#NFDF2014 trip to Crisp Malting: talking about Norfolk barley, best malt, fine whisky and craft beer.

NFDF coloured logosDriving out from Norwich on a beautiful July day, I turned off the A1067 just before Pensthorpe Park and found myself looking down on a quintessentially English scene. Rolling away below me were the woods, fields and hedgerows surrounding the pretty village of Great Ryburgh, which lies by the upper reaches of River Wensum (and just over four miles from its source between Colkirk and Whissonsett). This landscape hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years (although the mill has gone) – and the crop is essentially the same: mainly wheat and barley.

Barley – specifically malting barley – was the reason I’d made the journey; however I wasn’t there to find out how malt is made. Instead, I wanted to find out what role Crisp Malting Group Ltd plays in the food and drink sector, which is such an important part of our economy. As well as being the UK’s largest manufacturing sector (accounting for some 7% of the UK economy, including £18.9bn in exports), food and drink makes up some 15% of Norfolk and Suffolk’s economy and employs 13% of the workforce, many of them in highly skilled jobs demanding good STEM qualifications.

Crisp Malting Distribution Map

From Great Ryburgh to the world of fine whisky and craft beer – with love.

Local firm supplying customers around the world

If you are a malt whisky or craft beer connoisseur you might have heard of Crisp Malting, the largest independently owned maltster in the country. It makes high quality malt and supplies whole grain and crushed cereals for the food and drink industry. Customers range from the finest distillers and largest brewers in the world to numerous craft breweries across the UK, including around 30 in Norfolk (such as Woodfordes, Panther, Fat Cat, Humpty Dumpty Norfolk Brewhouse, and Redwell Brewery).

The firm has five production sites: two in Scotland and three in East Anglia, including its largest in Great Ryburgh (which is also home to its head office and main research laboratory). “East Anglia is arguably the best farming region in the world for malting barley,” says Crisp’s Managing Director Euan Macpherson. “Light soils, low rainfall, and plenty of sunshine provide ideal growing conditions, while the fog that rolls in off the North Sea subtly enhances the quality of the grain.”

Working with growers, merchants and buyers

The interesting aspect of Crisp’s business from an industry supply chain point of view is the way it works with suppliers and buyers. This includes advising farmers on the different varieties of barley to grow based on the needs of its specialist customers, as well as the costs involved and any quality issues. “A few years ago we set up the ABC Growers Group with two local grain merchants – Adams & Howling and H Banhams (which owns 50% of the famous Maris Otter brand),” explains Bob King, Crisp’s Commercial Director. “ABC works with over 220 growers in Norfolk and Suffolk to develop long term supplies of specific malting barley strains. We now have rolling three-year contracts for around 100,000 tonnes – and some have been in place for the best part of 15 years.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/markescapes/

Iconic Norfolk lighthouse – and almost as iconic Norfolk barley – photo by Mark Spurgeon

“This approach is good for growers because it gives them greater certainty about the demand for their crop, as well as potential yields and returns on investment. The grain merchants, who are experts in constructing and pricing such contracts, benefit because it keeps them involved in the process and helps them develop their specialist market knowledge. Meanwhile we ensure we can source a high quality crop that meets our customers’ changing needs for different styles of malt.”

For example, Crisp produces a unique variety of malt called Clear Choice. “This comes from a low yield variety of barley,” explains Steve Le Poidevin, Sales Director, “which no one would have grown without a secure contract. However, we know it is ideal for producing malt that makes a great tasting, haze free beer, with a long shelf life. Because our customers appreciate these real benefits, we have the confidence to place long term orders with our growers.”

Crisp runs tours of its malting facilities and its customers’ breweries to give the ABC farmers a better understanding of the maltster’s and brewer’s needs. “Traditionally this never happened,” says Steve, “but about two-thirds of the ABC farmers have now visited one of our sites. This gives our technical director David Griggs an opportunity to discuss the various malting methods, including traditional ‘floor malting’, and how particular types of barley and malt suit specific styles of beer or whisky.”

Research and development

As well as a team of highly skilled crop and food scientists, Crisp has extensive technical capabilities in its Great Ryburgh laboratory. These include a micro-malting facility for testing small batches of new grain varieties and the ability to analyse up to 30 product attributes. It also works with various industry specialists to improve existing varieties of barley and to develop new ones.

Partners in this process include growers and The Morley Agricultural Foundation, which specialises in conducting field trials of arable crops for seed specialists, including researchers at the John Innes Institute (JIC). “Both Crisp and JIC have recently worked together on a conservation variety of barley called Chevalier, which was the first identified malting barley,” says Euan. “JIC is interested in it because it has certain characteristics that could be useful in breeding modern varieties; while we are interested because we have identified a market for small quantities of ‘heritage’ malts.”

This attention to detail and specialist knowledge helps explain why Crisp is the leading supplier of malt to the craft beer sector in the UK. The firm also supplies malt to about 70% of the micro-breweries in Japan (where there has been a surge of interest in craft beers). In addition, Crisp provides its customers with complete product traceability, which is particularly important for brewers and distillers who value provenance as well as quality.

Thank you Euan, Bob and Steve for your time and for a fascinating conversation.

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Interesting link with Heygate Farms

In an earlier blog I talked about Heygate Farms’ Grow & Cook Awards. Heygate Farms are probably best known for growing the Norfolk Peer and Norfolk Keeper brands of potato. However, the group is also a major supplier of spring barley and rye to Crisp, who malt both. Some of the malted rye is sent on to Crisp’s sister company EDME in Essex, who further process it before sending some of it back to Heygates for use in its flour.

