In tourist circles the North East is often described as one of Britain’s “best kept secrets”.
Those living in this region know what a beautiful historic area it is with miles of near empty sandy beaches, dramatic coastline, rolling hills, open moorland, breath-taking views and more castles and other ancient buildings than you can shake a stick at.
But how many times have you heard overseas tourists or even ‘staycationers’, when discussing travel plans, mention York and Edinburgh in the same breath as if nothing of note lies in-between?
The same goes for the region’s food and drink. There’s any number of top quality restaurants, cafes, farm shops, farmers’ markets and independently run delicatessens and grocers proud to declare their ‘buy, use, eat local’ foodie credentials.
From the Rivers Tweed to the Tees via the Tyne and Wear, this region boasts an almost embarrassing abundance of home grown, reared, caught and produced foods and beverages whose looks and tastes have more often than not been shaped by the very landscapes in which they originate.
Yet at a time when local produce is seeing a national resurgence in popularity on the back of an alarming number of food scandals - from horsemeat to poor quality school dinners, e-coli outbreaks, cheap fish passed off as premium and TB-infected beef being sold on to slaughterhouses - it’s unbelievable that our region, with so much to offer, is still seen by many as a culinary desert.
Nationally it’s fair to say there is only a handful of regional foods that register on the radar: Newcastle Brown Ale, Craster kippers (maybe), stottie cakes (thanks to the expansion of Greggs, although trying to explain to anyone born outside the North East why a flat over-large bread bun is called a cake is an interesting conversation) and possibly pease pudding.
We have some of the best hill-bred lamb, grass-fed beef and freshly caught river and sea fish you’ll find anywhere. But while the North East’s top restaurants, chefs and independent butchers recognise its worth, the same cannot universally be said beyond our boundaries.
Word is slowly getting out thanks to a concerted effort by various consortiums to encourage people to develop a taste for both North East-based travel and food.
It’s not been easy, however, with Government-funded groups like Northumbria Larder - set up in 2002 to promote local produce from the Scottish Border to the Tees Valley - seeing financial support scrapped as cutbacks began to dig deep, effectively leaving them without a voice beyond the North East.
The larder was integral in helping farmers and food suppliers in Northumberland, Tyne and Wear and County Durham find new markets in the wake of 2001’s devastating foot and mouth outbreak.
In 2011, Taste North East Limited came into being. It was formed from the merger of Northumbria Larder, the North East Food and Drink Group and a previous incarnation of Taste North East. Many had previously benefitted from One NorthEast funding, but the new organisation was to be self-sustained by its members
As before, it existed to promote the region’s food and drink sector without the need for government cash.
That morphed into Tasteclub in 2012 sourcing, promoting and selling local products, gifts and experiences. A not-for-profit company, all income is reinvested in promoting independently produced food and drink.
Out of that last year also grew the online gift store Tasteclub HQ. The idea was that instead of having to trawl through publications, websites and other media, those interested in food and drink could find all the information needed in one place, with priority access to special offers from producers, discounts, draws and invitations to special events.
Now a new era is dawning for Tasteclub and possibly the way in which the region’s food and drink is marketed.
On April 1, Tasteclub will become part of NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI). It is perhaps not the most auspicious day for the two to join forces but the move is certainly no joke and will hopefully have far reaching and positive repercussions.
NGI, which was established in 2000 and is supported by Gateshead and Newcastle City Councils as well as more than 170 private sector partner organisations, already has a proven track record of successfully marketing the area on the national and global stage.
The public private partnership also has a strong foodie ethos. It runs the now annual and popular Eat! food and drink festival, which has successfully helped raise the profile of not just NewcastleGateshead and its culinary offerings, but also that of producers across the region who have been welcomed into the fold.
As a next step for Tasteclub and its desire to sing the praises of what this region has to offer gastronomically, it’s a shrewd move that all concerned hope will serve up long-term positive benefits.
Sarah Stewart, NGI’s chief executive, says there is a “natural synergy between the two organisations” and their core areas of activity. “This is a great opportunity to further develop Tasteclub as well as strengthening many aspects of our existing business, from the development and promotion of Eat! NewcastleGateshead through to our work with regional, national and international media to profile the area’s many assets.”
Jane Hogan, Tasteclub’s outgoing chief executive, says NGI was quickly identified as a “business that shared our ethos and approach to championing the region and supporting the growth of the local economy – albeit on a much larger scale”.
It is this scale, profile and marketing clout, Jane believes, that “offers such a great opportunity for the Tasteclub business to continue and grow and realise its full potential in the years ahead.”
In the short-term at least, Tasteclub will continue as it has and the battle to change people’s perception of our food and drink will carry on apace.
It is, Sarah admits, not something that is going to happen instantly. “Changing the image and perception is always something that is going to take time. You can see that not just in the perception of food and drink, but across the wider area of the North East.
“But I think with our proven track record of changing people’s views, we can bring that to food and drink. It is not going to change overnight. But we can take the local food and drink producers and make sure we have the systems, the offering and the confidence to change people’s perceptions.
“The Eat! food and drink festival has already done a huge amount to change people’s views, and it has changed perceptions nationally. Eat! is about celebrating the food and drink offering of the region.
“With the Eat! festival we have a fantastic platform to market the food and drink products of the North East.
“We have also inherited Tasteclub’s Gluten Free Fair and we can see by taking the long-term view we can work to build that into a really powerful event.
“We will also seek to develop and identify opportunities to help support other food and drink platforms.
“There is also the retail offering that Tasteclub has developed which has provided really good support for food and drink producers and we will be looking to further develop and grow that offering not just online but in retail outlets using our partnerships.”
Sarah – who moved to the North East in 1981 and immediately fell in love with the area – says NewcastleGateshead Initiative’s name belies the fact that 30% of its partners are from outside that zone.
“We operate on a much wider basis than NewcastleGateshead and Tasteclub covers from the Borders to North Yorkshire and over into Cumbria. We don’t work just in local authority boundaries.”
Asked what the biggest challenge is going to be moving forward, Sarah comments: “We have a fantastic array of food and drink up here so I don’t think we have to magic something out of nothing.
“But we do need to shout loud enough to get sufficient attention as every other area has their food festivals and food groups and we do need to keep being innovative.
“We do regard this as being a great opportunity for us.”
And Sarah isn’t just talking about NGI but the region’s food and drink producers collectively.
In the 33 years she has lived in the region she has seen the tide turning. She says we can all remember the days when there were only two or three restaurants we would frequent and the struggle there was to find anywhere new to dine.
“Now I could feel confident about eating somewhere new almost every night and there is a fantastic range of cultures and styles of food. So many of these places also now reflect the fabulous produce we have and are taking pride in our local food and drink.”