22 November 1996

Taste and try, and enjoy

Taste and try leads to go and buy at Studham, Beds, where farmer-turned-butcher Peter Harper mixes educating palates with pleasure. Tim Relf reports

A DARK winter evening in Bedfordshire and over 70 people have gathered in a converted barn.

Where pigs were once housed, TVs now show Delia Smith. At 7.30pm the videos stop, a man stands up, introduces himself, welcomes everyone – and cooking begins.

This is one of farmer-turned-butcher Peter Harpers "Taste and Try" evenings.

The concept came to Peter after hearing one comment from his customers innumerable times: "There are only three occasions when my husband will try eating something new – when his mother cooks it, when he is abroad or when he is trying to show off."

As a food lover – and a shrewd retailer – Peter wanted to change that. He wanted to change the habit which many people, including himself, had of "going through the dessert menu twice and then choosing black forest gateau, anyway".

Now groups watch food being prepared, listen and discuss food, farming and, as the wine flows, just about any subject they care to raise.

It is light-hearted, almost theatrical. "We have had wonderful chopstick evenings," says Peter. "Those who could use them, did; those that could not, knitted."

But there is a serious message. That of promoting interest and enjoyment in food and cooking from around the world. Indian and Thai, Scandinavian nights and Hawaiian specialities are all on the list.

But Taste and Try is about banging the drum for British produce as much as anything. The poultry is local, the beef comes from Scotland, the game from National Trust estates.

Home Sweet Home, Journey through the Chilterns and Christmas at Home are popular themes. Traditional English is Peters favourite. And a glance at the "medieval" menu soon confirms why. The game pie is made of venison, rabbit, boar and turkey, mixed with herbs and spices, supported by a mulled wine. There are meatballs with onions and mushrooms and a brown rye bread to wash down with a scrumpy cider, hams with farmhouse pickles, two English cheeses and elderflower wine.

Wine is an important, albeit optional, part of the session. "Watch out, the roof gets lower and the floor begins to slope as the evening goes on," bellows Peter as visitors queue for another serving.

A far cry, indeed, from his farming days when 1000 pigs used to keep him busy.

The Taste and Try themes extend to the dress code of Peters staff. "Whether the sceptical husbands dragged in by their wives are converted by the food, the wine or the buxom serving wenches, I dont know, but converted they are," he says.

"People come out to enjoy themselves, not to be educated. But when they relax, they are susceptible to ethical persuasion. We talk to our customers, keep them informed, treat them as friends."

The theory must work. Harpers beef sales are as strong as ever. Looking around his shop in Studham, one could forget BSE had ever happened.

And it is to this shop that visitors will head once the Taste and Try experience is complete.

There, among the 2000-plus products, many of which are made on the premises, they will find 14 different types of sausages, loins of beef stuffed with paté and walnuts, and hams that, almost upon looking at them, crumble. Hungry yet?

&#8226 The Taste and Try experience costs £6.50. Concessions available. Inquiries 01582-872901.

Peter Harper (left) treats potential customers to an evening of tasting and trying food cooked in front of them, after which most head to the display cabinets for a little shopping before they leave.