 About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or two).

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

 

NEW Norfolk Food & Drink Network – supported by #NFDF2014

Local business people (including representatives from Larking Gowen, Howes Percival, Raffles Restaurants and the Norfolk Food & Drink Festival 2014) have got together to launch the Norfolk Food & Drink Network (#NFDN).

This new network aims is to bring together local food & drink businesses in a relaxed and friendly environment. It will run quarterly events where buyers and suppliers can share success stories, discuss industry issues and make valuable business contacts. These events will also feature interesting guest speakers – and delicious food and wine.

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We’re stronger together

The Food and Drink sector is a vital part of our local economy. Across the New Anglia LEP (NALEP) region, the Agri-food industry (‘plough to packet’) is worth around £4bn and employs some 15% of the workforce, many in highly skilled jobs requiring good STEM qualifications. At the same time food and drink makes up an important part of Norfolk’s tourism offer, accounting for 29% of tourist spending in the NALEP region (more than shopping at 27%). So anything we can do to strengthen our business community is good for our local community too.

BOOK NOW to avoid disappointment

The first event takes place at The Library Restaurant on Guildhall Hill in Norwich, on Monday 7 July 2014 from 17:30 to 19:30. The guest speaker will be Pete Waters, who is brand manager of Visit Norfolk. There are no membership fees but everyone attending will need to pay a small fee of £10 to cover the cost of the canapés and drinks.

To book your place at the launch event on 7 July at The Library, please follow this link: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/norfolk-food-drink-network-launch-event-tickets-11759267285. If you need to pay by cheque, please send it (noting “NFDN” and your name on the back) to The Library Restaurant and Grill, 4A Guildhall Hill, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1JH, or call 01603 616606 to pay by phone.

To keep up to date with news of future events, you can follow NFDN on facebook – please help spread the word by liking their page and sharing with your social media network.

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them.

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

Fabulous #food #science research with @IFRScience in Norwich – finding out more for #NFDF2014.

If you read my earlier #NFDF2014 post about the Norwich Research Park, you will know Norfolk is home to an internationally respected cluster of bioscience institutes. One of these is the Institute of Food Research (IFR), which specialises in exploring the relationship between food and health. This includes researching the importance of gut bacteria to good health, preventing food related illnesses and developing healthier, more sustainable foods (including ways to reduce and reuse food waste).

IFR on Norwich Research Park

IFR on Norwich Research Park

In early June, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Tim Brocklehurst to find out a bit more about IFR’s research, including its work with commercial businesses. Tim started by explaining the basic difference between the John Innes Centre (JIC) and the IFR. “JIC’s focus in on how to grow more crops (pre-farm gate products). Whereas the IFR is looking at how we convert primary production into safe, nutritious, food (post-farm gate products) for the consumer.”

“So while JIC is concerned with, say, increasing wheat yields, we want to know if it is the right wheat for people’s health needs and how we can improve it. This might mean looking at how to change the level of long-chain sugar molecules (amylopectin and amylose) in wheat, which can influence diabetes, or exploring the way gut bacteria breaks down wheat starch and the effect this has on a person’s calorie intake. We are also interested in the way gut bacteria signals to the brain that we are full – the ‘satiety’ response.”

You are what you eat – possibly

The role of gut bacteria (or gut flora, if you prefer) in human health is pretty amazing – as are the number of different bacteria in our stomach. As some scientists like to point out, from the bacteria’s point of view we are just a giant bacteria hotel. There are more bacteria cells in our body (some 10 to the power of 13) than there are mammalian cells – and there are over 3,000 different species of bacteria in our gut. These micro-organisms control how we process food, absorb calories and vitamins, and even how we feel.

Image of gut bacteria - somewhat enlarged - courtesy of IFR.

Image of gut bacteria – somewhat enlarged – courtesy of IFR.

“There is increasing evidence of a link between the state of our gut flora and health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis),” says Tim, “as well as our mood swings. And there is some evidence that re-balancing the flora (using faecal transplants) might help reduce the symptoms of some of these ailments. However, this is a hugely complex area – we have to be careful about how we interpret the evidence and related claims, which is why we need to conduct more research to gather sufficient data.”

Growing capabilities

That is one of the many reasons why a proposed new Centre for Food and Health (CFH) will be so important not just for the Norwich Research Park but for food science in this country.

“The CFH will effectively be an ‘IFR Plus’,” explains Tim, “integrating our expertise with the skills of colleagues at JIC, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), and the University Hospital. The presence of TGAC is particularly important because its high-speed gene sequencing capabilities enable us to conduct meta-genomic analysis on a scale we could only have dreamt of 10 years ago. We can now ask very detailed questions about what happens at the genetic level and the way diet might affect the genetic expression of proteins.”

Such genetic analysis may in time lead to the development of personalised nutrition, as well as personalised treatment for a range of diet related ailments. This is very exciting for the scientists but also creates significant business opportunities, which is why IFR is heading up a bid for European Union funding to set up a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) specialising in food innovation. “The idea is to start with the scientific research and then partner with the business community to create new products, new jobs and economic growth to fund further research.”

From Farmer to Pharma

According to a recent independent report, every £1 invested the IFR already returns over £8 to the UK economy through the commercialisation of its research and its support for businesses. It does this through a number of routes, including the Food and Health Network, which Tim heads up. “The Network is our knowledge exchange for colleagues in the food, drink and health related industries.”

