Cornwall Food & Drink is a new company recently set up with the sole aim of promoting the county’s fabulous food and drink to as wide a market as possible.
For a very long time, Ruth Huxley was a woman I kept hearing mention of, but actually never meeting. It might be a case of never actually being in the same place at the same time, but the more I heard her name mentioned, “Want to know anything at all about food in Cornwall? Ruth is the one to ask,” I was constantly told, and so the more I wanted to meet her.
What, in Cornwall, we used to sigh could possibly replace tin mines when the last one closed in March 1998? There was no obvious answer back then as thousands were thrown out of work in an already impoverished county. Remarkably, in just a single decade, Cornwall has reinvented itself as the British culinary destination after London. People who still think that Cornish food is really just the Cornish pasty are in for a surprise. It’s now easily possible to eat at great restaurants for lunch and dinner in Cornwall, everyday of the week, and still have new places to discover.
According to Ruth, it was the solar eclipse in 1999 that became the turning point. “Suddenly Cornwall was talked about, the Eden Project and EU funding all had an impact. Cornwall became confident in itself and seen as cool.”
As a food market analyst, Objective One funded ‘Cornwall Taste of the West’ had employed Ruth to conduct some research on the food industry in Cornwall and it’s potential. Her findings were enormous and become far-reaching. Ruth’s research turned her the food industry ‘oracle’ with her finger right on the pulse of the Cornish food and drink scene.
She revealed that more than 90% of restaurants, cafes and hotels preferred to buy local produce; a reflection both of the quality and integrity of Cornish produce, and how passionately Cornish chefs and restaurant managers believe in it. Innovative restaurants galvanized farmers and fishermen to provide employment and produce a bewildering array of quality ingredients. Jamie Oliver’s inspired; Fifteen Cornwall immediately declared that 80% of its ingredients would be locally sourced as soon as it opened its doors. In turn, every lettuce leaf or skate wing passing through the kitchen door had be top-notch nosh, compelling suppliers to continually raise their standards and broaden the range of produce they could supply and the phenomenon of Cornish food began to go way beyond just dining out.
“We also needed to find out more about why and how people shopped for Cornish food,” Ruth explained to me. “We knew a lot about food production and sales, but there was a real lack of data on shoppers themselves, why they bought Cornish and where they liked to shop for it.” By asking these questions and analyzing the results her research was able to significantly help more Cornish businesses sell more local foods in ways and places that people like to buy them. “The surprise finding was that many Cornish shoppers are very keen to buy new local, quality, non-traditional products such as smoked foods and beer,” she added.
So the knock on effect, with restaurants and visitors to Cornwall, is that demand for Cornish produce increased. Cornish waters have always thronged with some of the world’s finest seafood, but before the Stein effect in Padstow, the best place to sample it was probably London. Now the balance has shifted, leading London restaurants are now obliged to describe their seafood as “Cornish”. Added to which, the Internet has helped small local producers to become part of a vibrant foodie network.
Her research went on to become intrinsic in the development and sustainable growth of so many new food producers and food businesses in the county. Deli Farm Charcuterie began to make salamis and air-cured meats after a conversation with Graham Woolcock from Business Link who was merely referring to one of Ruth’s recommendations.
However, the closure of Cornwall Taste of the West in 2008, when Objective One funding finished, left an alarming hole in professional support and services for the local food industry. “With £240m Objective One funding pumped into the sector, Cornwall’s food industry had leapt from a £800 million yield in 1998, to £1.5 billion in 2006,” Ruth continued, “and from a once symbiotic relationship with Cornwall’s tourism industry, the food industry nudged ahead to take a lead over the former, in 2007.”
Should you doubt the county’s culinary awakening, and the tourism boom it inspires, consider last September’s ‘Cornwall Food & Drink Festival’ in Truro. The Festival, which had been supported by Cornwall Taste of the West, was in sudden and immediate danger of disappearing, so the festival committee turned immediately to Ruth’s expertise to enable it to keep it running.
The 2009 festival, which was the first she took on, smashed all records with over 30,000 visitors. Last September’s festival, supported by the newly launched online shopping service cornishfoodmarket.co.uk, was even bigger with all the stand space selling months beforehand as producers know how important a showcasing event it has become. When you consider that estimates on Cornwall’s food industry’s current worth vary between, a conservative, £1.6 billion, to an optimistic, but tasty, £2 billion, you can begin to understand that the Festival is more important for the local economy than a bit of fun and a boost to the holiday season after the summer.
Over the past two years, just because it is so important that Cornwall’s food industry is not left dangling without specialist support, Ruth, and her business partner and event organiser, Alex Harris, have put their time and full commitment into setting up: ‘Cornwall Food and Drink Ltd’ to provide the sustainable support and development that the Cornish food industry needs in the long term.
Both admitted, “It’s going to be a real challenge that can’t be underestimated. We are directly accountable to the businesses we serve, so it is essential that we provide value-for-money services that businesses really want.” Aided by European Funding for its first three years, the company will be self-financing.
Ruth added: “This is a new business model, taking this type of work beyond dependence on public funding but, in doing so, making it much more vibrant. This is a million miles away from the type of organisation that achieves ‘outputs’ by ticking boxes while sitting on comfy salary packages.”
Membership of Cornwall Food and Drink is open to any business that produces, prepares or sells food or drink. Non-members can choose a ‘pay-as-you-go’ route and still take part in the organisation’s activities, although members get priority. Ruth and Alex have exciting plans in the coming months to promote Cornish food through organising food events in and outside the county, providing individual advice and support, and aiding and servicing supply chains. It’s hoped that as many food businesses as possible will join the Cornwall Food and Drink network so that they can quickly reap the benefits offered to them.
For Further information:
Cornwall Food & Drink, Chapel View Farm, Coombe Lane, Bissoe, Truro, TR4 8RE
Tel: 01872 865101
- Cornwall gold rush: history of 3,500 year-old local mining industry (telegraph.co.uk)
- Country diary: Land’s End, Cornwall (guardian.co.uk)