6 Dec 2017
Contemporary Food and Drinks Reigns Supreme at Former Royal Palace
Once home to Henry VIII of seven wives fame, for three days last summer Hampton Court Palace hosted the BBC Good Food Show Feast, the British broadcaster's celebration of the finest new foodstuffs and most trailblazing beverages.
For 2017, the BBC Good Food Show Feast enjoyed the most spectacular setting any expo could possibly aspire to – Hampton Court Palace. Set by the side of the River Thames, this historic building – one of the principal residences of Henry VIII, the legendary Tudor monarch renowned for both his love of feasting and his surfeit of wives – was a more than apt location for this annual celebration of all things gourmet.
Although the portly medieval master of all he surveyed would surely have approved of the vast assemblage of snacks, treats, hearty main courses and sundry alcoholic beverages within his one-time home, there was much on show that would clearly have been alien to his post-Renaissance palate. The Latin American flavourings on offer from Capsicana, a south of England business launched eight years ago, for instance, would clearly have been something of a novelty in 16th century Britain.
The company began life selling its authentic Mexican sauces on a local market stall following an initial investment of just £500 (US$670). Today, it has six full-time employees and a presence on the shelves of two of the UK's largest supermarket chains – J Sainsbury and Waitrose.
Introducing Capsicana's current range, Ben Jackson, the company's Founder and Proprietor, said: "At the moment, we're offering a range of four cook sauces, all based on traditional Latin American recipes. We're not really about inventing stuff, it's more a case of falling in love with the great flavours of a particular dish, then finding a way to help consumers easily replicate it.
"We've also got a very active development pipeline, so we will be bringing a lot of new and complementary products to market. While there will certainly be a lot more cook sauces, there will also be sides, breads and rice – a full meal offering in fact."
As well as expanding its range, the company is also looking at moving into the export sector, with an international launch planned at a San Francisco food expo early next year. Outlining the thinking behind this expansion, Jackson said: "We see ourselves as a truly global brand. Our core customers are in the 25-45 age range and are, typically, busy urban professionals. They travel a lot, they care about authenticity and they want to try new flavours, but they don't always have the time to cook the kind of food they want from scratch."
As well as his love of food – with obesity cited as one of the key contributors to his early demise at the age of just 55 – Henry VIII was also a renowned quaffer, seldom captured for posterity without a goblet in one hand. With that in mind, the array of gins and sundry other spirits available for sampling at his former rural retreat would have certainly got the royal assent.
Among the small distillers looking to make their mark at the event was Poetic License, a North East of England-based purveyor of fine gins. The company was founded five years ago by restaurateur Mark Hird, with the spirit still produced behind the bar in Sunderland's Roker Hotel, one of his 13 fine-dining establishments.
Under the watchful eye of Head Distiller Luke Smith, the company produces a wide range of gins, including Fireside Gin (flavoured with mulled winter fruits and juniper), Northern Dry Gin (cardamom, Indonesian cubeb pepper, citrus and Persian limes) and Old Tom Gin (barrel-aged in sherry casks with cubeb pepper, anise, juniper, lavender, rose petals and clove). It is also home to the Graceful vodka range – made from 100% British wheat and distilled seven times – while additionally producing a number of one-off gins in 1,000-litre batches.
At present, the company's spirits are solely sold through a number of bars and supermarkets in the north of England, but there are plans to start actively pursuing export opportunities.
Another drinks producer keen to find an international market was British Cassis, a Herefordshire-based agricultural business. Explaining how his company's farming concerns led to it producing its own brand of cassis, a sweet, dark-red liqueur, Executive Director Peter Andrew said: "Every year, we grow about 400 tons of blackcurrants for Ribena, the drink manufacturer. We then take any surplus berries, press them, add champagne, yeast and sugar and let them ferment, with British Cassis being our end product.
"The key difference between our cassis and its French counterparts is that we have opted for a wine-style fermentation process, which delivers a drink with a 15% alcohol content. By contrast, the French macerate the blackcurrant berries in neat alcohol and then add sugar. As a result, French cassis is 40% sugar, making it very sweet. We only have a 26% level of natural sugar content, while the fermentation process also brings out more of the natural flavours, making for a drier drink.
"At the moment, we're on sale in the Waitrose supermarket chain across the UK, as well as in all of the Majestic Wine outlets. We're now looking at the export markets in association with Langley's, a Midlands-based gin producer. It's early days, but we do have a plan and we do know just how partial the Chinese are to blackcurrants."
A quite different approach to fruit-based drinks was on offer from Dan and Ben Ritsema, twins who launched their business – Cranes Drinks – in 2013, almost as soon as they left university. Their Cambridgeshire-based company makes three varieties of flavoured cider – cranberry and lime, blueberry and apple, and raspberry and pomegranate – all with 30% less sugar than your everyday fruit ciders.
The company also produces a 20% abv cranberry and blood orange liqueur, which retails in the UK at £25 for a 70cl bottle. All of the cranberries used are specially imported from Wisconsin, then processed by the twins themselves, with the resultant brew then sent away to be blended with cider, while the remaining ingredients are then mixed with raw spirit to make the finished liqueur.
The company is said to now have an annual turnover of £200,000, a figure the twins are committed to doubling over the coming year. As well as on-going discussions with a number of independent retailers, the two entrepreneurs have also had conversations with two Singapore-based distributors and a major Canadian importer.
For anyone looking to soak up all that booze, it was probably well worth making a beeline for the La Befana stand, where Jackie Pap, the company's South African-born Founder, was positively evangelical about the benefits of "beer bread". At heart, it's a very simple concept – the company sells 450g packets of self-raising flour and flavourings, with the choices on offer including original, smoked onion, chili and tomato, garlic and onion, and rosemary and garlic. The purchaser then adds 350ml of beer, cider or soda – anything fizzy in fact – and bakes the combined solution in a hot oven for 50 minutes.
Emphasising the simplicity of the process, Pap said: "There's no kneading and there's no yeast in the bread mix. The fizz from the beer and its reaction with the soda makes the whole thing rise. In South Africa, beer bread was a treat we had all the time as kids. We find we are having to educate British buyers, but once they've tried it, they love it."
No doubt, should the 42nd King of England have been looking down – or up, given his penchant for uxorcide – he, too, would have given the nod to these lager-infused loaves, as well as to the many other fine beverages and doughty foodstuffs that occupied his former manor house for three memorable days late last summer.
Martyn Cornell, Special Correspondent, London