The IFR has also set up IFR Extra to work with companies on new product development, product enhancement and product safety. IFR Extra is also looking at ways to lower manufacturing costs by saving energy and water and reducing food waste, including working with partners on The Biorefinery Centre (also located on the Research Park) to convert waste into fuel.

Talented IFR scientists doing ground breaking research.

Talented IFR scientists doing ground breaking research.

“This is a very exciting time to be a food scientist,” says Tim. “Not only is food the UK’s largest manufacturing sector but also globally we face huge challenges in producing enough safe and healthy food to feed a rapidly growing population, and doing so sustainably. This means there are numerous opportunities in both research and business to make a real difference to public health.

“Whether you want to do primary research to inform public policy (on say the level of sugar in food), work on improving foods or develop new medical treatments, this is the field to be in. The Norwich Research Park is already one of Europe’s largest single-site concentrations of research in Food, Health and Environmental Sciences – and it is set to grow rapidly over the next few years. So if you are a keen student or graduate, you should definitely look at the opportunities to work here.”

Thank you for your time Tim and a fascinating morning’s discussion.

Dates for your diary

If you want to find out more about the work of the IFR or the other bioscience institutes at the Norwich Research Park, please follow the links in this blog. Also, if you work in the food industry or the agri-food chain, you should take a look at the Total Food 2014 event, which takes place 11-13 November in the John Innes Conference Centre.

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

#Norfolk schools – your chance to win up to £2,000 in #NFDF2014 champion @Heygatefarms’ Grow and Cook awards

Could your local school use up to £2,000 to inspire children to grow and cook their own food? I’m sure it could, which is why you should persuade those in charge to enter the second Grow and Cook awards. This competition, sponsored by Heygate Farms Swaffham Ltd, aims to encourage children of all ages to explore the connection between farming and food – and how to prepare delicious, healthy meals.

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Read about last year’s winners here.

William Gribbon, Heygate’s award winning Farm Manager in Norfolk, is the brains behind the Grow and Cook awards. He is passionate about farming and helping young people discover where their food comes from and how to enjoy it. This, along with his support for Norfolk’s farming community, is why the organisers of the Norfolk Food & Drink Festival asked him to be one of their three #NFDF2014 champions.

Making the link between farm and food

You might have see Will at the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association’s ‘Grow your own Potatoes day’ on 17 March 2014. This event was about encouraging children to explore the world of the potato, from planting to plate, in all its many forms. Visitors to the Royal Norfolk Show (25/26 June) can watch the children harvesting their potatoes and find out which team grew the heaviest crop.

In our modern, urban culture it is all too easy for children to grow up with limited knowledge of the source of most of their food or how to prepare that food. This leaves them dependent on fast food and ready meals. While not all such food is bad – and its convenience has real value for the time-poor – there seems little doubt obesity is partly linked to a lack of awareness of what constitutes healthy, affordable food.

The Grow and Cook awards aim to re-establish the vital link between growers and young consumers. The judges – Will and Michelin-starred Chef Galton Blackiston – will be looking for projects that encourage children to engage enthusiastically with growing and preparing their own food. These could involve learning important cookery skills for a healthier life or understanding the environmental challenges of watering, feeding and protecting crops from pests and disease.

Enter today

For your school’s chance to win one of the two £1,000 prizes, make sure they enter their project in the awards and then encourage friends and family to vote for them. You can find full details on how to enter and vote here. We wish all the children who take part the best of luck and hope they have lots of fun in the process.

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About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

Could your favourite #Norfolk butcher WIN the @FoodFestNorfolk #NFDF2014 Battle of the Bangers?

Does your local butcher make the best sausages in Norfolk? Are they up for the ultimate taste-test challenge? Then encourage them to take part in the @FoodFestNorfolk #NFDF2014 Battle of the Bangers and prove it.

The Battle of the Bangers is one of the highlights of the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival. Every year it draws a huge crowd of hungry people to try the finest sausages from the best butchers across the county. Over 4,000 people joined in the fun in 2013 and voted for the People’s Choice of Best Banger – so it’s a great opportunity for butchers to win public prestige and new customers.

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Sausage crown up for grabs

Norwich’s famous family butchers Archer’s, who won last year, will be on the judging panel for the Sponsors’ Choice category so won’t be competing this year. This means the field is now wide open to new entrants to prove their sausages have the best sizzle. But they’ll need your hearty support to succeed when the heat is on.

This year’s Battle of the Bangers will take place on Saturday 6 September – make a note in your diary now – outside The Forum and will mark the culmination of Norwich Restaurant Week. There will also be other #NFDF2014 attractions going on at the same time, so there are sure to be masses of people ready to try and to buy some tasty tea-time treats, whether plain pork, spicy beef or perhaps even herby chicken (now there’s an idea).

FREE Entry

The event is free to enter – for both contestants and consumers – and the organisers offer ample support to each butcher who takes part, to help them make the most of this special day. All the butchers have to do is set up their own stand, fire up the BBQ and start cooking. They will obviously have to bring along plenty of sausages too – both as samples and to sell because previous entrants have apparently done a roaring trade on the day (as well as in after-sales).

They’ll need to hurry – just five places left

Places are limited to just 10 entrants, so with five stands already booked your butcher will need to act fast to guarantee their place. For full details and a booking form they should send an email to anna@nfdf.co.uk today!  We hope your favourite butcher decides to take part and wish all that do the best of luck – the competition is hot but the chance to be named People’s Choice is worth it.

The joys of Norwich Market

One of my local favourites – hoping they will take part.

About this post

This is one in a series of posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and other local food and drink related stories (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

NEW Norwich & Norfolk Eating Out campaign 2014-15 – NOW open for entries – deadline 4 July – contact @VisitNorwich

Will your business feature in #VisitNorwich’s NEW Eating Out campaign?

