How British Food Fortnight celebrates the power of food to heal and educate

 Love British Food awards
Which festival was crowned winner of the Love British Food awards 2017?

Every Wednesday two centuries ago, the farmers’ wives of Market Drayton, Shropshire, would gather, gossiping over the latest scandal and partaking of a particular morning bracer: a finger of gingerbread dunked into port. Should you find yourself in this neck of the woods, with autumn’s morning mists curling cool fingers about you, you’ll be pleased to hear that this tradition is once again in rude health.

In fact, it is central to a four-day festival, with street-food spice parties and pop-up dinners, flagons of ginger-spiced beers and glasses of port washing down the much-loved gingerbread, which has been baked in the town from the same secret recipe – passed down from baker to baker – since 1817.

We have found that if we show children the source of their food, they are happier to try it

“The gingerbread recipe used to be locked up in a bank vault so no outsiders could get at it,” says Julia Roberts, the instigator of the Ginger & Spice Festival, commemorating Market Drayton’s culinary heritage. It is a heritage that stretches back more than 750 years, from 1245 when King Henry III granted a charter for a weekly Wednesday market, gracing the town with its name. The festival features spice tours of the town’s shops and restaurants, in homage to Clive of India, the Shropshire-born soldier and merchant who secured the spice trade route for Britain. Along the banks of the Tern, hogweed seeds and woodruff are sniffed out as alternatives to ginger and nutmeg.

Baking contests rival The Great British Bake Off: this year’s winning entry was a vast Russian palace with meringue minarets, 3.5kg of royal icing, edible gold leaf crosses and, of course, 100 individual ginger biscuits. Everywhere, the power of food to unite the community is celebrated. And now – cue the clinking of port glasses all round – there is more to celebrate: the festival has been crowned winner of the Love British Food awards 2017.

The infamous gingerbread, traditionally washed down with port

The judges of this year’s awards, held as part of British Food Fortnight, include Raymond Blanc, Michelin-starred chef; Liz Earle, beauty entrepreneur and farmer; Ian MacGregor of The Telegraph; and Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “Reading each story made me proud to be involved in British Food Fortnight,” says Blanc.

“Each entry was clear in its objective – to share what we have around us with others and celebrate food.” Of the winning entry, Gove adds: “The Ginger & Spice Festival showed real ingenuity by getting the whole community involved in celebrating the area’s culinary heritage.”

The two joint runners-up in the awards demonstrated the power of good food to heal and educate the next generation. One is the rooftop terrace garden at Nottingham City Hospital, which provides patients and staff with nutritious fruit and veg, and also offers cancer patients and staff a refuge from hospital life.

“It’s a sun trap that looks out over fields. You forget you’re even in hospital,” says Nicola Strawther, chief dietetic technician at the hospital, who organised the project. Raised beds are planted with herbs, seasonal fruit and vegetables. And hanging baskets brim with flowers. “The patients love it. It’s a space that brings back a sense of normality. Patients can walk about or have a dig in the soil with the potting tools we leave out. For staff, it also offers an escape. A nurse who works nights comes to water the plants to give her five minutes of peace before going back on the ward,” says Strawther.

In the longer term, the hospital is using the fruit and vegetables grown in the garden to develop innovative recipes for a “memory menu”. “An improved appetite can shorten the length of a hospital stay, so it is very important to get the menu right,” says Strawther. Her team commissioned a survey on favourite childhood foods to help inspire the recipes. “It is particularly effective for dementia patients as food can invoke memories – it can remind them of their childhood and often spur on their appetite.” Sponge puddings, custards, fruit pies and pickled cucumber have been firm favourites.

All the meat, milk, and seasonal vegetables for the 1.5 million hot meals that the hospital prepares each year come from farms within the East Midlands, making the project a spoonful of metaphorical medicine for the whole community.

The second runner-up, Hampshire Fare – a not-for-profit organisation that works with farmers and food producers – has been instrumental in trying to persuade the next generation to eat locally and healthily, to put down the fried scampi and try eating a whole fish instead.

 If children know where food comes from, they're often more likely to try it

There have been promising signs. “We have found that if we show children the source of their food, they are much happier to try it,” says Tracy Nash of Hampshire Fare. “We ran a class inviting local fishmongers to schools to teach pupils how to fillet a whole fish,” she says. “At first, we had one of the schoolgirls wincing at the sight of the raw fish and she ran out of the room crying, but by the end of the session she was having a go at filleting herself. Pupils who have seen the trout we have in our chalk streams are often inspired to try it for the first time.”

Students from a local primary school were taken to a watercress farm to learn of its nutritional values as a superfood. One minute they were standing in the water in wellies with their nets out; the next, devouring watercress smoothies. “Children are the key to getting everyone to eat less, but good quality food,” says Nash. “If you educate them, it does go in – they will have a light-bulb moment.”

Subsequently, there is a now a British Food Fortnight menu, focused solely on local, seasonal produce, rolled out at 440 schools across the county. Nash adds: “We’re trying to leave a legacy that schools will follow up every year.”

She believes it is more important than ever to bang the drum for British food, in the light of Brexit. “It has forced us to look inward, concentrate on getting everything right, and focus on what we’re great at – our food and drink is some of the best in the world.”

The farming ladies of Market Drayton would raise their glass of port to that.