The voice of food and drink: Nigel Barden’s celebration of Yorkshire fare

Nigel Barden with Simon Mayo.
Nigel Barden with Simon Mayo.

Talking to Nigel Barden is like listening to a who’s who of the food and drink scene in Yorkshire. If he doesn’t know a food producer or restaurateur you get the feeling they aren’t worth knowing.

Andrew Pern at the Star at Harome, Simon and Rena Gueller of the Box Tree and their predecessor Malcolm Red and Colin Long, Michael Gill and Poole Court, the list goes on. But this isn’t just name dropping, this is a culinary passion for everything that goes on in the kitchen and beyond.

Nigel Barden.

Nigel Barden.

It is some years since this former Yorkshire wine merchant lived in God’s Own County but it is clear where his heart still lies.

“I’m from Yorkshire stock,” he laughs, despite being born across the border in Lancashire. “My dad was a Yorkshire farmer and was made of true Yorkshire grit.”

Barden was born and grew up on a Lancastrian livestock farm, but is proud of his mother and father’s Yorkshire roots and the large part Yorkshire has played in his life. Barden’s father died when he was 18, deeply affecting the teenager. He believes if his father hadn’t died his life would have taken a very different turn.

“I always wanted to be an actor, but when dad died I knew that I had to get a proper job. I couldn’t very well up sticks and move to London,” he says.

So he became a land agent and after attending Cirencester agricultural college he started working for well-known Yorkshire company Dacre Son and Hartley. It was through his contacts as a land agent that Barden eventually ended up in the wine business, working for and eventually becoming a director of Yorkshire Fine Wines

It was here that a young Nigel Barden truly fell in love with all things food and drink. Supplying wine to some of the region’s top restaurants, hotels and pubs he got to see inside some of the best kitchens around.

Whereas some would have viewed it as a job, for Nigel it became a passion and he talks about the great and the good of the food scene in Yorkshire like old friends, and I am sure many of them are. Then at the age of 29 he surprised everyone, including himself, when he literally ran away to the theatre.

“I was really enjoying my job and I was pretty good at it, but there was still a big part of me that wanted to be an actor,” he recalls. “I had no dependants at the time and so if I was going to do it I had to do it then.”

So at nearly 30 he went to drama school and retrained. Upon graduating he set up his own theatre company and with a cast of up to 50 actors they put on 14 shows in four years.

Some might have thought this would have got the acting bug out of his system, not a bit of it says Barden. He still does voice overs and takes on the odd acting role and it was during his spell as a jobbing actor that he started working in radio.

“One of my friends worked for BBC Radio London and they needed someone to do a food and drink slot on one of their shows which had a new presenter. They knew that I knew a bit about food and drink and asked if I’d be interested,” he says. “To be able to cook dishes on the radio using the best regional ingredients really appealed to me.”

It turned out that that radio show was presented by a certain Chris Evans. It is a slot that Barden still does 27 years on even if the presenters have changed. Most people, however, will know him as the voice of food and drink on BBC Radio 2’s Thursday Drive Time show.

Presented by Simon Mayo , Barden’s job is to rustle up a dish of the week, all the while using this platform to promote the UK’s small food producers. He then matches the dish with a variety of drinks. It is a challenge he clearly relishes.

“I have the best job in the world and it’s great working on a show whose host really loves his grub,” says Barden. “It can be stressful bringing dishes into the studio, so they’re warm and presentable, without cutting things too fine; which is what I naturally do!

“I cook in a restaurant kitchen handy for Western House, London, our base camp and carry in the dishes or put them on the back of my bicycle. My aim is to do dishes that people can cook at home with good local produce. If I can get Matt the sports guy to cook a dish then I’ve cracked it.”

But it isn’t just his passion for and knowledge of food and drink that made him stand out to the powers that be in the BBC. He was asked to present and he still commentates on another of his great passions, rugby union.

Growing up one of three boys, sport has always played massive part in this former Sedbergh boy’s life, particularly rugby. He has played for Otley and is still a member of the club today.

“Otley rugby club celebrated its 150th anniversary a couple of years ago and I was asked to host an event. It was a brilliant night.

“I was a pretty sporty kid,” he recalls. “I was in the running team at Sedbergh and played cricket as well as rugby of course – we lived and breathed sport. One of my brothers played rugby for Sale and my older brother played for the RAF. It isn’t just about the game it is the social side as well.”

He recalls a regular pub crawl around Otley which always ended up in the Mumtaz Mahal.

His love of sport has been passed down to his own three boys Sam, 17, Ben, 14, and 10-year-old Harry. Barden is married to Sicilian Deborah Dolce so all the boys’ names all have Sicilian derivatives so they can use whatever name they want depending which family they are with, he jokes.

The couple met while in Lapland of all places and with her being Italian he says their mutual love of food and drink is a big part of their lives, although as a brand and business development director for TK Maxx Deborah is away a lot with work.

While he has many passions, it is clear while talking to Nigel Barden that championing local food is high on his priority list.

If there is a food and drink competition anywhere in the country it is likely Nigel Barden will appear somewhere. From the recent National Fish and Chip Shop Awards to the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, The Great Taste Awards and The International Wine Challenge.

He is a regular judge and presenter of the DeliciouslyYorkshire/The Yorkshire Post Taste Awards held at the Pavilions in Harrogate going above and beyond to give feedback to the producers who have taken the time to enter. It is a responsibility he takes seriously and clearly relishes

“It is not an accident that Yorkshire has the most Michelin-starred restaurants outside of London, but it isn’t just fine dining that is its strength, its across the board and that’s what makes the county stand out,” he says.

“There are exciting artisan producers doing some really incredible things, farm shops giving farmers a direct route to their customers, micro breweries and vineyards making some truly great wine. It is right across the board and it is great to see and long may it continue.”