You’ll have to act fast. The team at VisitNorwich is currently putting together its new EATING OUT in Norwich & Norfolk campaign for 2014-15 – but space is limited and the deadline for entries is just weeks away. So, if you want to promote your business to thousands of hungry residents and visitors, you need to act now.

The EATING OUT campaign is the easy way for cafés, pubs, bars and restaurants in Norwich and Norfolk to attract new customers. And it’s more than just a printed guide. The campaign package includes a listing for your business (including a link to your website) in VisitNorwich‘s comprehensive on-line Eat and Drink directory.

This directory is part of VisitNorwich’s extremely popular website, which receives over 100,000 page views every month and had over half a million visits in the last year. It also has a search facility that enables people to find just the food and drink they want.

Hurry – DEADLINE: Friday 4 July

VisitNorwich will print 65,000 copies of the 2014-15 edition of the Eating Out guide in July 2014 – so you only have until 4 July to secure your place. These handy pocket-sized (1/3rd A4 format) guides come with easy to use index and maps. You will also have the opportunity to include a 10% discount voucher (at no extra charge) to encourage more people to try your establishment.

The guides, which have a 12-month shelf life, will be distributed to accommodation providers, tourist attractions, visitor hotspots (such as Norwich’s train station and bus station), and tourist information centres (TICs) across the county, including the Norwich TIC in The Forum. They will also be given to conference delegates (including many who attend events at the UEA and the Norwich Research Park), language schools, coach parties and visiting journalists. Meanwhile, VisitNorwich will actively promote its website, including its Eat and Drink directory, throughout the year.

For more information (including costs) and to book your place in the Eating Out campaign, please contact Lisa Howard: lisa.howard@visitnorwich.co.uk.

 

NOTE:

This is not a sponsored article. I volunteered to post it in my role as a Norfolk Food and Drink champion (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion). I hope it will be useful to readers who run food and drink related business.

Thank you for reading.

Discussing #NFDF2014 Norwich Restaurant Week in #NorwichLanes with @RafflesFood – over delicious Rapido lunch.

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This year is the 10th anniversary of the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival and the organisers are determined to make it the biggest and best yet. The festival is already the largest in the UK – with volunteers running numerous events, both large and small, across the county from 30 August to 12 October. However, this year we want to do more in Norwich – which is where the festival started.

Among the many events being planned is the ever popular Battle of the Bangers, which last year attracted over 5,000 sausage lovers to taste the finest our local butchers have to offer. There will also be the City Farm and a Norfolk Producers market – all outside The Forum on Saturday 6 September. This will coincide with the final day of the reinvigorated Norwich Restaurant Week, which will run from 1-7 September and is being supported by Norwich BID and Norwich Lanes.

The current chair of the Norwich Lanes committee is Jayne Raffles. She and her husband Nigel have been running restaurants in Norwich for 24 years – and currently have three in the Norwich Lanes district: St Benedict’s, The Library and Pinocchio’s. I had the pleasure of meeting them both for a Rapido lunch in Pinocchio’s to discuss their plans for making the most of Norwich Restaurant Week.

Fresh fast food to savour

I have to admit to having a real soft-spot for Pinocchio’s. It’s the place we tend to go for family celebrations, including the day we moved back to Norfolk, the night (four years later) when we finally moved out of a rented house into our own home, as well as various birthdays and anniversaries. It reminds me of the family-run trattoria in Bologna we tried when we visited Italy – with good, honest food, prepared fresh every day.

Nigel, a talented chef who is responsible for the food in all three restaurants, uses local suppliers (such as Easters) and fresh seasonal produce wherever possible. “It’s important to provide great tasting food and great value food, if we are to compete with the big corporate chains. We make virtually all our bread at Pinocchio’s, particularly our pizza dough, although we use a specialist Italian supplier for the ciabatta because they make it using the traditional slow fermentation method.”

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The ciabatta we had for lunch certainly tasted delicious, packed with chicken, mushrooms and pesto. As did the arancini, deep fried rice balls with chorizo and smoked mozzarella, and pin-wheels (rounds of bread) filled with a rich lamb ragu. Sadly I was driving, so had to pass on a glass of Moretti (my favourite Italian beer if you must know) but the homemade Sicilian lemonade was so deliciously refreshing I was slightly surprised the Famous Five didn’t arrive on their bikes with Timmy the dog just to knock back a jug or two.

Supporting cultural life in the city centre

As you would expect, Jayne and Nigel are also passionate about promoting local, independent restaurants. “It’s the independents who help keep Norwich special,” says Jayne. “They stop the city turning into just another clone town and they attract visitors who are vital to the local economy.”

This passion is reflected in Jane’s championing of the Norwich Lanes organisation, which promotes independent businesses in the city centre. As chair, Jane works closely with the Norwich Business Improvement District (Norwich BID) team, which has raised £3m to improve the look and feel of the city centre. Both organisations support special events in the city centre throughout the year.

The Lanes committee is organising four big events this year. The first was the successful revival of Jack Valentine in spring, with Norwich BID’s help. Next up, on 6 July, is the hugely popular Summer Fayre – which just gets bigger and better every year. Then in October the Lanes will support the 5th Sound & Vision festival at Norwich Arts Centre. And finally, the organisers are planning a late night open-shop/open-restaurant event for December (more on this nearer the time).

