I spent 4 hours on Friday at the opening day of the Real Food Festival at London’s Earls Court Exhibition Centre, seeking the meaning of “real” food, which I think we are all supposed to prefer to “unreal” food. I know I do. The organisers weren’t much help. They couldn’t even agree on a spelling for it, alternating between Real Food and realfood. They promote their food show as “London’s greatest celebration dedicated to the finest produce and products from within these shores and beyond”, a somewhat grandiose description when you’ve dotted the floor of a vast exhibition centre with displays of fully accessorized cupcakes. Maybe realfood is akin to realpolitic, suggesting not just realism but a ruthlessly opportunistic approach.
The show’s star exhibitor was fresh buffalo mozzarella from the 2,500-acre Laverstoke Park Farm in north Hampshire. Expert-in-residence Tommasso Valenzano, whose English has far less elasticity than his cheese, nevertheless managed to pull off Laverstoke’s pre-emptive marketing ploy to perfection. The idea is that if you’re worried your target consumers are not going to like your product when they sample it, warn the tasters beforehand. Before offering me a taste-on-a-toothpick, Valenzano explained that the challenge for Laverstoke is that its locally made mozza is too fresh. UK consumers are not accustomed to its fuller taste and firmer texture. We’re used to stuff that’s weeks old. Predictably, everyone who heard this argument sought to distinguish themselves as more open-minded. I know I did. We LOVED the mozzarella. Watching the milk ooze from the smooth balls of cheese, we found it nearly impossible to do otherwise.
Velanzano did not do as well with his bit about how happy buffalo make superior milk. Having plenty of room to roam no doubt benefits Laverstoke’s herd and its production. But Petal, the water buffalo brought to the show, wore the bored expression of Jeremy Paxman. Though raised organic on mixed salads, Petal looked like he was on Prozac.
The show’s silliest exhibitor, as well as its oddest manifestation of “real” food, was the Gourmet Chocolate Pizza Company from Nottingham. First off, the terms “Gourmet” and “Chocolate Pizza” are not a natural fit. If you’re producing flat disks of chocolate that resemble pizzas and are packaged in cardboard pizza boxes, maybe it is best to drop the word “Gourmet” from the name. My other concern is that these chocolate pizzas are not very appetizing. They achieve the impossible, making good-quality Belgian chocolate – dark, milk or white – look totally resistible. Among the various message pizzas (“Happy Birthday”, “Congratulations”, “I Love You”, etc.) that can be ordered online, there is a one-word greeting that says it all: “Sorry”
My favourite new product line at the show was produced by The Flavoured Butter Co of Denbighshire, Wales. Flavoured butter, also known as finishing butter, compound butter, composed butter or, in French, beurre composé, is a butter kneaded with herbs, spices or other ingredients. It’s a convenience food for chefs and great for finishing a sauce or using in place of a sauce, melting it over a piece of fish (perhaps TFBC’s toasted walnut butter), a steak (maybe its Stilton butter) or potatoes (either red chilli butter or black olive butter). The smoked garlic butter and red chilli garlic butter are ideal for slotting into a baguette, wrapping in foil and heating for flavoured garlic bread.
TFBC whips the butter before blending in the flavours and shaping it into logs. This lightens the butter and prevents it from oozing its liquid prematurely. The butter, sourced from South Caernarfon Creameries, a dairy co-operative of nearly 170 Welsh farmers, is not organic. Owner Emma Lardwell (now there’s a name for a butter woman), who fronted the stand with her daughter Hannah, hopes that traceability will trump organic in the minds of consumers.
Two food purveyors revered by myself and other shoppers at London’s farmers markets shared transport from the Isle of Wight to Earls Court. Specifically, Lucy from The Garlic Farm hitched a ride with The Tomato Stall. I found the idea of idea of all that garlic, all those tomatoes and a few loaves of crusty bread tightly packed into a van very seductice. If the van hit a bumpy stretch, the smoked garlic jostled with the smooth-fleshed Elegance tomatoes and rubbed the bread in all the right places, you’d have England’s best bruschetta.