Ahead of the Sussex Food & Drink Awards banquet Charlotte Harding talks to the two women behind the event which has put local produce firmly on the map.
Sussex has a wealth of amazing food and drink producers.
The variety and quality of which is something that led Hilary Knight and Paula Seager to join forces and create the Sussex Food and Drink Awards 11 years ago.
“With the amazing food and drink being created in Sussex we felt it was important to celebrate all the hard work of our producers, farmers, restaurateurs, and farmers’ markets put in,” explains Paula, managing director of Natural PR Ltd.
“We also wanted to help make it easy for people to find them and buy their products.”
The scheme is run through a community interest company – Natural Partnerships CIC, on a not-for-profit basis to help boost the local food and drink industry.
One of the strengths of the industry in Sussex Hilary says is the ‘fantastic range of products’.
“We are probably best known for the quality of our lamb and beef, artisan cheeses and of course, spectacular world-class sparkling wines,” reveals Hilary, who has been involved in the food sector her whole working life and now works as a food consultant specialising in start-up and small medium sized local food businesses as well as working on various food tourism projects across the country. “It was announced in November 2016 that Sussex will be able to enjoy its own Champagne moment as sparkling wine is due to be granted protected regional status within the next six months, bringing it in line with the elite wine making regions of Europe such as La Rioja in Spain and Champagne in France.
“So here’s to raising a glass of ‘Sussex’ in the future.”
With the banquet taking place on February 1, the work on the awards is continuous.
“We’re already working on the Sussex Food & Drink Awards 2018,” says Paula.
“It is a true labour of love and it takes a lot of hard work to bring together all the partners, sponsors and elements to make it a success but it is worth it.
“The great thing is that we have different skill sets which perfectly match and we find it easy to work together, as well as having lots of laughs along the way and enjoying some amazing food and drink.”
Hilary adds that the working partnership has not only been ‘successful but enjoyable’ and has included other food projects including southdownsfood.org.
“It is a beautiful website and unique Google-based food finder for people to source great local food and drink across the South Downs region,” reveals Hilary.
“We created it to give another resource to our fantastic producers and the outlets that sell the produce.
“We continue to develop different elements including a recipe featuring a local chef who uses local products and an exciting new area, which is called the Local Food Detective.
“We are developing an online tool for accommodation businesses to use to create bespoke ‘foodie’ itineraries for visitors so they don’t go home without sampling the great food and drink of the area.
“It’s really exciting.”
The county is also becoming more well known across the UK and the pair like to think they had a hand in it.
“Well, both Paula and I would like to think that we might have had a bit of a helping hand in raising awareness of the fabulous products that are available and the increasing uptake of local products by many independent retailers and more and more restaurants, cafes and gastro pubs,” smiles Hilary.
“But of course, Sussex folk are very discerning and genuinely care about the quality of the food they purchase.
“They certainly like to support local farmers and producers and there are definitely more outlets for sourcing local products.
“All of this makes those budding foodie entrepreneurs have the confidence to try their innovations in the marketplace with considerable success.”
Looking ahead Paula says they are always working to enhance and improve the awards, which means looking at what is popular and ‘on trend’ in the food and drink world.
“We were thrilled to launch the Sussex Street Food of the Year category last year, as street food is very fashionable now and we have some incredibly good street food businesses in the county – as we saw in Horsham at the finals in October,” she enthuses.
“Another new category which is beginning to build traction is Sussex Newcomer of the Year, sponsored by Spofforths, which we created to reward the special new businesses from across the sector, who are still too small and inexperienced to make it far in the other categories, but show great innovation and passion.”
And they add that there are so many ‘hidden gems’ across the county.
“There is somewhere for everyone to go and eat fantastic food whatever the budget as well as some very special products,” explains Hilary.
For further information on the awards visit www.sussexfoodawards.biz
Pictures: Southern News & Pictures (SNAP)