Meanwhile, Norwich BID will be laying on street entertainment every Thursday throughout the summer. The Head Out, Not Home campaign (which runs 12 June to 28 August) aims to encourage people to stay in the city after work and make the most of the long (and, we hope, sunny) summer evenings. To keep up to date with what’s on each week, follow #NorwichEvenings on twitter or download the BID’s ‘Discover Norwich’ app.

Norwich Restaurant Week

Both Jayne and Nigel see Norwich Restaurant Week as another great opportunity to attract people to the heart of our fine city and raise the profile of its independent food network. “We are trying to encourage all the restaurants, cafés and bars in the Lanes to take part and help make it a week to remember. The Food & Drink Festival and Norwich Restaurant Week in particular are vital to putting Norwich on the map as a modern food destination, not just an historic visitor attraction.”

Jayne and Nigel seem to thrive on being busy – so they are planning three events for the Food and Drink Festival. “We are going to have a Slow Food Festival in The Library (our restaurant on Guildhall Hill),” says Jayne. “The team behind the Aylsham Slow Food Festival (which is also an #NFDF2014 event) are helping to organise this and it will be like an indoor market celebrating the best in regional food.”

Nigel is organising an American pop-up barbecue in the Warings Store: “This will really appeal to people who love succulent burgers and other traditional American food,” he promises. Then, in the third week of September (not Restaurant Week but still during the festival) Jayne will be hosting a special #NFDF2014 event at City College. “Hopefully this will help inspire more students to pursue a career in catering.”

Celebrating our City of Literature’s heritage

Finally, as if all those events were not enough, Jayne and Nigel are planning an extra special event in November to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the reopening of The (Norwich Subscription) Library building in 1914 (after a devastating fire in 1898). This will run from 1-7 November and will involve The Bookhive, Jarrold, the Writers Centre, the UEA’s Writers’ Circle and the Blue Badge Guides. There will be children’s events on the Saturday (including pop-up bookstalls and storytelling) and authors’ evenings (including book signings) during the week.

Now that seems like a wonderful example of feeding the body and the mind – of which I suspect Epicurus would have strongly approved. It certainly works for me. Thank you Jayne and Nigel for an excellent lunch too.

Be a part of #NFDF2014

If you are interested in taking part in Norwich Restaurant Week, please post your details below and the organisers will get in touch with you.

More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

#NFDF2014 visit to @Winbirri – just in time to celebrate @englishwineweek from 24 May to 1 June.

English Wine has seen a welcome renaissance over the last 60 years. Along with the development of cool-climate grape varieties, it has benefited from modern wine making techniques and substantial investment in new vineyards and wineries. As a result, some English Wines now rank among the best in the world.

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Norfolk might not be quite as warm, or as rolling, as the South Downs or Cornwall but we do have plenty of sunshine. And while we have yet to produce a world beating vintage, we do have a growing number of professional growers and makers who are passionate about creating great tasting wines.  One of these is Lee Dyer, who runs the Winbirri Vineyard in Surlingham – and I had the pleasure of meeting him as part of my #NFDF2014 exploration of Norfolk food and drink.

If you haven’t visited Surlingham, you must. It’s a beautiful, virtually unspoilt corner of our county just 6.5 miles outside Norwich. Tucked away in a bend on the south side of the River Yare, between Bramerton and Rockland St Mary, it is quintessentially English with its gently rolling fields, narrow lanes, high hedges and pretty red brick and flint cottages. It’s also a very old settlement, tracing its roots back to Anglo Saxon times – which is where the name Winbirri comes from, being Anglo Saxon for Vine Orchard.

For those of you passionate about wildlife, the RSPB runs a small but delightful nature reserve called Surlingham Church Marsh. While on a food related note, the village is home to Orchid Apiaries, which produces exquisite local honey (including my favourite, The Wherryman’s Honey, which is dark and rich with a hint of toffee) and Yare Valley Oils. On a warm summer’s day (such as it was when I visited) you can see hare in the fields and, if you are lucky, marsh harriers swooping overhead.

Returning home to a new life

Lee’s father, Stephen, who has run Mr Fruity Wholesale Ltd for over 30 years, started the vineyard in 2006/7 while Lee was working abroad. “I got home to find he’d planted 200 vines on our 2.5 acre plot. I thought it was just a hobby at first – but as I looked into it I became convinced we could make great wine that people would want to buy. We’ll never be able to compete against cheap volume producers, we don’t have the climate for high yields, but we can compete on quality.”

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Not being one to do things by halves, Lee enrolled on an intensive wine course at the renowned Plumpton College in East Sussex. “When they say intense, they mean it. We were studying 13-14 hours a day and some of the chemistry was PhD level stuff – in fact, successful wine growing is as much about the science as it is about the art of viticulture.

His time at Plumpton convinced Lee that he needed to focus on creating premium wines using vines specifically suited to Norfolk’s climate and soil. “The #1 rule is to know what will and what won’t grow – this is a long term business, with vines living upwards of 100 years, so you have to get it right. There’s no point trying to produce Shiraz – it just won’t ripen enough – but there are a number of varieties that will do very well here, including new ones developed by plant breeders at Hohenheim University in Stuttgart that produce excellent, crisp, aromatic whites.”

Although Lee acknowledges climate change may have played a small part in the English wine revival, he puts most of the progress down to the new breeds, improved technology and knowledge sharing between the world’s wine communities. “The expertise in this country has improved markedly over the years, thanks to places like Plumpton and organisations such as the English Wine Producers and the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA). We’re a member of UKVA through the regional East Anglian Vineyards Association – and it offers guidance on many aspects of the business, particularly technical developments.”

