A combination of farming, growing and cookery, the Universal Cookery and Food Festival (UCFF) brings together the grass roots of the food and farming industry with both established and up-and-coming chefs in the hope of bridging supply-chain gaps. Produce Business UK was at this year's UCFF at organic, biodynamic Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire and unearthed some new trends for the fresh-produce sector
As I arrived onto the 2,500-acre farm in Overton for the 2016 UCFF it hit me that this was a great, some might say, long overdue, idea. Combining some of the most important primary producers with the people at the end of the supply chain who directly influence how that food is eaten, UCFF picks a different farm or food production facility in a different area each year. It brings farm tours, cookery demos and a farmers' market-style exhibition of food producers and products, amongst other things, aimed at both foodservice and everyday consumers.
Set up four years ago by the Craft Guild of Chefs' three chef directors John Feeney, Lee Maycock and Reynolds's Ian Nottage, the festival is pretty much what it says on the tin. I walked into a farm outhouse overlooking acres of green Hampshire countryside, full of welly-clad farmers, growers, chefs and food enthusiasts, signing up for foraging walks with a local wild plant and vegetable forager or truck-driven farm tours around the whole site. These even included Laverstock's compost-making facility, its laboratory and buffalo mozzarella production. Behind the queues, the coffee and the food stalls handing out treats, was a cookery and debate stage and an auditorium pretty much made of bales of hay, bringing together all the elements needed to get discussions started, as well as big names in both cookery and farming, such as Laverstoke's own Jody Scheckter, Michelin-star chef Angela Hartnett and the BBC's pastry guru Claire Clark.
Angela Hartnett in action on the cookery stage
Organics and the ethical
As one might expect due to the nature of the venue, the main subject of the day was organics and ethical thinking when it comes to food production and culinary adventures.
Many of the morning debate panel, which included, Scheckter, dairy nutritionist Andrew Henderson and ex-chef and Soil Association head of horticulture, Ben Raskin, felt that consumers were ready to move on to an organic-where-they-can diet and that chefs should be pushing forward more natural food. The panel believed that chefs control a great deal of consumer interest and supermarkets only change their stock due to consumer interest or lobbying. Although it was admitted that a maybe unrealistic perception of organic gets in the way of sales, the recent calls to grow more vegetables and eat less but better quality meat adds fuel to the organic fire.
"We need to make it known that organic vegetables and organic in general are affordable for everyone, and not just for the middle class," says grower Nick Taylor of Taylor Organic Farm, which grows organic potatoes, parsnip, swede and carrots for the supermarkets.
"We need to make food production sustainable for the rest of the world as we go forward," adds Henderson. "It's hypocritical of the food industry to treat animals the way we do to get food out of them; we are feeding animals that naturally eat grass on grain and growing grain on land that could be growing vegetables for humans to eat. It is a waste of energy, especially when you consider that high-quality vegetables are much more affordable than wheat."
When it comes organic production, Scheckter says of the sector that efficiencies and quantities are up. "Organic produce should be getting into foodservice," he believes. "There was a sea change post 2007 and it has been ticking over and developing, but then organic got a bad name, mostly the Soil Association caused that because organic was put forward as a lifestyle, but in reality and what most people are realising now is that organic is what your grandmother called 'food'. For organic produce to grow bigger [in market share] there has to be a higher demand and high volume, but the best food doesn't always sell."
The panel made an appeal to chefs to investigate the chain of food production that leads to their restaurants and onto their menus, pointing out that better farming practices sound great in theory, but producers must prove they are using them. "Chefs have to ask the question: where did my produce come from?" says Raskin. "Chefs are the directors of the future of food."
Left to right: Jody Schectker, Nick Taylor, Ben Raskin
Wild at heart
Escorting 30-minute trips throughout the day amongst Laverstoke Park Farm's hedgerows and pathways, wild food specialist Robin Harford took us through a short course in the benefits of the wild for both our health and culinarily in the kitchen at home or in a restaurant. Within every few paces there was something new, or more aptly well-established and forgotten about, in our paths, such as artichoke-like flavoured goose grass served just as tips in salads or in sauces for fish dishes, the "best of the hedgerow" burdock roots (blanch, roast then add Parmesan cheese), ground ivy, pineapple weed, the medieval ale herb gruit and hog root that should be sautéed and has to be picked with gloves.
An interactive walk, Harford invited us to "smell, crush, hold, break and breathe in" the wild morsels he found and to ask how the plant responds to our taste and bodies. "Foraging is a way of getting out of heads and preconceptions about food and coming to our senses," says Harford, rather rhythmically, and looking the part in a flat cap, wax jacket and muddy wellies. "How does the land prepare us to cook the food? Let the flavour and textures talk to you. It's simple, natural things cooked simply. Throughout the world we have a culture of serving little dishes - tapas, mezzo, thali – where small amounts of plentiful food that nature gives you can be utilised and when it is gone, it's off the menu. We are currently stuck in a mono culture in the food industry; and when it comes to supply it should be a little of a lot rather than a lot of a little."
By the end of the day, it was clear that successful chefs such as Hartnett, Silo's Douglas McMaster and Luke Matthews are changing according to the changing needs or wants of consumers, as well as working towards absorbing other crafts, for example horticulture or butchery, within their own to find out exactly what good food is.
"Seven to eight years ago chefs talked about good-quality, ethical food and then saw the price and couldn't go through with it," says Scheckter, who became a farmer just over 10 years ago. "That attitude has changed. Consumers really want good-quality food now and independent [food] sells. There are younger spenders who are looking for ethics and good quality, and the market is now being driven by them - and they're not necessarily wealthy."
Considering the millennial generation is bringing a new ethics-hungry outlook when it comes to shopping and eating out, coupled with the older time-rich, cash-rich generation, who are now more likely to spend their money on the feel-good factor, it looks like we are set for a huge push towards more ethical and organic food trends.