From the ‘revolting’ to the revolutionary, food buyer Claire Mossford spends every waking hour trying to tantalise the tastebuds of our foodie generation
‘OOOOH, what are these?” gasped a former colleague on spying the latest food sample to arrive in the office, not waiting for an answer as she grabbed a handful and started munching. “Yum.”
We all looked on as she crunched merrily away. No one had the heart – or the stomach – to tell her it was chocolate-covered ants.
Said ants, along with such delicacies as curried crickets, worm crisps and scorpion lollipops, are the brainchild of Todd Dalton, a culinary eccentric whose adventures around the globe inspired him to launch Edible, a company based, fortuitously, in Sandwich, Kent.
Far from a gimmick – his is no I’m A Celebrity… challenge – he’s keen instead to broaden the minds and open up the palates of those of us who have never been within a locust’s wing of the street traders of Phnom Penh or the chewing gum vending machines of downtown Shanghai.
His latest creation, though, for many at least, is a much more palatable option. A range of barbecue sauces with names and flavours such as Cola Leather, Tobacco Moonshine, Marshmallow Smoke and Rootbeer Pickle, that Edinburgh foodies can’t get enough of it.
Sourcing exciting foodstuffs like this is all part of the day job for Claire Mossford, who has worked her way up from the shop floor at Harvey Nichols, via a period of travelling in the Far East followed by a university degree, to become head of grocery buying for the food market.
“Todd is an eccentric,” she agrees, “and a very nice man. He farms these scorpions and worms and makes these incredible things. He uses chopsticks to dip the scorpions in chocolate then leaves them to dry on a cooling rack. And for the Monkey Picked teas, monkeys are trained to go to the highest tip of the tea plant to pick the finest tea.
“Now he has developed this ketchup and barbecue sauce range, which is a world exclusive to us – we’re the only place in the world that sells them.”
There is a palpable sense of pride in this gastronomic scoop, the result of many years developing relationships with the world’s most inventive suppliers.
“I’ve been there from the beginning,” she says. “I was there when we first opened the food market in Knightsbridge. We wanted to create a market atmosphere, rather than the sterile-feeling food halls that already existed.”
It was also important that the food stocked on its chic stainless steel shelves reflected the rest of the store’s ethos. “It’s not only about food; it’s about fashionable food,” says Mossford. “It’s fast-changing, always evolving, there is never a dull day.”
Indeed, one day the food team might be testing 60 olive oils in an afternoon; the next day it might be chutneys, or biscuits, or mayonnaise. “Every day of every week we edit another part of the range. It changes constantly.
“We look out for smaller artisan producers,” she says, “for something exciting. We like to be new, innovative.” But, because of strict health and safety rules, they have to draw the line at anything homemade in the truest sense of the word.
So, of the hundreds of phone calls and emails she gets every day, what grabs her attention?
“If you’d asked me that 20 years ago, or ten years ago, or even last week, it would be different. Every day it changes. Because fashion moves all the time, we have to move all the time too.
“In this job you never have a day off. Even if you’re sunbathing on some beach and someone prepares a cocktail that has something in it you’ve never heard of, you’ll be asking what that ingredient is.
“Everyone’s a foodie now,” she adds. “Everywhere you go, people are talking about food. The creative director might come back from New York and say, ‘Have you seen this new thing or that new thing?’ So we all spark ideas off each other.”
Fortunately, she doesn’t have to actually like everything that goes on the shelves. “I don’t personally like ginger,” she says, “but I don’t think you can be a foodie and be fussy. You need to have that element of experimentation.”
Her job involves going to food events and fairs (though she’s likely to go incognito lest she get pestered), and the team is alert to what’s going on in social media. But this love of food is not something she has acquired recently. “I’ve always been interested in food and I love to travel. My father was in the forces as well, so I was always changing places, adapting to different environments, being exposed to lots of different kinds of food.”