Variety adds sparkle to life

The three most popular grape varieties with English vineyards are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bacchus. This last one is rapidly gaining a reputation as the English Grape – much the way Sauvignon Blanc is now associated with New Zealand and Chardonnay with Australia. Lee grows all three, along with 11 other varieties including Pinot Meunier (one of the three ‘noble’ varieties, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, used in the production of traditional Champagne).

There are three reasons for growing so many varieties. Each one flowers, fruits and ripens at a different time – so you can stagger the harvest (an important consideration in such a labour intensive industry). Different flowering times also mean you are less likely to lose your entire harvest to a bad spell of weather. And the range of grapes, with their different sugar and acidity levels, gives the vintner more scope to blend wines with specific characteristics.

About 50% of Winbirri’s wine is white (including Bacchus, Solaris and Seyval Blanc), 20% is their premium sparkling (which is bottle fermented in the traditional way – first invented by an Englishman called Christopher Merret) and the remaining 30% is red or rosé. When I visited Lee, we were a bit early in the day for wine tasting. However, I had enjoyed a few sipps (sadly only a few as I was driving) of both the sparkling white and rosé when I visited the Maids Head in March and can tell you they are excellent.

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A family business – and a personal passion

Considering Lee and his father still work full time on the Mr Fruity business, it’s amazing they have any time for the vineyard but as Lee admits, “it’s become a passion.” This is just as well because the work seems never ending, starting with pruning in winter. Lee uses the traditional Double Guyot system, which involves cutting back the vine to two strong shoots close to the main stem. Once the shoots start growing in February/March he bends them over and ties them to horizontal wires. The grape bunches then form along these two arms.

The vines then continue growing upwards, producing what is called the canopy. The canopy is where most of the photosynthesis takes place – so it’s vital for the growth of the grapes but it also has to be controlled otherwise the grapes won’t get any sunlight to ripen. During the summer Lee has to tuck the growing canopy into wires above the vine – he also has to knock off any buds growing on the lower part of the vine to prevent wasted growth.

When the canopy is at an optimal height (about six foot) he has to trim it along the top and sides – this effectively stops further growth (although it may take two or more trims) and encourages the vine to put its energy into the grapes. Good canopy control is also essential to preventing disease, such as powdery mildew. “It’s important to keep the air flowing freely around the vines, particularly during the humid months of July and August,” explains Lee.

The harvest then runs from the end of August through to mid November. In the run up to it, Lee is out every day, taking grape samples from across the vineyard to check for acidity and sugar levels. “I know exactly what I want for each grape variety – but we only have a 48 hour window to harvest them at their peak. As soon as we are within a day of that window we start harvesting, spreading it out over four days so grapes picked either side of the window even out the differences.”

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Vine science and German precision

This might all sound manageable with 200 vines – but the vineyard has grown rapidly over the last eight years. There are now three fields (two are on very long leases from a local farmer), the largest and most recently planted of which is 12.5 acres and has 18,500 vines all in meticulously neat rows. “In all, we have 40,000 vines on 25 acres, which makes us a medium sized vineyard by English standards.”

Planting the vines in the largest field was a scientific exercise in itself. “The spacing of the vines, the distance between the rows and the height of the canopy is all carefully calculated to maximise yield and minimise disease. Everything has to line up exactly – so we employed a specialist German company who used the latest laser guided, GPS navigated machines to plant the vines. We also had to hammer in 4,000 metal posts and link them up with over 96km of wire.

Oddly, in a county with a reputation for excellent arable land, Lee needed fields with poor quality soil. “Most of the soil is Norfolk is quite heavy and very fertile but for vines you need light, very free draining soil and it has to be on a southerly facing slope so any frost rolls off it. The third field is virtually perfect – even the large number of flints is useful because we leave them beneath the vines where they soak up the warmth during the day then radiate it back at night, which helps boost yield. The landowner was probably quite pleased to find someone who could put the land to better use than he could.”

As well as being hard work, growing vines and making wine takes patience – a lot of patience. It takes three years for the vines to start producing mature grapes. It then takes another two years to make the wine, including a year in stainless steel fermentation tanks – three if you are making sparkling wine because the bottle fermentation takes a further 18 months. Payback on your investment can be upwards of 10 years.

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Vineyard tours – Norfolk style

When Lee and Stephen first started making wines, they simply had a small shed and a few tanks. But with the new fields coming into production, they invested in a new winery that is the height of a three storey house and the length of two buses (my estimate). As well as the presses, shiny tanks, lovely American Oak barrels and racks of bottled wine, it comes complete with a tasting room and viewing gallery for visitors.

“We have volunteer days during the harvest, when local people and visitors from further afield can help out with grape picking. They tend to be interested in the whole business of growing and making the wine – as well as enjoying drinking it. We provide them with lunch and supper, when they can enjoy a glass of wine and watch us processing the grapes they have picked. Of course, they can also buy our wine – and tell their friends how they helped make it.

“We also give guided tours to parties of 10 to 30 people at a time. These go into a lot of detail and take between two and three hours – but that’s because I like to give them their money’s worth. At £10 a person it’s a great day out for locals, tourists and teams of employees – and it includes a delicious lunch, featuring local delicacies such as Mrs Temple’s cheeses, and Marsh Pig salamis.” If you are interested in organising a trip, just contact Lee – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Despite being a young vineyard, Winbirri has already won a clutch of awards including two gold medals, a few silvers and five or six bronzes in regional competitions. This brought them to the attention of the head wine buyer at Waitrose and, after a year-long vetting process, they started supplying the Norwich and Wymondham branches in 2013. “They’ve asked us back this year on the strength of our latest vintage, which we’ve just launched, and this time we will also be in the North Walsham and Swaffham branches.”

