10 top Real Food take-aways

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Fledgling was the watchword at the 2010 Real Food Festival, held at Earls Court, London, 7-10 May. Fiona Briggs reports

Recession has spawned many new careers in the food and drink industry, if exhibitors at the recent Real Food Festival in London are anything to go by. The average age of the companies, rather small producers and one-man/one-woman bands, I spoke with was slightly under two years.

Risky? perhaps but entrepreneurial spirit shone through as did the innovation. Here is my top 10:

Mendip Moments: artisan ice cream

New York Delhi Company – a husband and wife team have collaborated on a range of spicy snacks under the ViP Nuts banner. Set up in 2008, with an initial range of spices, the ViP brand was introduced a year ago and has set the ball rolling with listings in Waitrose, Fortnum & Mason, New York delis and a raft of prestigious accounts including Hilton hotels, the bar at the BBC Television Centre plus sales to the British Army and the Royal Air Force. Business in the Far East beckons too. There are three nut variants, chilli lemon, hot chilli and masala plus a Mumbai Mix. They are packed in striking, shiny silver bags (60g and 100g sizes) and attractive tins, comprising two, 125g bags.

It’s Only Natural – the first product launched under this banner is Fruit Freezie, a real fruit ice lolly, in two variants: Oranges & Mangos and Apples & Pears. Set up last year by former brand consultant, Dan Brown, Fruit Freezie aims to fill a gap in the children’s impulse ice cream market. “There’s nothing there that’s really kid friendly, that looks fun for a kid to pick up,” says Brown. “Frozen provides a perfect opportunity to have nothing artificial.” And, it contributes to one of a child’s 5-a-day fruit and veg portions. Fruit Freezie is currently stocked in museums, country houses, farm shops, soft play centres and a couple of schools, reports Brown. “Kids are buying more natural options for themselves and the snacking market is an area where kids have a lot of buying power,” he says. Brown added a new product was planned for next year with the aim of developing a range for It’s Only Natural.

Chiltern Cold Pressed – not olive but rape seed oil, said to have half the saturated fat of its rival and 10 times more omega 3. It is also a rich source of vitamin E and is claimed to be good for cooking roast potatoes. Launched 18 months ago by a family of Hertfordshire farmers, the range has been extended to flavoured variants including an unusual smoked oil. Presented in attractive bottles with a striking label design, the oils make ideal gifts, according to sixth generation farmer, Simon Mead. The oil is on sale in local Asda stores and Budgens as well as through the company’s own farm shop, where customers can return to refill bottles.

Scratch – the name says its all, a craftily packaged box of ingredients and instructions to cook a meal from, you guessed, scratch. Set up a year ago, but with packagimg honed and fine tuned to deliver a seven-day shelf life, the range is on sale in eight London stores including Sourced Market at St Pancras, Couture Food Hall in Woolwich and Budgens’ stores in Islington, Belsize Park and Crouch End.

According to Phil Pinnell from Scratch, the range is designed to make it easier for people to cook from scratch because “there are a whole lot of things that stop people”. There are four products in the range plus seasonal and monthly variants.

Mendip Moments – yum and then some. What can I say, my daughter was livid I spent my afternoon tasting ice cream. At four years of age, Mendip Moments, was one of the veterans of the Festival. Somerset dairy farmers who diversified into ice cream production using their own cream and milk, have attracted an elite and foodie following. Premium and artisan, and that’s just the packaging –  it features a wood etching of the view from the farm and a duck egg blue and red brick colour scheme, and is,  “very Farrow & Ball,” according to partner Jayne Lunnon – the flavours are equally indulgent and include Chocoholic Chunk, Lemon Curd, Mascarpone, Fig & Honey and Somerset Strawberries & Clotted Cream. Snapped up by Whole Foods Market and top tier Budgens stores, the company is collaborating with a local restaurant on a range of recipes featuring the ice cream.

The Coffee Fairy, a great product and a great story make for a winning combination and Martina Gruppo can tell it. Gruppo founded her company less than two years ago, buying coffee direct from a group of 14 farmers in Nicaragua, importing it and selling it and raising money for the local South American schools – many children in the farmers’ communities. Gruppo has even enlisted schools in the UK to raise funds and is hosting a Charity Fairy Ball to help fund a new classroom. To date, the company had funded computer classes for 16 children and adults and supplied water filters. The coffee – pure Arabica – is available as beans and grounds and in dark and medium roasts. There is also a range of hand painted pottery featuring the Coffee Fairy, an enchanting illustration drawn by the daughter of a friend. A board game is also in the offing. The coffee has already been snapped up by specialist Whittard of Chelsea and is a top-selling line in a National Trust farm shop. The Coffee Fairy is getting noticed and is poised to feature in a future Food Programme on Radio 4.

Thistly Cross – I came across this brand just a week ago in a cider promotion running in my local Mitchells & Butlers pub. Another new producer – set up 18 months ago – the company offers a range of flavoured and fruit ciders including strawberry, ginger and whisky variants. As well as on-trade success, the company is supplying farm shops and delis and has just launched an online shop http://www.thistlycross.co.uk/

The Little Sauce/Pasta Company – a two-year old London-based business, marketing a range of ambient Italian-made sauces and pasta. Replacing an initial fresh, chilled offer, the sauces feature more unusual recipes such as bell peppers and artichoke & garlic. The retro-style packaging is stylish and endorses the authentic nature of the products.

Thorntons – by far the most established company and brand I visited at the show, 99-year old Thorntons still surprised with its Metropolitan single origin chocolates. Keith Hurdman, master chocolatier, recruited from Melt in September 2008, is reported to be behind the move towards more modern chocs. The company is not trumpeting ‘Continental’ and reveals its Chilli Dark Chocolate Block has been a top five selling bar since launch.

The Cornish Crisp Company – launched only a year ago by a PR company, headed by Sue Wolstenholme, pledges to source both products and expertise locally including, weather permitting, Cornish-grown potatoes. Packs are striking in black and gold and make a play on the word ‘tater’ across the flavour variants ie agitater = salt and vinegar; gratertater = cheddar and onion etc. Each flavour also supports a local, Cornish charity such as Surfers Against Sewage and the Cornwall Community Foundation. A new, hot chilli variant – the devastater – is raising money for ShelterBox, the international disaster relief charity. Prices range from 60p-£1.00 for a 40g bag to £1.50-£2.00 for 150g bag. According to Wolstenholme, distribution is currently concentrated in the south west but the company is talking with the likes of Waitrose and Budgens.

What was not to like at The Real Food Festival? Frankly, npower and its pestering sales reps, endlessly pouncing to the extent that I gave their stand – and others nearby (sorry) – a very wide berth.