(I really should be working on my book project but just had to wax lyrical about last night so…)
As Frankie Valli so aptly put it “Oh what a night….”! And I haven’t misspelled my title – it was tasty – and you had to be there! Two hundred and fifty of the great and good, all involved with local food and drink here in the Garden of England, gathered for an evening of celebration. From outside in the fog the venue on Detling hill looked like a cow shed. But once inside we found the conference facilities at the Kent County Show site magically transformed for the 10th anniversary of the Taste of Kent Awards.
It was possibly one of the more glamorous gatherings to take place on that spot, and I must admit to having trouble recognising faces I usually see in mud and wellies at local farmers’ markets. But the venue and the attending hordes all scrubbed up a treat, and there was a lot to celebrate. This is my fourth year of being involved with the Awards, so ably and joyously run by Ed Martin and the very capable team at Produced in Kent. And I have to say the whole experience just gets better and better. An evening like last night really sums up how lucky I am to work with food and food producers. I’ve always found that people who love and work in this world tend to be that tricky word – nice. Last night simply confirmed my belief.
And, as well as being nice, they are also very good at what they do. The 17 different awards – check out the full list of winners at www.tasteofkentawards.co.uk – reflect the huge growth in both the quality and range of food and drink, being produced by talented people here in Kent. At my table were two couples whose short-listed businesses perfectly summed up what is going on in the county. And we had one of those passionate conversations together that takes place when people who care about the same things meet and share views – loud, enthusiastic and committed. Wonderful!
Little Stour Orchard – remember that name and look out for it on bottles. You will be pleased you did! Sarah and Michael Bowers are small but perfectly formed – no sorry, that’s their ten-acre apple orchard in the hamlet of West Stourmouth, just outside Margate! In 2011 they took over the orchard, growing three popular varieties of English apple – Cox, Discovery and Bramley. And in just three years have managed to turn them into award-winning apple heaven – in the form of juice, cider, pickles and cider vinegar. Last night they scooped awards for two – their juice won Best Juice Producer, whilst the cider vinegar beat tough competition to win their category in Best Kent Food Product, and also take the overall award for this section. It is a memorable product that really challenges the expectations of what a vinegar is – fragrant and appley, tart yet sweet. The judges were unanimous in choosing it as the stand-out product. And I have to say the pickled walnuts made using it brought tears of joy to my eyes…
Beaten into second place by the might of Macknade’s, Whitstable Produce Store is my new must-visit destination in East Kent. After six years in the town, Steve Jones and his partner have recently moved their business to new premises at 33 Harbour Street, to expand their offering of the best local foods, often from other members of Produced in Kent. Wines, juices, chocolates, breads, oils, fruit, veg, and what sounds well worth a special visit as soon as possible, their cakes and patisseries, made specially by a relocated local Parisienne baker. My mouth was watering at the descriptions.
Other worthy winners, from amongst the highest level of entry in the history of the awards, (and that I will be revisiting asap) include one of the best cakes I’ve ever eaten (and that is no mere understatement from a true cake lover of many decades) – the Honey Cake from the totally delightful Yevgenia of Samovar. Look out for it (and her other wonderful Russian inspired dishes) at Canterbury, Tonbridge and other local farmers markets. The ever-enthusiastic Matthew Kearsey-Lawson is an inspired preserve maker, and his commitment and support for Kent alongside his Kent Fine Foods jams, sauces and chutneys won him the Artisan Producer award. His products are testament to his skill and great palate. I really loved his both Rose and Lavender jellies, whilst I’ve recently tried the Kentish Spicy Plum Sauce with local wild duck breasts from Keiron’s Game – the perfect quick supper.
I’ve written at length about the wonderful cheesemakers currently at work in the county, and this year’s awards did nothing to shake me in my belief that we have some of the finest cheeses in the country, if not the world. Once again Winterdale Shaw won its category but was only a nose ahead of the magnificent Camembert from the Canterbury Cheesemakers, and Karen at Kingcott Cheese‘s sublime Kentish Blue. Now that’s the perfect trio for a great cheeseboard!
Kent restaurants rule…
I could go on but will leave you to check out the other winners yourselves. All are worthy torch-bearers for a county that punches way ahead of its weight (which given its farming history is already considerable!) when it comes to great food and drink. But I do have to mention the best restaurant award.
As a regular visitor to East Kent, I continue to be astounded by the quality of places to eat out in the area. From the cafe at the Turner gallery (which I have mentioned in previous entries) and the totally inspirational Goods Shed in Canterbury
all the way through to Michelin starred restaurants and pubs like the Sportsman at Seasalter, local chefs are using the best of local produce to outstanding effect. And the three finalists for the best restaurant awards are all firm favourites of mine (see a separate entry coming up for a review of all three from recent visits – thanks to sister Lucy for buying a holiday home in Broadstairs which makes visiting the area from the other end of the county much easier) But Mark Sargent at Rocksalt in Folkestone was the worthy winner from a very strong field.
Mark started his cooking career at one of my favourite restaurants of all times, Reads at Faversham, where, under the assured and tender care of Rona and David, I have spent so many happy family occasions over the last twenty five years. A local who has returned to his roots after a award-winning debut as one of Gordon Ramsey’s young guns (winning the coveted three Michelin stars at Claridges), Mark has spent three years of hard work taking on the many challenges associated with opening a truly local eating place in Folkestone. Finding the right chef, employing staff who are as committed as he is to local quality for both food and service, attracting local food lovers, families, regulars, who might be put off by his starry background, has taken graft, commitment and a belief that it will work. The location and building help – modern, natural materials in a superb harbour side setting but what really stands out is the sourcing of ingredients and the cooking. This restaurant sings of Kent and Kentish quality… I can’t wait to go back with the family for the great value three-course Sunday lunch, hopefully sitting on the balcony terrace looking out over the harbour walls into the Channel. If I get sunshine too I may never leave! Mark told me last night that winning this award means more to him than all the accolades he has picked up in his illustrious career. And it is well deserved. So hooray for Kent and the TofK awards, and here’s to another decade of tasty success.