The Taste of Kent Awards (TOKA) is now in its 18th year and celebrates the tastiest food produced in our county. However, this article will not systematically give you the news of the winners, because you can find that on the TOKA website. Rather, it will convey some titbits of information about the producers I was able to talk with, and those with samples that I tasted during the festival hours of the afternoon event on 15 June in the Gulbenkian at the University of Kent.
The questions that interest me are: how Kent’s producers are responding to climate change; the economics of small producers, and where their outlets are; and, of course, the taste.
So, I usually asked questions about where they are based, how many people are employed in the production and can I taste a sample, please? Most of them were well prepared with samples and neat, colourful leaflets about their firms or farms. Varieties of products included fruit-based, as one would expect from the Garden of England, but also artisan bakery, meat products, seasoning and herbs, dairy including cheese, and, of course, wine and spirits. I must admit I gave the latter a miss, as I still had some travelling to do in the day. Chris, who I had hoped would do some wine-tasting, preferred to do the photography instead. And, he also had to drive me back to the station.
Wine and soft drinks
Nonetheless, let’s put Kent’s wine producers at the head of the list about responses to climate change. In my childhood there were no vineyards in Kent. Now, with the warming climate, there are several, and they are winning awards. One stall I checked out was Corkk from Canterbury, which is a shop in the High Street with ‘enomatic machines’ that facilitate wine-tasting. Their rep told me that they often used to get French tourists there trying out the 16 varieties of Kent wine they stock. This must have been before the recent post-Brexit drop in cross-Channel tourists.
For non-alcoholic drinks, there was a wonderful creative variety of juices from Chegworth Valley, near Leeds Castle, where they produce litre bottles of juice with no additives. All the varieties of apples used (Russets, Bramleys, etc.) are grown on the farm, as are the pears. However, they couldn’t do the cranberry variety this year; there is a world shortage of cranberries because the main growers used to be in Ukraine. I tasted a delicious sample of apple with beetroot.
I then moved on to the dairy producers. They all had little samples of Kent cheese, either a soft brie type or a tasty hard cheese. This is artisan cheese, not factory-made. The cheese-makers themselves (all women, I noted) were behind the counters, happy to talk with the customers, who commented on the samples. The dairy farmer who most impressed me was from Hinxden Farm Dairy in Benenden, which employs 22 local people. The woman in charge explained that they had some five off sick and another two had called in that morning, so she had had to do the local delivery round with the bottles of milk before coming across to Canterbury with the display stock. What dedicated customer service and energy!
Meat and fish
Farmers Chloe and David Wilcox have three farms across Kent for animals, pigs, goats and cows. Under the poetic brand name ‘Oink and Udder’, they champion animal welfare. “We want to reconnect customers with their food and where it comes from while providing the best products possible”, declares their leaflet. So, customers who are concerned about the cruelty of much industrial farming for meat products can make the ethical choice. They not only deliver within a 25-mile radius of Canterbury but will also deliver orders of over £50 elsewhere in the UK, in a refrigerated box that keeps the meat frozen for 48 hours. The packaging is recyclable, too; it is felted wool, which can be reused for pipe lagging, protecting your plants from frost or just on the compost heap.
I tasted other meat products, such as the biltong from an ex-South African, who makes a living from a one-man + machine operation. Next, I lingered at the Macnades stall to taste their sage-flavoured sausage. I complained about their closure in Ashford, and got the intriguing response that they still hope to return there when the market picks up again. Their premises there are still empty, ready and waiting.
There was one producer of tasty smoked fish, sourcing the trout from Hampshire and the salmon from Scotland, and processing both at a smokery in Tankerton.
Bakery and jams
There were several artisan bakery stalls, and also ‘Captains Crackers’ displaying samples of both biscuits and crackers. For my taste, I felt the breads were too much in the Mediterranean mode (Focaccia to dip in olive oil). I would have liked a more Northern type of grainy brown bread to taste with jam, possibly combined with one of the local cheeses.
One jam producer I spoke with has to source the apples in Germany now, because all Kent farms sell to the supermarkets on large contracts. Cherries also come from the continent, but for some reason they are able to source enough plums in Kent (not surprising – my garden plum tree has loved the hotter summers we are having!).
The increasing interest in diverse culinary traditions means that there is a market for preserved seasonings, as Ben’s Kitchen demonstrates, with a big variety of bottles of this and that ‘flavour that doesn’t cost the earth’. The burger, too, can be transformed from its American prototype to a new variety, which draws on both Kent products and East Asian flavours. Ferments were on display at Bottlebrush ferments, started by some sports/gym trainers, who realised that gut health could be improved by getting more ferments into the British diet, and so they started a business to demonstrate their ideals.
I stopped to talk at the Ro-Gro stall from Sittingbourne, which features various herbs grown vertically by hydroponic (i.e. soil-free) methods (see photos). Jason Perrott, the head grower, explained that the operation was possible because of collaboration with a local farmer, GH Dean, who supplied the space for containers, and also barn roofs on which to place solar panels, so the energy consumption of the lights required is carbon-neutral.
Most of the producers at the event are small and local compared with the industrial-scale production that the supermarkets depend on. Environmentalists argue that we must stop relying on world-wide supply chains and polluting transport. Rather, it is better to source your food as locally as possible. I picked up the leaflet from my farmers market and noted their list of good reasons to shop in farmers’ markets:
- Reduces environmental impacts – reduces food miles
- Makes local foods available
- Awareness of farming, seasonality
- Fresher, locally grown and locally produced foods available
- Social – improves community spirits
- Self help for local and small farmers, growers, brewers and many small local businesses setting up
- Can be self sustaining
- Links with many climate change objectives
Just a pity most of these can only be reached by car!
All in all, this was an afternoon well spent. I loved the passion and conviction voiced by the producers. The taste of Kent is worth searching out and spending money on.