Almost everything in moderation

Reporting back from Food & Drink Expo 2018, held recently at the NEC.

The quintet of food and drinks industry trade shows staged at the NEC last week may not constitute the UK’s largest or most comprehensive such gathering, yet collectively Food and Drink Expo, The National Convenience Show, Farm Shop and Deli, The Ingredients Show and Foodex are an important event for the trade and a chance to take the temperature of an industry that impacts daily upon us all.

It’s an industry that is forever adapting, forever innovating anddoing so against the background of the relentless environmental and health concerns of consumers, politicians and the media.

Three issues – packaging (particularly plastics), the sugar tax and Brexit – loom large and a glance at the myriad free seminars on offer during the three-day event, such as: Food Safety Tools and Tactics, Winning Costumer Confidence; Sugar Rush: How The Sugar Debate is Shaping Sales; Swallowing the Soft Drinks Levy; Waste Not, Want Not indicate an industry that at one level feels (and is) under pressure.

Meanwhile, out on the show floor aluminium cans have never been thinner, packaging never more recyclable and the health claims of manufacturers producers never more prominent. It’s a low sugar, no sugar, gluten free, recyclable, renewable world, yet one liberally laced with indulgence and decadence… oh, and the very visible presence of what seemed like all the tea in China.

For the biggest pavilion belonged to the Chinese Hunan group. Massively upping both the scale of their countries’ presence and the quality of its merchandise and presentation, this seems a foretaste of what might be to come as Britain exits the EU. It was hard not to feel sympathy for those British Government officials who hope to be sitting across the negotiating table from their Chinese counterparts hammering out a free trade agreement several years hence if this was an indication of the quality and range of products that might be vying for a space on UK shelves.

There was also a large Italian presence, with various regions and businesses promoting an established and mature product range to buyers and retailers safe in the knowledge that whether or not the UK remains inside the single market and customs union, demand for such quality products will remain solid.

For those producing and distributing on the island of Ireland, Brexit was naturally a major concern, although most that we spoke with were sanguine about what the final EU/UK deal would mean for their businesses, stressing that too much pre-planning could be counter-productive until some detail emerges: “Ask us next year,” seemed to be the line, publicly at least.

It’s impossible to visit each of the approximately 1,300 stands spread across the five shows, so our round up of the products that most caught our attention is naturally the result of far from comprehensive research, while there were plenty of other items that would have graced any best of list. But we can say with confidence that the UK’s food and drink sector, not least in the smaller and perhaps niche sectors, appears buoyant and brimming with ideas. So, in no particular order:

Cheese: Belton Farm’s White Fox, a bitingly tangy, mature alternative to Red Leicester, but without the traditional orange colour. They also had the ‘red’ version (Red Fox), and we rather liked that too. A hitherto largely forgotten cheese now back in the Birmingham Press office fridge thanks to this award winning Shropshire company. A more than honourable mention too for Dragon Cheeses from Wales and Isle of Arran cheddar located on the Isle of Kintyre stand.

Packaging: The Archivist. This family-run business based in Oxfordshire produce matches in boxes so big you could almost sleep in them and teas in a myriad of bold and evocative retro designs. The contents seemed almost superfluous when the presentation is this good, and the 12 delicious Flamboyant and Co. tea flavours would certainly give Hunan a run for their money.

Tray bakes: It’s very easy to get chocolate caramel shortbread wrong by over or under-doing at least one of this tea-time staples’ three components. The Bake Shed didn’t and the overall succulent moorish-ness of their offering lingered long on the taste buds. Cake also offered a range of tasty treats, their white chocolate shortbread a particular highlight and our old favourite Traybakes continue to delight with a wide variety of sweet offerings.

Meats: There was a distinct split between the preserved meats on offer, particularly from the many Italian exhibitors, and the more traditional British Isles offerings. From the former, the Salumi Emmedue range of cured meats and salami in particular stood out while the old-fashioned bangers from
Supreme Sausages were aptly named, although praise was also given to Mallon, who showed that low-fat doesn’t have to mean taste-free.

Savoury snacks: Fads may come and go (gourmet scratchings, anyone?) but crisps continue to find a market. Grouse & Whinberry from Taste of Game won our award for the most exotic flavor with Ten Acre‘s welcome return under new ownership deserving special praise for their gluten- and dairy-free range.

Chocolate: As ever, a range of artisan and hand-made chocolatiers displayed their wares. While most looked too good to eat, we were impressed by a less-pretentious brand, Zoot Zero, whose low-sugar bars were the equal of many of their much more expensive counterparts.

This year’s big thing: It’s always interesting to guess which particular flavours of the month will stick around (e cigarettes being a notable winner from recent years) and which ones will disappear almost as quickly as they arrived (does anyone know what happened to coconut water?). 2018 saw previous winners of this title the healthy option snack bar still expanding, with Nakd and Eat Natural looking to move from niche to mainstream.

Previous shows have established that Flower and White make the most sinfully rich handmade meringues. Large or small, they are chewy and brittle with a satisfying aftertaste. Both raspberry and chocolate flavours are now available as countline-sized bars. Probably not at four for a pound in your local supermarket, but even at a much higher price point, money well spent.

Just as the weather finally turned warm, Mario’s (hailing from Wales rather than Italy) and Callestick Farm were arguably the best of a competitive and quality UK ice cream production industry. We also tried a remarkable passion fruit and carrot-flavoured line that was, sadly not available as a retail item but rather as an example of food colouring.

And finally, in return for their generosity: Glenilen Farm (delicious yoghurts and a wide range of other dairy products)