrible. Just eating something I knew Chaucer had eaten too was completely amazing to me. You can’t experience history in such a direct way as that. Watching tv, reading a book, looking at a photo – they’re don’t transport you in the same way.
Running the market stall: My very first market stall at was Levenshulme Market in the days when ‘Manchester Markets’ used to run it. It was good. There were about 15 stalls there on the day and everyone was really supportive. I sold traditional british stuff, baked goods, potted meats – things that could be done in advance. I basically wanted to show the bank manager that I could make a profit and get customers to return. Then it started to get really quiet at the market – we went down to 7 stalls – so Manchester Markets pulled us to one side and said, ‘Look it’s not worth it. We can’t cover our costs.’
As a stall holder I was doing really well though. We had customers, just not enough stall holders. People would come to Levenshulme market for a day out; it had real potential. A group of us took it over, and to start off with there were 10/12 people who’d come to the meetings, but then I think it dawned on people that it would be a big commitment to help organise. It ended up just being 3 of us and so now we run it.
Running the Supper Club: I’d been running the market stall and I’d had the idea to start a supper club, but I was still working part time at Manchester University and so I knew there was no way I could do it. When Levenshulme Food and Drink Festival started last year I thought this would be the time to do one. I knew that if I said I was doing a supper club then I would have to do go through with it, so that’s what I did. The most recent Pop-Up was ‘Offal Club’ and before that I did a ‘Pudding Club’. I try to do a really variety, for example, I do Vegetarian nights too.
How do you choose your menu at the supper club? I always know I’m going to do 5 courses including a fish course, but I don’t know how I decide. I’ve actually surprised myself with how imaginative I am. This months’ club was specifically offal, and ox tail came to me straight away because it’s something that I like. The dishes aren’t taken straight off the blog, but I’ve borrowed ideas from ‘English food’ like the gingerbread crumbs in the dessert and the little suet puddings in the main. I read cook books like other people would read a novel; I’ll read them from cover to cover. Things seep in from doing that. The desserts in particular get quite a lot of thought put into them. I’ve recently done a patisserie course because I do a lot of patisserie for the market and I wanted to streamline myself. It’s the only training I’ve had, but I just thought here may be some tricks of the trade that I didn’t know.
Who supplies your more unusual supper club ingredients? I use W.H.Frost in Chorlton and Littlewoods in Heaton Moor. Usually between those two I can find the ingredients I’m after unless I have really bad luck, for example on the run-through for the Supper Club they couldn’t get hold of the sweetbreads. I’m actually almost finished with English food now (there are 450 recipes in the book), but I can’t get calfs brains anywhere.
One of the reasons why I went back to university was because I wanted to know about the relationship between food and the environment. I love game and was curious about whether is was a good thing or a bad thing for the environment. I did end up coming to the conclusion that hunting can be done responsibly. Obviously fox hunting is barbaric, but a lot of the ‘English’ wild animals that we consider indigenous to this country, if you look back through history, were introduced from different countries: rabbits were brought over by the Normans, also pheasants, partridges and grey squirrels. It would make sense if we ate more rabbit.
Plans for the business in the future? I do plan one day to open a small restaurant, hopefully in Levenshulme where I live. The idea behind the supper club was to show off the kind of dishes I’d have on my menu at the restaurant. I’ll be doing small plates and everything will be British. There’ll be small dessert plates too. It’ll be about grazing, beers and nice food.
Last year I was expecting to be in a restaurant within 6 months, but now I’m being a lot more realistic. I know it’s going to take a while. I suppose what I could do is get a job in a kitchen; I’d earn practically nothing but gain a huge amount of knowledge. Or I could just find innovative ways to make money and carve my own path. What I’m doing does seem to be working. This is my career now; I’m a cook. I think as long as I’m getting taking steps towards my goal I’m ok with that, but obviously I don’t want it to take 25 years. I’d also be really interested in writing a cook book too – I’ve got about 5 hand written recipe books ready to go and in the meantime the blogs are really important. Here’s the menu from Neil’s most recent Offal Club (see photos above):
Neil will be holding a Pudding Club in May. For more info about Neil’s Supper Clubs, Pop-Ups and market stalls see http://buttery.org.uk Follow him on Twitter at @neilbuttery and on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/thebutterymanchester