“It’s showtime”

17 July 2018, 08:30 am
Fine Food by Charles Campion

The news from the front is heartening: agricultural shows are enjoying a new lease of life.

Long ago, when farmers wore smocks and chewed straws for recreation, the local agricultural show was the perfect place to show off impossibly fat porkers and all manner of glossy cattle and woolly sheep. The proud farmers got an annual day out plus the chance of a good nosey to check-out what their competitors were up to. There wasn’t the current on-going discussion of the role of the Minister of Agriculture, and Government paid more than lip service to the importance of Britain growing its own food.

After an energising period (lying fallow?) today’s agricultural shows see the sense in promoting food and drink. At shows like the Balmoral (the one in Northern Ireland rather than the Scottish royal retreat) the Food Northern Ireland Pavilion is set aside for food and drink products and crowds of happy tasters.

Every year the emphasis on food and drink grows, building an interested and well-informed customer base. This year in the Balmoral food pavilion you could sample magnificent oysters, potato farls, speciality ice creams, goat meat, amazing butter, artisan chocolates, biltong, ciders, award-winning beef, specialist fruit juices, beer from newly-fledged breweries and a host of gins and Irish whiskies from new distilleries.

The market for artisan produce is booming and there were more stands in the Food NI Pavilion than ever before. For anyone interested in food and drink the Pavilion is a godsend – somewhere that you could sample a host of new products and get to talk to the producers responsible. At the 148th Balmoral Show there were over 100 local producers strutting their stuff and, as well as the 115,000 visitors to the Pavilion, there were 40 international buyers.

This level of interest confirms that Joe Public no longer sees food merely as fuel but rather as a worthwhile and passionate interest – which must come as good news to anyone selling specialist food and drink. The bigger agricultural shows (the Royal Welsh, the Balmoral, the Royal Bath and West and the Royal Three Counties to name just a few) offer an honest snapshot of the food and drink currently being developed in their particular region. Catching up with these artisan producers while they are at the shows fills in the broader picture and having them in the same place at the same time saves a huge amount of travel.

The renaissance of good food and drink in Britain has been a gritty business, a slow burn at best, but at last the agricultural shows are adapting. 20 years ago they were dominated by stalls selling cheap jeans and expensive motor cars; the only food input was the fudge shop and those stalls selling exorbitantly priced “fresh” lemonade. Now the artisan food and drink sections have a firm foothold and are expanding. The market leads and we follow, and thank goodness it seems to be leading us in the right direction.

Meanwhile, it is worth wandering through any show’s pig lines to see immense porkers sleeping blissfully on their beds of clean straw. What contented dreams they must have – unless you whisper “bacon” in their ears.

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