Just eat… and drink

Independent food producers and the convenience store trade came to the NEC this week. We look at some of the most eye-catching and mouth-watering offerings.

Both the annual National Convenience and Farm Shop and Deli trade shows provide a chance to see how two of the UK’s largest (and surely most resilient) retail sectors are fairing. We may not be a nation of shopkeepers as the 18th century French revolutionary Bertrand Barere de Vieuzac claimed, but we are a nation of shoppers, with most households using several food and drink retailers each week. This though, is a fiercely and relentlessly competitive sector, where product innovation is vital.

Long gone is the time when retailers and manufacturers had names like Wrensons, O.W. Hopkins and J. Windridge and Son. Today it’s more likely to be Moo (they produce dairy products if you hadn’t guessed), Nakd, Posh Pasty Co, Once Upon A Tree, Rude Health and Bizarre Chocolate. Accompanying such nomenclatures is packaging that comprises a blizzard of colour, and goods that produce an assault on the tastebuds via a joyous riot of innovative and daring flavour combinations.

At Farm Shop and Deli, where the stallholders are mostly small independents seeking to expand their pool of stockists, Ice Kitchen were showing exactly how to revitalise and expand a solid, dependable area of the market with a selection of artisan ice lollies. While the kids eat their Lyons Maid strawberry mivvi, the adults can luxuriate in Ice Kitchen’s peach and hibiscus, orange cheesecake, blueberry, yoghurt and honey or perhaps mojito poptail variants. Visually striking, using whole fruits, aromatics while also being gluten free, they could be coming to a festival, pop-up store or arts venue near you this summer.

Macaroons and meringues so brightly coloured you’ll have to wear shades were offered on the Food and Drink Wales stand, and by Flower and White respectively. Munch one of each alternately for a sinfully overly-indulgent treat. Salted caramel vodka or vanilla bean gin marshmallows (The Naked Marshmallow Co) might be an alternative temptation, or you could opt for that bakery staple, chocolate caramel shortbread. Traybakes of Penrith offer one of the best, and apparently most customers and connoisseurs of this confectionary sub-genre are men.

Over at the National Convenience Show (primarily aimed at owners of convenience stores and the like), once we’d navigated through the plethora of high energy snack and drinks companies, a sector that is growing in the wake of visits to gyms and fitness centres taking over from the playing of sport, there was a regular and usually very informative programme of forums.

Covering ethical trading, maximising the use of social media and improving store design for the family run indie store thirty minutes spent here could have a significant impact on footfall and trade. Surprisingly though, surely the issue of the moment, the impact of the UK leaving the EU, was not the subject of any specific forum (it did come up during some of the discussions however), although concerns over the consequences of last year’s referendum were not hard to find amongst exhibitors.

Farm and Deli regular attendees Michael Lee Fine Cheeses produce a black cheese (cheddar infused with edible charcoal), which creates a gritty texture. We can’t find any local stockists, but if you like your cheese to be both sharp and a mealtime talking point, and you can track some down, then it’s definitely recommended. Don’t think of it as a novelty though; the charcoal introduces something very flavoursome to the cheese. Meanwhile in the non-food sector there were several companies offering beautifully designed gift and greetings cards. Standout amongst them was surely Museums & Galleries, whose sumptuously designed range of cards, wrapping paper, notepads, diaries and bookmarks would grace any retailer.

What’s particularly interesting at both shows is seeing what’s in and what’s definitely on the way out in the food and drink sector. Coconut water and gourmet scratchings seemed conspicuous by their absence after a few years in the limelight, while e-cigarettes have either peaked or customer habits are so entrenched there’s little point in promoting them, if the reduced number of varieties on display are any guide. In their place were the aformentioned energy bars, and rare indeed was the baked goods manufacturer who now fails to provide gluten-free options.

The Amazing Chocolate Workshop’s offerings are purely fantasy though. An upmarket and grown up take on the chocolate spanners and hammers traditionally sold to children by sweet shops for a penny or two, but these are on another – and quite mind-blowing – level. Chocolate bolts, padlocks, nuts, corkscrews, scissors, lightbulbs, lego bricks, even a chocolate camera. Handmade using high quality ingredients and spray dusted with a chocolate to produce an authentic finish. What’s not to like?

Reckoning that nothing could top that (or perhaps because it was the final stand we came to) we left. On our way out of the NEC we passed by the Commercial Vehicle Show. Sadly, they were not giving out samples.