As well as supermarket success, Winbirri’s wines are now served in some of the best local restaurants: The Maids Head, as I’ve already mentioned, and most recently Brasted’s. “We’re in discussion with a number of others but we have to ensure supply can keep up with demand. Next year, depending on the weather, we hope to produce between 35,000 and 50,000 bottles – so there should be enough to go round.”

Now that’s a relief – cheers!

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More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

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#NFDF2014 blog: Can @GeorgeMoateLtd’s Norfolk engineered #Tillerstar help deliver #Sustainable farming?

“It offers major savings, without compromising on the quality of the [seed] bed.” That’s the verdict of just one of the many farmers now using the new George Moate Tillerstar to prepare their fields for planting crops such as potatoes, onions, leeks and carrots. The farmer, Sam Patterson, who grows 145 hectares of potatoes in Lancashire, went on to tell Arable Farming magazine that by removing the need for a de-stoner “we’ve saved at least £245/ha from our establishment costs.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that engineering in this country is finished. Even here in Norfolk, which many people wrongly think of as a sleepy backwater where everyone is a farmer or retired, we have a thriving engineering and manufacturing sector. As World Class Norfolk reports, there are some 1,000 engineering firms in the county, employing around 10,000 highly skilled people (around 5% of the workforce) and supplying global companies such as Boeing, Airbus, NASA, Toyota and Lockheed.

One of these successful companies is George Moate Limited, run by Lesley Pratt and her husband Richard. It makes the award winning Tillerstar, which is helping to revolutionise the planting of vegetables and root crops. And when I say ‘make’, I don’t mean ‘assemble using imported components’: I mean it manufactures virtually every single part in its factory on the edge of North Walsham – so is an ideal subject for an #NFDF2014 blog.

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The roots of an agricultural revolution

George Moate, a Yorkshire farmer and inventor, was the firm’s founder. Over the years he’d developed various bits of agricultural machinery, including bringing the first hydraulic folding tilling machine to market. Then, in 2011, he exhibited a prototype Tillerstar at the Harrogate Show and suddenly the enquiries started pouring in – leaving George with a hard choice: stick to farming (which he loved) or run a full-scale engineering business; he chose farming.

Lesley, an experienced business woman who’d been looking for a new venture after taking time out to raise a family, bought the patents and set about developing the business. This included making 23 major engineering changes to George’s original designs. She also bought back eight prototype machines and had them upgraded to match the new specifications: “We didn’t want any machines out there with the George Moate brand that didn’t meet our standards,” she explains.

Lesley’s partner (in life and business), Richard, already owned a successful engineering company called PSS Steering & Hydraulics, also based in North Walsham. PSS specialises in manufacturing, designing and re-manufacturing parts for heavy duty vehicles and machines made by the likes of Land Rover, John Deere, and JCB. With a 70 strong team of designers, engineers and machinists, it is ideally equipped to make most of the components for the Tillerstar.

What makes the Tillerstar different?

As Lesley explained to me, there has been a quiet revolution in potato farming over the last 30 years or so. When I helped with potato harvesting, during my summer holidays in the early 80s, we had to pick out the stones and clods as the potatoes were carried up the conveyor belt to the trailer. Then farmers introduced new machinery to de-stone fields before planting, by sifting the stones and dumping them in deep-ploughed trenches running alongside the planting ridges.

While this means harvesters now lift far fewer stones with the potatoes, it creates two major problems for potato farmers and agriculture in general. The first is that the stones have to be ploughed up at the end of each season and re-scattered, before other crops can grow successfully. The second is that, over time, all this deep ploughing degrades the soil structure and reduces fertility, which means farmers then have to use more expensive fertilisers to maintain yields.

Deep ploughing, trench digging, and re-scattering is also labour and machine intensive, costing a lot in terms of time and fuel. The beauty of the Tillerstar’s innovative design is it lifts and sieves the soil, and forms the planting bed all in one go, without needing a separate trench for the stones. By reducing the number of ‘passes’ the tractors make, it saves money (one farmer in Ireland estimates he is saving £50 a hectare in fuel alone) and reduces soil compaction.

Tillerstar

The Tillerstar gets its name from the four horizontal, rotating star rollers fitted behind the cultivator (see illustration above). The cultivator lifts the soil and throws it back onto the rotating stars. These then throw the heavy stones and clods forward into the bottom of the newly dug bed before letting the finer soil fall through behind to cover them.

The integral bed former, which the operator can change to suit soil conditions and produce the desired finish, then mounds up the earth ready for planting. As such, the Tillerstar only has to turn 6-7 inches of soil to create a bed that’s 12-14 inches deep – which further helps save fuel and reduce soil degradation. While scattering the heavy material in an even layer across the bottom of the bed not only improves drainage but also removes the need for re-scattering at the end of the season.

Winning awards and exporting globally

Despite only being launched three years ago, the Tillerstar has already won a string of awards. These include: The Innovation Award from the British Carrot Growers’ Association in 2012; a Gold Medal at the Royal Norfolk Show in 2013 for Best Commercial New Machine; an Award of Merit in the Best New Product or Innovation (Mechanical) category at LAMMA 2014. The machine is now being used successfully across virtually every main soil type in the UK and has satisfied customers in Ireland, Norway, Poland, Russia, and New Zealand (with new enquiries coming from Africa, the Middle East and America).

