Autumn is officially here, and with Nature at its most bountiful, there are plenty of opportunities for food lovers to make the most of the region’s best seasonal produce.
Tasty treats galore were served up at Alnwick Food Festival last weekend, and on October 18 and 19, the cream of the region’s artisan producers will be gathering at the National Trust’s Wallington house, gardens and estate in the heart of Northumberland.
October is Taste Durham Month – with a host of yummy events planned across the county – and there’s National Chocolate Week to look forward to.
And we’re in the middle of British Food Fortnight, which shouts loud and proud about our fabulous home-grown and seasonal produce not just nationally, but globally too.
Held for the first time in 2002, this year’s theme is Bring Home the Harvest. It aims to rekindle the age-old tradition of celebrating the gathering in of the crops, with special tie-in events planned across the country.
With high-quality food and drink uppermost in people’s minds, it’s fitting, therefore, that four Tasty Trails have been launched that are set to put the very best of the region’s producers, chefs and eateries quite literally on the gastro map.
The routes take in both Northumberland and County Durham, covering four of the region’s most beautiful-but- often-overlooked areas.
There’s south west Northumberland, highlighting the North Pennines, Hadrian’s Wall and Kielder. North Northumberland and the Coast, meanwhile, homes in on Berwick to Howick, along with the Ford, Etal and Wooler area. The Durham Dales embraces Teesdale in one self-contained trail, with the other covering Weardale and the Derwent Valley.
Locals and visitors are being encouraged to use the free guides to not just drink in some of Britain’s finest views, but eat them too.
The routes have been developed as part of the Northern Lands programme to grow tourism in the North East’s protected landscapes. It’s a bid to attract more visitors, encourage them to stay longer, inspire them to experience the unique environments and indulge in a plethora of gourmet delights while they are about it.
It’s not just an army that can’t march on an empty stomach.
Visitors already spend about 50% of their money on food and drink while in the region.
But the Northern Lands group (made up of Visit County Durham, both Northumberland and Durham county councils, the North Pennines and Northumberland Coast Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, Northumberland Tourism and the Northumberland National Park Authority) believes there is further scope for good local producers and eateries to showcase the distinctiveness of their produce and culinary skills to food and drink enthusiasts.
The Tasty Trails – developed as part of a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) project and sponsored by Ringtons, Northumbrian Water and The Bowes Musuem – bring together the best each area has to offer in food and drink.
The gourmet guides feature a tourist map of each area and take in restaurants, tearooms, farm shops, breweries, butchers, bakers and delicatessens as well as guidance on some of the best B&Bs and hotels tserving decent food and drink.
Elaine Scott, who works in product development at Visit County Durham and has been project leader for all the trails, says much independent research went into their creation.
Each recommendation had to not only offer top-notch food, but be visitor-friendly too.
“We have featured a lot of businesses that have a nice local story to tell, as well as many eateries, as they are the best way to showcase local produce,” Elaine says.
“We spoke to groups like Berwick Slow Food and other knowledgeable food people to ensure we got the right mix. In Durham, for example, we have been running Taste Durham for five years now. That is an award scheme that is independently assessed and one that many eateries take part in.
“The reason we have done this is that we wanted to improve the eating experience from the tourists’ point of view so they know they will be getting food of a certain quality.
“And we also know that tourists want to experience local food. We see food as a way of motivating people to come to the region, and through it, we can talk about what’s important and special to each area. You can get a feel for the landscape too.”
And that’s important because it is the North’s unique landscape that has shaped the region’s food, and in turn it is what has traditionally been eaten that has itself helped determine the environment.
Take the uplands of the North Pennines and Northumberland National Park, for example; they are home to traditional Blackface sheep and Aberdeen, Galloway and rare Blue Grey cattle.
Their natural diet of hay meadow, grassland and pasture produces delicious, distinctively flavoured beef and lamb that is justifiably famed well beyond the North East.
By turns, it is the public’s taste for home-produced lamb and beef that ensures our tourist magnet landscapes are sustained.
On the equally awe-inspiring landscape of the north Northumberland coast, it is fish that is the food story and has seen Craster become a world-renowned centre for kippers and Seahouses spawn the multi-award-winning Swallow Fish, both of which are featured on that particular trail along with the likes of the Chainbridge Honey Farm near Berwick, Heatherslaw Corn Mill and Tea Room at Ford Forge and St Aidan’s Winery on Holy Island.
The beauty of the new food trails is that you can dip in and out of them. They can be used to plan a day trip or for the more dedicated gourmet as the starting point for an epicurean break taken over a number of days.
Elaine says: “We don’t expect people to follow the trails from A to B to C. It doesn’t work like that. But we do hope the trails will give them an idea of the breadth and depth of food choices that are out there and help then plan their itineraries or day’s out. The beauty of the trails is that there is something for everyone and that they cover a range of budgets.”
For Visit County Durham, the trails alongside a wider food theme are the culmination of a major three-year project to bring tourists to their area.
The first two national campaigns focused on cycling and walking and heritage respectively.
Between them they generated £7.5m in increased visitor expenditure in Durham and created an extra 140 tourism-related jobs.
This autumn’s UK-wide drive aims to put Durham’s food and drink firmly on the tourism menu and is being delivered in partnership with Northumbrian Water and Beamish.
The former is offering visitors the chance to catch their own dinner, while at Beamish people can tuck into food from the past such as fish and chips fried in a real coal-fired range in The Pit Village or call into the Bakery, Sweetshop and Sun Inn in the Edwardian Town.
The pair have been joined by about 70 smaller businesses from across the county.
Melanie Sensicle, Visit County Durham’s chief executive, says: “The county is not only home to fantastic restaurants, cafes, tearooms and pubs but also innovative local producers including award-winning cheese makers, artisan bakers, brewers and butchers.
“This is the final theme of our three-year national marketing campaign and we hope it will be as successful as the first two in persuading even more people that a foodie break in Durham has something to suit everybody’s tastes.”
To parody the words of Marks and Spencer’s now legendary national advertising campaign, this is not just food, this is Durham and Northumberland’s food.