8 December 1995

TOP FARE

IN THE NORTH-WEST

Trade buyers and foodies headed to Tatton Park, Cheshire, recently to see what speciality food and drink producers from the north-west had to offer. Ann Rogers joined the throng in the Tenants Hall where eyes were drawn from

the unique decorations by the sight and smell of fine fare

THE North West Fine Foods group comprises companies in Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside committed to raising the profile of regionally produced food and drink.

One of three groups backed by Food from Britain (a fourth is in the pipeline), North West Fine Foods was set up in May 1994. The group currently has around 55 members but recruitment is ongoing.

Besides having an opportunity to exhibit at the annual trade show, members gain from representation on a group stand at other events and have their products advertised in an annual buyers guide and consumer leaflet.

They may also take advantage of the training courses on topics such as packaging, public relations, legislation, and "how to make the most of an exhibition".

Further information from regional development executive Angela Towers, North West Fine Foods, Old Council Offices, High St, Garstang, Preston PR3 1FU (01995-600073, Fax 01995-600074).

THE smell of frying bacon and the sight of rich fruit cake greeted visitors to the festival of North West Fine Foods.

The bacon sizzled on the stand of Moorland Foods – "Curers and smokers of fine foods" – a company which operates from a farm location at Morley Green, Cheshire. The cakes were exhibited by The Village Bakery, Melmerby, Cumbria, traditional bakers who use organic products and wood-fired ovens.

These enterprises were just two of 29 member companies of North West Fine Foods taking part in the groups second annual trade show. The venue this year was Tatton Park, the National Trust property at Knutsford, Cheshire.

Here food stands were ranged in the Tenants Hall, a carpeted venue with a vast array of hunting trophies (of the taxidermy kind) around the walls.

Day one was a trade show, principally for buyers. Visitors were mostly from the region but included a couple of buyers from the food hall of a top London store.

Sweets, preserves, herbs, spices, dairy products, drinks, meat, mustards, smoked salmon, puddings, pies … the food selection was wide.

Tatton Park itself was among the exhibitors. Venison from red and fallow deer raised on the extensive parkland are sold from the estate, which is run by Cheshire County Council.

"All the venison we offer for sale ourselves is less than 24 months old," says senior ranger Tim Birtles.

It is sold from the estate shop, known as the Housekeepers Store, along with ham from home-reared pigs, smoked and cured meats, farmhouse cheeses, pickles and preserves. The estates trading services manager, Anne Charmer – "The housekeeper," she says, is her "friendly" title – was introducing a range of ready-meals at the festival: Tatton venison stew & Cheshire dumplings, venison in port, and venison sausage with cranberry.

Poultry are the principal feature of Holly Tree Farm shop, the enterprise run by Cheshire farmers wife Karol Bailey, at Chester Road, Tabley. Karol too had a new product to launch at the festival – a smoked goose sausage.

Her next-stand-neighbours, Graham and Marian Wallace of Goostrey, Cheshire, marked the occasion with the launch of a new flavour into their range of Gayley Wood ices.

A farm shop is out of the question for this young couple. Their county council holding is a mile down a single track lane, so all produce has to be sold off the farm. The Wallaces have been farming on their own account for just six years, and until this spring ran a mixed herd of about 65 cows on their 16.6ha (41 acres).

"Last year we had to lease a lot of quota and I dont want to do that again," says Graham. For this reason they reduced their herd to 50 by selling off their black-and-white cows in the spring to concentrate on Jerseys.

The flavours of icecream they offer include a number of alcohol ones, which are popular with the restaurant trade, and an even greater number of fruit, nut or confectionary ones. The latest addition is lemon, where the sharpness of the fruit flavour contrasts luxuriously with the richness of the Jersey cream.

The fact that sheep milk is still quota-free is helping Peter Gott of Sillfield Farm, Endmoor, near Kendal, Cumbria, extend his range of cheeses.

Peter, who has a flock of 35 Friesland ewes, already produces one ewes milk cheese but is preparing to go into production with another. Called Mallerstang, after a village north of his farm, it is based on a recipe dating from 1912 and is the kind of cheese that would have been made in Westmorland at the turn of the century.

At present Lune Valley smoked cobbles and Westmorland Wonders, both made from unpasteurised cows milk, are possibly his best known products.

As well as producing cheese Peter runs a successful travelling cheese show. He has five units on the road, selling cheeses across Britain and Europe. He stocks an enormous range – from Dorset Drums to Dunsyre Blue – and contract smokes all varieties of cheeses.

"I see no reason why any retailer in the country should sell foreign cheese," he says.

Another exhibitor who sells other producers goods beside his own was the Honeycomb Co from Pennine Bee Farm, Ellel, Lancs. Paul Humphreys and his wife Margaret buy honey from producers across England and Scotland, pot it in an attractive range of containers, or blend it and market it far and wide.

They were at the festival to meet proprietors of gift shops, delicatessens, garden centres and farm shops, and besides honey the Humphreys have an extensive range of preserves, biscuits and other goodies.

Healthy eating is a selling point for many producers these days, whether they are selling low-fat yogurt or venison low in fat and cholesterol. Here the venison enterprises were having to compete with low cholesterol, low fat, ostrich meat.

Hill House Ostrich Farm, Weeton, near Preston, Lancs, claims to be the largest independent ostrich enterprise in the country. The company, which has built an EU-approved abattoir just off the farm, can sell more ostrich meat than it can produce, says marketing manager Philip Gardner. It has had to import ostrich meat from France in order to keep up supplies to ASDA supermarkets, he adds. The farms other customers include game dealers, hoteliers and restaurants.

"Treat it like steak," says Philip as he tosses a handful of diced meat into a little hot olive oil in a skillet, sprinkles it with salt and adds a little chopped tarragon as it cooks.

By lunch time on day one exhibitors like Cheshire Ice Cream Farm, Tattenhall – makers of "real dairy ice cream" and sorbets – were reporting a steady flow of visitors and as many as they had seen in a day at the first trade show.

At the end of the event, group regional development executive Angela Towers estimated that up to 30 potential new trade customers were in the offing and during the two public days that followed "well over 2000 keen foodies" had visited the festival, buying over the counter and planning their Christmas spending.

Paul Humphreys of Pennine Bee Farm. He buys honey rather than keeps bees these days as the farm is in a dairying area with little to support bees.

Buy British cheese, says Peter Gott (above). Graham Wallace (above right) was promoting his range of Gayley Wood icecreams, while Anne Charmer (below left) promotes Tatton Park home-produced ham as well as venison. Philip Gardner (below right) recommends ostrich meat.