A year in food and drink

Reporting back from 2023 UK Food & Drink Shows, held recently at the NEC.

The annual array of food shows returned to the NEC recently, showing that one of the county’s most vital, and yet perennially-endangered, industry sectors is still alive and well.

The quartet of food and drinks industry trade shows, namely 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 and doing so against the background of the relentless environmental and health concerns of consumers, politicians and the media. The shows seemed bigger than last year, understandable given that early 2022 was a time when the industry, and the country in general, was still recovering from pandemic with large gatherings still treated with suspicion, and the general feeling was that after a rough periodI, the industry is back on its feet.

What’s at the show gives a good indication as to what will be on the shelves over the coming twelve months. It’s not always a foolproof indicator (this is where we give our annual nod to those once-hyped and now largely-forgotten comestibles coconut water and gourmet scratchings) but if the sheer number of stands are anything to go by, chocoholics throughout the land will be in for an enjoyable, if expensive, 2023. The only sector that seemed in even greater profusion was the number of stands devoted to vaping, one of the few Next Big Things that seem to have become stablished in the mainstream.

What was noticeable is that in these financially-restricted times, gimmicks are out and tradition is back in fashion. The healthy options are still there – gluten-free, dairy-free and no added anything are still popular lines, but the feeling we got walking round the much of the NEC was that the past twenty years might never have happened.

Apart from the huge industrial manufacturers, the largest areas were given over to the regional displays; Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were well represented, as were Greece and Italy, the latter two providing us with a ludicrously moreish offering of stuffed sweet peppers and a formidable pizza (what else?) respectively. For overseas suppliers, there is naturally the worry of ongoing post-Brexit situation; anther reason, perhaps, for cutting back on the range of lines on offer and opting for quality over quantity.

What wasn’t on offer was also noticeable. The days have gone when megabrands such as Greggs would roll up with industrial quantities of their pile ’em high street brands, but there was also a slight downturn in the healthy option market, with some of the bigger names missing for 2023. In their place were a LOT of energy drinks, which were perhaps needed as the long walk around the hundreds of stands began to take effect on tired legs.

And there were of course some exhibitors that caught our eye more than others. Snack’In For You have a range of both sweet and savoury snacks. Their cheese crunch and fruit bites are worthy of high enough praise but their air-dried Serrano ham chips (“Like biltong without the jawache” one taster was heard to explain) and baked chorizo and rice bites were sublime.

On a similar theme, Grouse & Whinberry from the Staffordshire-based Taste of Game won our award for the most exotic flavour in a sector that also seems to have declined in number if not in taste over recent years.

They were, though, replaced by a number of chocolatiers new and old. Chocolarder were new to us, but have made their mark with deservedly award-winning recipes. if you want a slightly healthier option, Rhythm 108 have a wonderful range of chocolates, cakes and biscuits that are vegan, gluten-free and irresistible. Equally Ombar‘s dairy-free range of chocolates lose nothing in taste compared to their more traditional rivals. Then there was Russell and Attwell , local heroes and keeping up their high standards despite record-breaking sales following an appearance on Dragon’s Den.

Moving away from sweet offerings, the pick of a growing number in their particular line were Welsh butchers Edwards, whose sausages and burgers attracted a steady stream of tasters who will, if there’s any justice, become regular stockists. Equally traditional, albeit a few hundred miles to the east, were the sausage-based selections on offer from the Germanic Extrawurst. Low-alcohol beer might seem an affront to the German brewing industry but lager from Lucky Saint was full-bodied and just the thing to get us sorted for the final leg of the show.

Baked To Taste have long been a favourite of the gluten-intolerant member of our team and their selection of meat, vegetarian and sweet offerings were well-received by us as well as by others.

Just as the weather finally turned warm, Mario’s (hailing from Wales rather than Italy) and Lakes were the standouts of a quality UK ice cream production industry, while the Biscotti cheesecake from Just Desserts tasted as good as the rest of their range looked.

And finally, we must give a mention to the best-named exhibitor of the lot. Dough Ay We are from the Black Country, with a name like that they couldn’t be from anywhere else and whatever the accent we can’t speak too highly of the excellence of their apple & blackberry cookie dough.