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GOODBYE TO A TRUE FOOD HERO

1st Aug 2019

We use the word ‘hero’ far too easily, allowing it to denote everything from an overpaid prima donna who happens to be able to kick a ball in a straight line, to – and I’ve never understood this – vacuous non-entities whose sole achievement has been to persuade a TV production company that they should be the latest ‘real’ person to be exploited on the latest freak reality show.

All of this must be particularly annoying to those people who genuinely do heroic things, whether that is nurses and doctors working 30 hour shifts in our creaking hospitals, unarmed policemen who instinctively run towards terrorists when all reason must be telling them to flee, or members of our armed forces who lay their lives on the line to protect us civilians.

To all of these people, and the many more who actually deserve the descriptor, I offer an apology, because I am going to use the word hero is another context today.  But for once it is arguably appropriate.

I think it was Rick Stein who first coined the term ‘food hero’.  He clearly wasn’t talking about people who perform courageous and selfless acts, but was referring to those people who champion great food and drink, work tirelessly to give us better things on our plates, and go the extra mile to support independent, local producers.

If we can accept this terminology for a moment, then there is little doubt that July saw us lose one of the biggest of Norfolk’s food heroes: Michael Baker.

The great-great-great grandson of the founder of Bakers & Larners of Holt, Michael Baker took over the business in the 1970s, before he even turned 30.  In the more than four decades in which his hand was on the tiller, Bakers & Larners grew from just 20 staff to employing over 250.  And perhaps his greatest achievement was to create a wonderful showcase for the best food and drink available.

His openly admitted ambition was to create a food hall which would be seen as the ‘Harrods of Norfolk’, and there is little doubt that he succeeded.  Notwithstanding the leaps and bounds made by Jarrolds in the past couple of years, the Holt food hall remains the jewel in Norfolk’s food retailing crown, and a huge part of the credit for that lays at Michael Baker’s door.

A few years ago I interviewed him for a magazine article, part of a series I was writing profiling food and drink retailers.  It was typical of the man that he gave over a whole morning to me, when surely there were more pressing calls on his time.  What came across was a genuine and heartfelt passion for helping Norfolk people eat and drink better.

The result was a department taking up much of one floor of the shop, including a cheese counter unsurpassed in our county, with well over 100 cheese on offer, amongst them pretty much all that are made in Norfolk.  It included a meat counter run by independent north Norfolk butchers Graves.  His support for local producers included giving early shelf space to future stars such as Norfolk Peer potatoes and Wild Knight Vodka.

And then there was the wine department.  His passion for wine resulted in the best cellar in Norfolk bar none, with tens of thousands of bottles sleeping literally under the shop, an investment which can only have come from a genuine passion – it’s hard to see any company accountant agreeing to tie up so much capital for the ultimate benefit of the county’s wine-lovers.

Last December I made my habitual trip to Holt to buy my Christmas wine.  It wasn’t surprising to find Mr Baker serving on the shop floor, and it was a delight to be the recipient of his extensive knowledge and winning enthusiasm.

His passing at the age of 72 was far too early, but I hope that his family - both his actual one and the bigger but just as loyal Bakers & Larners one - will take some comfort when they look at his achievements.

The fact that Norfolk has such a foodie paradise is pretty much all down to his drive and passion, and his willingness to swim against the tide at times.  Whether giving new small-scale producers their first retail break (something he did often), or personally helping the county’s foodies find what they didn’t even know they wanted on the shelves of his shop, Michael Baker can definitely claim the mantle of Norfolk food hero.  The county’s foodies are poorer for his passing.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.