World foods form a large part of the market offering, with everything from Yuzu Citrus Ponzu vinegar from Japan and Mr Vikki’s banana habanero from India (via Cumbria) to lavender vinegar from Provençe, white truffle mousse from Italy and, from the US, Whoop Ass chili mix, bacon-flavoured popcorn and Kraft cheesy pasta. The Scottish contingency is represented by Harvey Nichols’ own-brand shortbread. And one of the biggest sellers is a gallon jug of tabasco (selling for a hot and spicy £79.95, if you’re interested). Who would buy such a thing? “You’d be surprised,” says Mossford.
“Food shouldn’t be a chore, it should be fun, it should be entertaining. And I think, too, people can’t really afford to go away on exotic holidays but they can maybe experience the food at home with their friends.”
With that in mind, around 70 per cent of the range will be the kind of exotic ingredients people are looking for but can’t find anywhere else, while 30 per cent is the kind of interesting thing “they didn’t know they wanted”.
Into the first category, for instance, you might find pouches of oak-smoked water, made by Welsh brand Halen Môn and celebrated by Heston Blumenthal. Yes, it looks a little like a colostomy bag, but I am assured it can be used in stocks, soups, rice and pulse dishes, or frozen into ice cubes for cocktails and whiskies.
Into the latter category falls things like Persian Fairy Floss (a hand-woven candy floss used to garnish desserts), Satan’s Ashes (apparently the hottest curry in the world), and a tin of food that heats itself (don’t ask me how it works, it just does). Cubed Earwax (actually, it’s fudge) and Thickest Human Snot (lemon curd) come from a company called Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, which supports the non-profit creative writing and mentoring group Ministry of Stories for young people in East London. And the same company also makes bottles of “Anger”, “Sorrow” and “Sneezing” – which turn out to be beautifully packaged flavours of salt.
Firmly in the fashionable food (and drink) camp, you’ll find Diane von Fürstenberg water, Roberto Cavalli vodka and Brangelina’s newest production – no, not another set of twins, but the first rosé wine to come out of their Chateau Miraval estate in Provençe (it is described as refined and elegant, with pure flavours of dried red berry and tangerine, and a focused finish with flint and spice notes, so now you can impress your friends).
Straddling both the celeb section and the food with a “conscience” shelf, meanwhile, is Hugh Jackman. During a visit to Ethiopia the actor befriended a local coffee farmer called Dukale and was determined to get involved in his business. The result is Laughing Man coffee, 100 per cent of whose profits go to charity. There are olive oils, teas and balsamic vinegars too numerous to mention. And don’t get Mossford started on honey – it’s one of her passions, along with sustainability, provenance and honest-to-goodness quality.
“The customer might think strawberry jam is just strawberry jam, but we have the best strawberry jam we can find,” she says. “There will be something else to it, something extra. And we never know what the next big thing will be.”
Right now, we’re loving our coconut water, anything from the US, and Candy Kittens, a sweet brand from Made In Chelsea’s Jamie Laing (the heir to McVitie’s biscuits). “The younger customers were queuing outside the block when we got that in,” says Mossford.
Current personal favourites are the simple but effective Little Coffee Bags – genius ground coffee that use you like teabags – and Lakrids chocolate-coated liquorice balls – “they’re literally made with love”, she says, each tub bearing the name of the person who made it.
You could almost call them amazeballs.
• Scotland on Sunday is media partner with Harvey Nichols’ Food on Forth event, 29 July, 7pm-10pm (www.harveynichols.com).
Food on Forth competition
Food on Forth will include tastings, demonstrations and interactive masterclasses from suppliers including the Highland Chocolatier, Authentic American Foods, Sjolundagard sweets, Mr Singh’s sauces, Ivory Tower cakes and the Little Coffee Bag Co.
Cleo Rocos will be hosting an Aquariva Tequila masterclass and signing copies of her new book; there will be a sushi school for fish fans; a wine masterclass; and Spanish ham and sherry tasting.
The Forth Floor’s own chefs will also be demonstrating their cooking, prepping and mixing skills, including revealing the secrets of molecular gastronomy, and bartenders have promised to mix up some “very curious libations” – alcoholic fondue anyone?
To win two tickets to the event and a luxury Harvey Nichols hamper, answer the question: Which celebrity will be presenting the Aquariva Tequila masterclass?
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org.