Sussex is one of the most exciting places for food in the country. Susan Fleet previews what we can expect from this year's West Sussex Food and Drink Festival...
WE are all becoming more discerning about what we eat, and are now recognising the value of 'real food'. We want to know where our food comes from, how far it has travelled and how our livestock is cared for.
Everything that's good about our county's food will be celebrated in the forthcoming West Sussex Food and Drink Festival - September 8 to October 7 with the last two weeks coinciding with British Food Fortnight - the biggest national celebration of the diverse and delicious range of food produced in Britain.
Acknowledging the variety of delicacies found on our doorstep, the county-wide event is designed to raise awareness of all the delicious produce across West Sussex. There are just so many reasons to buy local, seasonal ingredients: reducing food miles, eating healthily, supporting the local economy and protecting the heritage and the landscape which makes up our beautiful countryside.
So many people are becoming involved in the festival this year, from breweries, vineyards, pubs and restaurants to farm shops, garden centres, farmers' markets and cafés culminating in a record number of entries. There are 134 businesses taking part this year, up 21 per cent on last year.
More restaurants and cafés are stating the origins of the food they serve on their menus. Supermarkets supporting local farmers are also beginning to name the farm and the farmer and we see more large, multiple shops stocking a growing range of local products in their Sussex stores.
The increasing numbers of farm shops and independent food shops are also vital in making local food available to all our residents and visitors alike, making West Sussex a real foody heaven and gourmet tourist destination.
The festival is an umbrella of events taking place from Chichester and Midhurst in the west, to Horsham in the north and across to the Downs. It has grown enormously from its roots in and around Horsham over the past five years. This year it involves the High Sheriff of West Sussex, who is taking on his East Sussex counterpart in a head-to-head culinary contest.
"It's all about raising awareness, enjoying the quality and diversity of local, seasonal produce, safe in the knowledge that it has not added pollution to the atmosphere by travelling thousands of miles," says Chris Baister, who has co-ordinated the programme for the past five years. "It is also about supporting our producers who farm our lush countryside, protecting our heritage and supporting local food and drink businesses all year round, not just during this celebration."
This year's month-long celebration gets underway at Shoreham farmers' market on Saturday September 8. The East Street site hosts one of the largest markets of its kind in the county, and is a gourmet's paradise with more than 70 producers' goods on offer. Cookery demonstrations, making the most of free, local ingredients, will also take place during the day.
Another event early in the calendar of the festival is the Totally Tomato Show at West Dean Gardens, near Chichester, where renowned chef and restaurateur Antonio Carluccio will demonstrate his signature Italian dishes, using some of the 150 varieties grown at West Dean.
Another fruit becomes the centre of attention on October 7 as the Low Weald Countryside Rangers stage an apple day. This celebration of the nation's favourite fruit is at West Grinstead Orchard, 1.5 miles east of A24/A272 Buck Barn crossroads.
It's not just a month of indulging in wonderful food. There is also the opportunity to find out where our food comes from, how it is grown and the valuable role our farmers play in West Sussex. The mammoth ploughing contest in Cowfold, organised by West Grinstead and District Ploughing and Agricultural Society, is being staged at Aglands Farm, Picts Lane, with access off the A281. There will be tractor, horse and steam ploughing, plus a host of sideshows to amuse and entertain the whole family.
Brewing is the central feature of the beer festival being staged in Horsham on Saturday and Sunday September 29 and 30 at the Drill Hall in Denne Road, Horsham. Around 50 top quality beers are promised, including many local brews, plus entertainment and food, catering for all tastes.
Towards the end of the festival we are promised a celebration of past rural traditions at the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton, near Chichester. England's leading museum of historic buildings and traditional rural life hosts the event on Saturday and Sunday October 6 and 7 giving visitors the chance to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a traditional harvest: an evocative glimpse into our rural past when the whole community was involved in the vital tasks of harvesting and preparing the land for the following year's crops. See heavy horses ploughing, vintage tractors, steam threshing, a wood show and country crafts to browse and buy.
Battle of the sheriffs
The festival's finale is during the South of England Autumn Show and Game Fair, at the Ardingly showground on October 6. Here the Sussex High Sheriffs will battle it out in a Ready Steady Cook-style event. Assisted by top local chefs, they will pit their wits and culinary skills against each other in a fun competition aimed at promoting local produce with an emphasis on game.
High Sheriff Colin Field will be partnered by Lewis Hamblet, executive chef at South Lodge Hotel, Horsham, as the West Sussex Green Team. In the Red Team, Caroline Mayhew, High Sheriff of East Sussex, will partner Graeme Campbell, executive chef at Ashdown Park Hotel. One of the best known, and most spontaneous and amusing wine critics, Charles Metcalfe, from Balcombe, will act as compere and showcase the diversity and quality of the local food and wine.
The festival is a partnership between West Sussex County Council with support from local authorities in West Sussex and A Taste of Sussex. The key element is the host of special offers and promotions to tempt us to sample some of the food and drink made by the county's businesses detailed in the festival's bumper programme. Keep hold of the programme as this is the passport to many of the special offers. It also makes a handy year-round reference to source local food and drink.
Some 70,000 copies of the programme will be available through West Sussex libraries, tourist information centres and help points as well as a host of shops and farmers' markets across the county, with details of everything that is taking place.