For lunch yesterday we ate some of the best brie I have tasted, made from unpasteurised milk at Fen Farm Dairy, with sourdough bread from a small bakery. In the evening there was wonderful turbot (Maximus sustainably caught fish), fresh from the North Sea.
Shopping was fun too, at the Kenton Hall Estate Food Fair which focussed on young producers. Kenton Hall, on the edge of Debenham, has what it calls “the food hub” with a cookery school and a butcher who cuts meat for small producers set amid fields where longhorn cattle are pastured.
In East Anglia artisan food production has been transformed from a small niche market into an important and growing part of the economy. Kenton Hall is a part of this revolution.
Some miles to the south, the Suffolk Food Hall with its large food shop and a glass-walled restaurant looking out over the Orwell estuary was named as the champion of champions it a in a national food awards event in the Houses of Parliament this year. It also has small units for production and a demonstration kitchen.
Debenham has played a crucial part in the development of local food businesses throughout East Anglia. At the turn of the century, the Henry Abbott business, founded in 1707, decided to sell its supermarkets in Debenham and Eye to the East of England Co-operative Society. It retained the hardware store and has since opened a kitchen shop.
The co-op agreed to continue to stock the local produce Abbott’s has been selling. Ian Whitehead, of Lane Farm in nearby Brandish, explained to the East Anglian Daily Times in a story about a new C0-op store:
I think we were probably one of the very first local suppliers. We began trading with the Co-op back in 1998. They took over local grocery stores called Henry Abbott’s in Eye [and] Debenham… and kept us on as a supplier. That’s where it all started from and we have grown with the Co-op over the years really – they have been good to work with. It’s a very exciting initiative. I think it also demonstrates the strength there is in local food in Suffolk.
Lane Farm produces very good sausages together with salami and chorizo which you buy because they are excellent as well as local.
From the Co-op’s decision to retain local suppliers has grown its Locally Sourced policy which this week is having a further promotional push. They now have 2,400 products on their shelves from 140 producers across Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex alongside national Co-op brands. This part of the business is growing as they explain on their website:
Our customers are also increasingly buying local, with a 31% increase in Sourced Locally sales and a £12m turnover in the last financial year. This means that since the scheme launched, we’ve ploughed more than £25 million back into the regional economy and supported the creation of around 400 new jobs in the region.
What we have seen in East Anglia, over the last ten years, is the development of the infrastructure needed to enable small specialist food producers grow their own businesses. Small producers can rent kitchens, have their meat cut and packaged, and get the food they make distributed.