Meanwhile, a team from Cambridge University (led by Dr Mark Stalham) has been using Tillerstars in field trials aimed at helping potato farmers improve yields and reduce soil degradation. The long term results aren’t in yet but preliminary reports indicate “no reduction in yield”, even when planting “substantially shallower than a traditional 30-35cm.” As Lesley points out: “While the research is important, we already know we are doing something right because innovative and entrepreneurial farmers (including Guy Poskitt, who was Farmer of the Year in 2012) are willing to invest in our machines.”

More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

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Who do you trust? An #NFDF2014 visit to local @freedomfooduk approved abattoir to discuss food provenance and animal welfare.

Last year there was the horse meat scandal. This year the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) said the ‘lamb’ in some kebabs and takeaways isn’t always lamb. These two headline grabbing stories come on top of long standing concerns among many consumers about animal welfare, particularly in countries that export meat to us but don’t apply UK standards – such as in pig rearing.

As a result, more of us are taking food provenance seriously. Whether you enjoy a Sunday roast, or bacon with your morning fry-up (I wish), the quality of the meat we eat still matters. We want to know we can trust the source and that the animals have been well looked after in the process.

Among those benefiting from this increased interest in food quality are traditional local butchers, who use good local abattoirs to source locally reared meat. However, such abattoirs and butchers are increasingly rare – as consumer and supermarket demands force consolidation. Industrial scale abattoirs handling thousands of animals a day are increasingly the norm – with live animals shipped hundreds of miles from farm to factory.

Buy Local – it tastes better

Thankfully, here in Norfolk we are lucky – we still have a local, family run abattoir – and it has an excellent reputation among local farmers, butchers and restaurateurs. H. G. Blake (Costessey) Ltd (better known as Blake’s in the food community) runs a multi-species abattoir just outside Felthorpe. It handles cattle, pigs and sheep from local farmers and smallholders in the Eastern region – and only supplies wholesalers and independent butchers, not supermarkets.

There is an argument that every meat-eater should visit an abattoir at least once in their life just to understand what happens to the animal before it appears on your plate as tender sirloin. So, in my role of championing #NFDF2014, I visited Blake’s in April and met Andrew Clarke, the managing director. This wasn’t out of ghoulish fascination with the slaughtering process (I’m too squeamish for that) but rather to find out how they compete with the industrial food processors.

The business was founded over 60 years ago by the late Hilton Blake and is still family-owned (Mrs J Blake is Chair). It moved to its current site in 1995 where it has a modern purpose built abattoir, with an ‘A’Grade for food safety from the BRC Global Standards body. The abattoir is also RSPCA Freedom Food approved, testifying to its high standards of animal welfare, and has Soil Association approval to handle organically raised animals.

High standards of care reflect company culture

On meeting Andrew and his colleague Jason Forder (General Manager), it becomes clear very quickly that maintaining excellent hygiene, employee health & safety, and animal welfare are their major concerns. When I enter the office, Jason is on the phone to a customer politely explaining why delivery drivers are no longer permitted to carry whole sides of beef on their shoulders. “I know they used to but that was over 20 years ago – we don’t want to risk anyone’s livelihood and I’m sure you don’t want someone badly injured on your premises either.”

There’s a large TV screen on the wall in the office – displaying images from 14 CCTV cameras placed strategically round the premises. In one frame I can see some pigs making themselves comfortable in the deep straw of the holding pens. In other frames I can see people clad in white from head to toe preparing carcasses. “We installed the cameras nearly 20 years ago,” explains Jason, “partly for security but also to monitor the whole slaughtering process from delivery to dispatch, to ensure we maintain the highest standards.”

Andrew, who is also a livestock farmer and co-owner with his family of a farm shop in Hevingham, is passionate about animal welfare. “All our Norfolk beef is from local Quality Standard assured farms,” he explains, “where the cattle graze on some of the finest pastures in the country. We don’t want to ruin the flavour by stressing the animals, so careful humane handling at all times is critical. As well as having an FSA approved vet on site during slaughtering, we have five full-time animal welfare officers on the team and are training more.

Great tasting meat takes patience

“We know the farmers and the butchers – and often put them in touch so they can better understand each other. This builds confidence in the full traceability of the product from farm to final sale. And buying locally not only means shorter journeys for the animals but also helps reduce food miles, so is better for the environment.”

Look for this sign in your local butcher's shop - for great tasting Norfolk beef.

Look for this sign in your local butcher’s shop – for great tasting Norfolk beef.

As well as Norfolk beef, Blake’s sources pork from producers across East Anglia, including Blythburgh Pork, which is truly free range. “Blythburgh’s pigs roam large paddocks,” says Andrew, “where they root in the sandy Suffolk soil and socialise with their herd. This natural lifestyle means they grow more slowly than intensively farmed pigs and so develop more flavour.

“A lot of people think taste depends on the animal breed but feed, growing conditions and animal care matter just as much. It’s why our East Anglian lamb tastes so good all year round, from the prime spring lamb to late season animals finished on grass and root crops.” This attention to detail and passion for the very best tasting meat has helped Blake’s establish a loyal customer base, supplying many of the region’s best butchers, such as Archer’s and Papworth’s.

As fellow #NFDF2014 champion (and head chef at The Grove in Cromer) Charlie Hodson said, when I mentioned my visit: “I reckon Blake’s run the best abattoir in Britain. I buy all my beef from Icarus Hines, one of Norfolk’s premier butchers, and he gets it from Blake’s. So I can be sure it’s best Norfolk beef that has been properly matured and expertly butchered. This means I can be confident it will taste great – and our guests will love it.”

More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

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