The Real Food Festival is no gimmicky over-hyped food show teeming with sales people selling big name brands… It’s sold as “the biggest producers market you’ve ever seen” and for the most part it is just that – a bit like a giant farmers’ market. I have to admit that I was a little reticent about going to another food show at Earl’s Court. The last couple of food shows I’ve been to there (as you can probably tell from my opening gambit) have been a letdown to say the least. Apart from the wine sampling of course! So it was with a little trepidation that I booked tickets for the Real Food Festival, wondering whether it would live up to my expectations… It pretty much does what it says on the tin – the producers are there en masse manning their own stalls and, in many cases, are more than happy to tell you everything there is to know about their particular cheese, vegetables, cider, bread, fish. For the most part these aren’t smooth talking sales people looking for a quick sell. Certainly the people I chatted to reared or made their produce with their own fair hands, so not only were they knowledgeable about what they were selling, they were enthusiastic and looking to tell the world about what it is they produce. Good on ’em I say!

The idea behind the Real Food Festival is to showcase small producers who wouldn’t normally be able to afford a stall at a food show. Graham of Connemara Smokehouse was telling us that with the cost of the big shows, plus the ‘hidden extras’ (£17 to hire a rubbish bin?!), transport and hotel accommodation it just wasn’t worth their while as, not only would they not make any profit on sales at the show, they have to be away from the business for 3 or 4 days which also takes its toll on the smaller producers.

The other ‘cost’ element which Graham talked about was the cost of providing free samples to show visitors. I have to say that when we arrived we were really put off by the hoards of people crowding around the stalls, not all were there to talk to the producers or learn about their products, but some simply to take samples and walk away. Now I know the idea of a food show is to have the opportunity to taste what is on offer (particularly as people have paid an entrance fee) and I have no problem with that – of course I taste what interests me – but there surely there is a limit? Providing samples costs the producers a fair amount of money and it seemed that some people sampling had no intention of buying the produce and were just looking for a free feed.

Apart from the million and one cupcake and tea stalls (neither of which are to my liking!) that was the only downside to the whole lazy afternoon we spent wandering around stocking up on tasty morsels for the rest of the weekend. These are some of the highlights of the show for me:

Simon and Laura Thearle at Hunter House Farm produce artisan cheeses with raw unpasteurised sheep, goat and cow’s milk. Laura was more than happy to spend a good 15 minutes telling us all about their cheeses and how they are produced. They rear and milk their own flocks of British Milksheep – a breed which were nearly wiped out during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2002 – and Polled Dorset Sheep, British Alpine and British Toggenburg Goats and Dexter Cows on their farm and then make their handcrafted cheeses in their own dairy. These distinctive cheeses are made to their own unique recipes and are named after some of their first animals – matching the character of the cheeses to the animals’ personalities!

Our favourite was Kelsey (in the foreground of the picture) – a robust smooth textured cow’s milk brie which only gets better with time. We have high hopes for the piece we brought home…!

I think my vote for the most passionate producer at the show goes to Graham Roberts who owns and runs the traditional family Connemara Smokehouse business, specialising in smoked wild salmon and tuna, with his wife Saoirse. The smokehouse, which is perched on the water’s edge at Bunowen Pier in County Galway, was founded by Graham’s parents in 1979 using a smoking kiln that was first commissioned in 1946. I remembered Graham from the very first BBC Christmas Good Food Show which I went to with my parents in 2005 when Mum had indulged us with a side of smoked wild salmon for Christmas Day breakfast and so, after starting to eat fish again recently, I was keen to try some of the other products that the Connemara Smokehouse has to offer. After a good 20 minutes chatting to Graham and Saorise and learning about the traditional methods of smoking which they use. Graham fillets all of the fresh fish himself after which the fillets are salted and left for 8 to 10 hours before being smoked over beech wood shavings for another 8 to 10 hours. The result is a product which is vastly superior in flavour and texture to much of the smoked fish I have tasted before. No wonder there’s a chap in France who bulk orders 200 sides of smoked salmon with this colleagues every Christmas!

