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The Feral Trade Cafe review

Jonathan Schofield decides globalisation can be a damn good thing

Written by . Published on September 9th 2010.

The Feral Trade Cafe review

Can art and food collide? Of course they can when one is appreciated as a sidekick of the other, for instance live music with a meal, canapés with a gallery viewing.

But can an artwork be a cafe? Or a cafe an artwork?

Having visited the Feral Trade Cafe, which describes itself as 'the exhibition of a business', at Castlefield Gallery, I’m thinking the interchange is difficult.

It makes me thank my lucky stars I live in an age of globalised markets, where the spice routes of old are open to us all just down the local shop, at the take-away half a mile away, or in the vast spectacular chambers of the supermarket.

Californian based Aussie, Kate Rich, decided to combine food, business and art in a Bristol exhibition in 2003. The idea was to invert the whole notion of business sponsoring art while also providing herself with an income and source of inspiration.

To make this properly arty she couldn’t just buy a Gaggia coffee maker and fire up a stove for bacon and eggs. So she decided to make mules of her artist mates and run the business 'on small-scale releases of migrant groceries'. As they travel around the world these chums pick up food and drink items - apparently they get re-imbursed – and bring them back to use as ingredients and food stuffs in the Feral Trade Cafe.

As a consequence each menu item has its own little itinerary printed on the placemats. It's cute.

My hilariously titled Krap from Montenegro came through the good offices of Jelena Selenka and Kate Rich herself, via Ribarstvo, Podgorica Airport, Bristol Temple Meads, Ducrow Place, Piccadilly Station and then a taxi - as the person bringing the goods couldn’t find Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. And that’s one of the simpler journeys.

Other items include tea from Bangladesh, coffee from El Salvador, tortillas from San Francisco, sweets from Serbia, Cube Cola from Bristol, salad greens from the banks of the River Mersey in Manchester and London honey.

Putting the conceptualising to one side I decided to eat and went for the krap – which is in reality smoked, tinned, freshwater carp – presented on crusty bread with lettuce and edible flowers for £2.50. It was delicious, it was good looking, and the flesh of the krap was anything but crap (come on, I had to make a least one pun.).

The Bangladeshi Darjeeling tea with Sinai desert sage for £1.50 was also exquisite, finely flavoured, thirst quenching and satisfying.

The other dish we ordered, tortillas and honey from, respectively San Francisco and London, was au contraire a disaster dish. It cost £2.50, took a lunar cycle to produce and was so small it wouldn’t register on my camera. The tortilla paste had to be mixed on a stove the size of a bluebottle’s eye and while the honey was lovely, the tortillas were terrible.

Things weren't improved by a cup of Mexican hot chocolate (£2) made with spices. It was equally disappointing, the massive chocolate hit compromised to death by the sickly spices.

The whole experience was strange. On a Saturday afternoon the pair of us comprised the whole audience for this cafe-cum-artwork. There was no music, just silence, and awkwardness over the length of time it took to make the food, and then embarrassment over how ridiculous the tortillas were.

Yet I confess as I write this to feeling guilty for knocking the cafe, especially given the attention we received from the good and lovely folk there. They really tried their best to lift an idea free of its concept and give it wings.

Maybe it would work better in a less out of the way place, an empty unit on King Street perhaps, but then how on earth would they cope with that footfall if they moved? The prices seemed all over the place as well. I might have paid £3 for the fish but I wouldn’t pay more than 50p for the tortillas – in fact they should have paid me.

Clearly the basics of supply and demand don’t work here. Clearly the ergonomics of labour and time needed to produce say one item of food or drink haven’t been sorted. It looks like we might need some business (or local government) sponsorship for our art still.

The Feral Trade Cafe is a tame experience. I could see a political message: an ironic take on the way food is transported and delivered across the world, on the industrialisation of agriculture, the despoilation of forests. Maybe a clever dig at carbon footprints.

The problem is that the application is so poor it works the other way - indeed the idea carries the smug self-regard (the staff working here don't have the latter, but the idea does) of so much of the protest against globalisation. It's like a religious group with a dogma waiting for us, the ignorant, to become enlightened.

This leads to a reaction, personally I can't stand being lectured too while dining. The Feral Trade Cafe made me thank my lucky stars I live in an age of intercontinental markets, where the spice routes of old are open to us all not just the aristocrats and where every spice route ends at the local corner shop, or the take-away, or in the vast halls of the supermarket.

If you crave oddity then visit the Castlefield Gallery before 10 October. In fact re-reading this you might catch me there. This place is so odd it's maybe worth another go.

Rating: 11/20 or 6/20
Breakdown: 5/10 food (all five points for the krap)
5/5 service (for enthusiasm and for trying) or 1/5 (for time taken to deliver tortillas)
1/5 ambience
Address: Castlefield Gallery
2 Hewitt Street
Knott Mill
M15 4GB

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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Kwong LeeSeptember 29th 2010.

Jonathan, I do hope that you and others will give the Feral Trade Cafe another visit. Yes, it's not an all-singing, all-dancing cafe experience and it wasn't supposed to be. FTC is a place to think about where our food is produced and how it gets to our plates, while enjoying some good food too (I am thinking about the fish here and not necessarily the tortilla). We, nor the artist Kate Rich were trying to make big political statements, and our intention was a contemplative and playful take on what one may expect from a cafe, or a gallery even. I guess it's down to personal taste but most people who had the Mexican hot chocolate really love it - specifically because of the spices. Though we may not agree on everything written above, we do think the tortilla takes too long and so now we make a fresh batch before we open to speed things up and the price have been reduced to £1.50. We think it's delicious with the London honey which because of the biodiversity of plants in London gardens for the bees, is probably the best honey I have ever tasted. Find out more about this project and events such as the Feral Trade Talk and Dinner on Tuesday 5th October, at http://www.castlefieldgallery.co.uk.

NortherngeezerSeptember 29th 2010.

London honey.............OOOOHH, THE AIR MILES!!!!.

Jonathan Schofield -editorOctober 1st 2010.

Kwong, good points. But the Cafe does charge for food so has to judged on that criteria as well. Also there is excellent honey produced in the gardens of Chorlton and of Salford, Irlam'o'the Heights - less than two miles away from the gallery. These are available in the Barbakan deli in Chorlton. Might have been an idea to get the honey from there.

Leigh ScottOctober 13th 2010.


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