Good food. It was something I was unfamiliar with on a daily basis, living on a student budget and not being one to be especially creative or adventurous in the kitchen. With my repertoire ranging from ‘anything you can put in a bagel’ to ‘is it microwavable’; you could say I was a blank canvas when it comes to culinary expertise. But a blank canvas must eventually be imposed upon with design and colour and in my case, with all the succulent and nutritious tastes and flavours the world had to offer me. What better place to go than to the BBC Good Food Show at the NEC? So as I prepared for the day ahead, reluctantly finishing my underdone toast topped with an overdone fried egg, I thought to myself ‘What have I got to lose?’
Holding host to the winter festivities was the unfeasibly large National Exhibition Centre ( NEC) in Birmingham. Perfect for accommodating a vast array of over 500 exhibitors and stalls, and truly making it the unique shopping experience it promises to be. Although be careful not to wander into Motorcycle Live by accident! Once you get lost in the NEC it’s unlikely you’ll ever get out.
I sashayed confidently into the ensemble of chefs, sellers, consumers, manufacturers, enthusiasts and mothers, deciding that although I didn’t know the difference between an opulent wine and an earthy wine I would still sip and nod like everyone else, giving the illusion that I was the qualified food and drink critic my official press pass claimed I was. However, when the only adjective I could come up with when sampling the latest blend from Gun Dog Gin was ‘ooo, strong isn’t it?’ I felt the veil of pretense may have slipped ever so slightly.
Once I had finally figured out how to vacate the boozy sector (which at 10am in the morning wasn’t where I had planned to find myself) I was met by a miscellany of all things ‘good’ and all things ‘food’ (or food related): from the leading household brands to the newest cookware and gadgets. Name your product, and there was guaranteed to be a stall or two catered to it. Over the two days I was lucky enough to be at the show, you could safely say that I sampled enough to feed a small family and their dog… with second helpings. From working my way up from a 1/10 spice to a sizzling 9/10 on the Tropical Sun Sauces and Seasoning stand (I thought a 10/10 may have been counter productive seeing as it took me a while to regain any feeling of normality in my tongue after 9), to grabbing a handful of the Glens of Antrim’s irish whiskey crisps (and then deciding that the ‘whiskey’ element of the wafer-thin slice of potato based snack was one that my tastebuds hadn’t yet developed the ability to fully appreciate). I handed the crisps to my accomplice in food tasting for the day, Ben (who willingly accepted my gift) and proceeded toward the Supertheatre, a grandiose title reminding me of the ancient Roman amphitheatres famous for gladiator combats and animal slayings. Luckily, the only competition today was ‘Whose baked goods could rise the best’, and the animals involved in the wintry sausage casserole were already slain, thank goodness.
We sat in our fold out auditorium seats eager with anticipation. Ben leaned over to me gleefully and chuckled, ‘Zoe, we get to see people cook…live!’ His enthusiasm confused me. I had only ever watched my mother cook, isn’t it all just a bit of chopping, faffing and, I don’t know, chucking it all in a pan? I’m not sure, I never really paid much attention. How could they make slicing and dicing things a form of entertainment? I suppose I was about to find out.
Opening the festivities was the host, Marcus Bean, a handsome fellow who you may have seen on ‘This Morning’ cooking something chicken-y for Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield (his book ‘Chicken: The New Classics’ promises to the reader a rediscovery of chicken – I was intrigued as I thought the only worthwhile way to discover chicken was in the form of nuggets). Marcus’s only job as far as I could tell was to provoke some display of elated hysteria or frenzy amongst the demographic majority, women on the other side of 40. He declared that whoever could boogie to JT’s ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’ the liveliest would be the lucky receiver of a lavish looking bottle of champagne. I tried to convince Ben to jump up and dab (for my older readers, the dab is a current popular dance move in which the dancer simultaneously drops the head whilst raising an arm and the elbow in a gesture that has been noted to resemble sneezing, originally coined by Skippa da Flippa) but he refused, saying his dabbing skills would not be understood and recognised as the great feat they are in our present company.
After the raucous start, Tom Kerridge was welcomed to the stage. Tom is the incredibly popular and lovable (also radiantly bald) chef who is the proud owner of two double michelin star restaurants, ‘The Hand and Flowers Pub’ and ‘The Coach’, both in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. On the menu today was, for starters, ‘Smoked Haddock Omelette’. This was your standard run-of-the-mill omelette but covered with a full layer of parmesan, poached haddock flaked on top, white sauce with chopped chives lathered on and the special ingredient – whip the blow torch out to add a hint of charred flavouring. I mean, I like omelettes, I like parmesan, like haddock…suddenly sparks went off in my head, I could make this dish. Better yet, I could make it and enjoy it. Not to mention, I could prepare it for others to enjoy…well, maybe…on a good day. But, what a revelation. I’d never considered the idea of cooking in this way. It was inspiring. What had prevented me in the past from thinking outside the box was the two big hitters: time and money. But Tom had taken under 20 minutes to prepare this, and Aldi rarely failed me when it came to great value products. No matter how hard I tried in Aldi, the total would never extend over the £25 quid mark. So this seemed do-able. However, I may have to nick a bunsen burner from the chemistry department. Also apparently, it serves eight people – I could freeze it! – but…can you freeze an omelette? It was a question for Google later, but next up was the main event: roasted pork with sausage meat, fried bubble and squeak, homemade chutney and black pudding. Makes you salivate just reading that! It looked even more exquisite in real life; the meat was succulent and tender, the vegetables crisp and luxurious, the chutney aromatic and festive. Of course, I didn’t actually get to taste it… but I can imagine that it was great. He did get two michelin stars after all!. One day I hope to taste those stars. One day.
My personal highlight of the show, however, was Tony the on-stage cameraman. Now Tony, going against the grain as a cameraman, kept slyly involving his hand in the frame numerous times. Often the audience would be distracted as all we’d see on the big screen was a hand caressing Tom’s bald head, zooming in on Marcus’s bum or even grabbing Tom’s book, ‘Tom’s Table’, off the shelf to help bash down the pork to help tenderise it. He also made an ongoing joke of trying to include as many Aldi logos (the sponsor) in the shot as possible over the duration of the show. Tony’s childish humour and cheek really contributed to the light and cheerful atmosphere which lasted throughout the day.
Outside of the Supertheatre, people were getting involved in Yo! Sushi and knife skills masterclasses, learning how to capture the festive cheer in a dish at the Winter Kitchen stage, and even making their own emojis out of icing at the Renshaw Academy. For a food lover, Christmas really had come early. This was also the perfect place in which to find the best gifts (if only I could afford that £300 Magimix Compact, my dad loves a great kitchen gadget).
Every company I came across and talked to about their product seemed so exuberant and passionate about what they were putting out into the world, ‘Our confectionary sweets are organic and the healthiest yet’, ‘Our cucumber tonic is the most refreshing thing out there’. It was delightful knowing that the retailers believed in their brands, never hesitating to tell me all the great things about it. Over my two days at the NEC I had a taste of Sri Lanka, Ireland, Cornwall, Devon, Scotland, the Tropics, Switzerland, and even further overseas. All were gathered here sharing their knowledge, culture and, best of all, their flavours.
The best thing about the BBC Good Food Show for me is the fact that it taught me that food isn’t something that can be taken too dismissively. Food is an opportunity to be creative, to experiment, to be healthy and balanced – but most of all food should be an instrument for coming together with your family and friends and having a laugh at the dinner table. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go right all the time. It’s the enjoyment of trying something new. It’s about bringing people and cultures closer, especially at this wonderful time of year.