When we arrived at the Ashridge Sparkling Vintage Cider stand it was much later in the day and everyone was looking more than a little weary. We tasted the Vintage Sparkling Cider first which was dry and crisp with a long apple-y finish. Drier than we expected actually. We also tasted the Devon Blush which is essentially a posh ‘cider and black’ (!) but that lacked the flavour of the vintage. I like the Aspall Peronnelle Blush which is of the same ilk so it’s not that it’s not my kind of drink, it’s just that after tasting the vintage it simply didn’t compare.

Ashridge cider is made from 100% apple juice from well established Devon orchards where there are around 20 different varieties of cider apples. It’s made using the traditional méthode champenoise – a process which takes around 3 years. So at £8 a bottle it’s not bad really… One thing I’ve learnt from the Ashridge website since I got home from the show is that apparently there is evidence that secondary in-bottle fermentation began, not in Champagne, but with ciders in the Forest of Dean in the 17th century. This type of cider was held in high esteem in many quarters and was often the preferred alternative to French wines. I wonder…

La Mare Jersey Black Butter is something I’ve heard of before but had no idea what it was. Well, quite simply, it’s Christmas in a jar! It’s has the consistency and texture of a jam or chutney with all the flavours of Christmas pudding and yet it tastes buttery. An unusual alternative to chutney with cheese.

There was a whole section of the show about produce from Jersey (Andrew also had oysters and said they were some of the best he’s tasted – I’ll take his word for that…) and La Mare Wine Estate was one stall.

There was also a Jersey Royal Potatoes stand. They seem to have had a bit of bad press over the last few years and I have to admit that I’ve been one of the first to not only mourn the demise of the Jersey Royal but to openly voice my criticisms. As I stood in line waiting for my solitary potato smothered in Jersey butter and some Cornish sea salt I wondered whether I was wasting my time…but no, for the first time in a few years I had a Jersey Royal that tasted just how they used to! From what I understand, the inferior Jerseys we’ve experienced recently have indeed been grown in poly tunnels as suspected and that, combined with the fact that the producers have not had control of the packaging and storing of the potatoes has meant that when we rush to buy our first Jerseys of the season, we’re not getting what we hoped for and expected. The trick, apparently, is to wait a little into the season when the ‘proper’ Jerseys show their faces so maybe now would be a good time to give them another go? The producer we spoke to said that they are also taking control of the processing and packaging back off the supermarkets so maybe that will also make a difference? I’ll certainly be buying some if I see them this weekend.

As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t eaten meet for 18 years and for long periods have been vegetarian. But from time to time I cease to be veggie and go through phases of eating fish and when I do, I like to know where my fish is coming from. Fish4Ever’s strap line is “Good canned fish – now and in the future…”. They are all about ‘fair fish’ – small boats that land fish straight from the catch, decent working conditions, fair trade, sustainability, supporting artisan fisheries, no added nasties….

Action Against Hunger is one stall that I hope everyone at the show went to and supported. Action Against Hunger is an international network committed to saving the lives of malnourished children and their families in over 40 countries worldwide. They asked producers to contribute food products which they then filled bags with and ‘sold’ for a minimum donation of £15. There were some decent things in the bag, but that’s not what it’s about. Thousands of people came through the doors of Earl’s Court of the weekend looking for delicacies to tempt their tastebuds when nearly 1 billion people worldwide suffer from hunger. We shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying our food, but when we’re spending so much on tasty tit bits at a show like this what’s an extra £15 or more to help people who have nothing to eat?

One of the last stops of the day was at The Tomato Stall
where we were beckoned over to try the delicious mini plum tomatoes from the Isle of White. They’re not cheap these tomatoes but they are well worth every single penny we paid for them. Bursting with flavour just like I’d grown them in my own back garden.

All in all it was a good afternoon out. Would I go again? Probably not next year unless the line up of producers changed significantly because I’ve seen what they have to offer and have kept the details of the ones that interest me. But maybe in a couple of years when I’ve forgotten all about this year’s Real Food Festival and I’m ready to rediscover it again!
By Ginger Gourmand

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