In recent years too many businesses have been involved in headlines to do with shutting down, being fraught with financial problems brought on by the recession, or generally suffering from the bleak economic climate.
But it was five years ago, when all of this financial gloom and doom started, that the Northamptonshire Food & Drink Awards were launched, bringing a ray of light and a badge of pride to many hard-working culinary companies in the county.
At a time when pubs started closing and many businesses found it hard to make ends meet, the awards started, hailing what was great in Northamptonshire’s food and drink world and arguably giving a helping hand by making the names of high-achieving chefs, pubs, restaurants and cafes better known... and more appreciated.
And this month the 13 awards, devised by the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership, have again been launched and are inviting nominations from members of the public for Community Pub of the Year (town or rural), Independent Cafe/Tea Room of the Year and Local Food Hero of the Year contenders.
As well as these categories, the other awards include Artisan Local product, Artisan Local Drink, New Local Product, New Local Drink, Restaurant of the Year, Booker Food Pub, Aspire Chef of the Year, and Spice Chef of the Year.
The award winners will be decided through a mixture of expert judge opinions and public votes, and will all be announced on October 17 at an awards dinner.
Speaking at the launch event which took place at the Northampton base of the awards’ headline sponsors Carlsberg UK, organiser Rachel Mallows said: “We are directing people to our website which has all the entry forms and nominations, so if people want to nominate a community pub, tea room or coffee shop they can do.
“Also, if people know of any local product or a restaurant they think is good, they can put them forward and we will take it from there.”
New for this year is the Independent Cafe/Tea Room category.
Rachel said: “We have to generate some interest with our tea room and cafe category but people generally do get involved and get value from doing it.
“I think the awards have made a big difference in celebrating what is great. I think in this county we do recognise the importance of supporting local things and know we don’t need to travel to London to a restaurant when we can get good food here.”
But what kind of a difference does winning or coming runner-up in one of these awards really make?
Last year’s runner-up in the New Local Drink category were the Hart Family Brewers in Wellingborough with their Hart No.1 ale.
Sarah Hart explained that, at that point, the firm had only been running for five months and that was their only brew. Now the brewery is much more firmly established and has nine ales to its name.
Sarah, who confirmed that the brewery would be entering the event again this year, said: “The whole experience of being in the awards was fantastic and it really made a difference. We had lots of customers coming in to the brewery, which was great, it was just a very positive Northamptonshire event.
“We have so many wonderful things in Northamptonshire and so many talented chefs, to give everyone a shout-out about what there is in the county is worthwhile.”
One winner from last year was The Exeter Arms in Easton on the Hill, which can be found on the county’s border with Lincolnshire.
Head chef Simon Pollendine said the company was delighted with being recognised in the Northamptonshire awards, even though the venue is on the cusp of the county border.
He said: “We were up against people such as Oundle Mill, which has a really good reputation. It does make people recognise you and it is a great boost for the staff and company.”
Last year the winner of the Booker Chef of the Year category was James Ingram, of Mercedes Benz AMG in Brixworth, who runs a private works restaurant which serves 650 employees.
James won through after facing a challenge in which he was given one-and-a-half hours to create a meal using the contents of a box of ingredients he was given on the day.
He said: “I probably wasn’t the best person to win from the point of view of marketing the competition but hopefully we can use it in the future. We get to use the logo now and have the backing of the awards.”
Celebrity chef Steven Saunders (one of the original chefs involved with the Ready Steady Cook TV programme), is the creative director of the Aspire Group, a firm which has put its name to this year’s Chef of the Year category.
Steven, who gave a cooking demonstration at the awards launch event, now caters for thousands of people each year at Silverstone, and at many Formula 1 events across the world, through his company Aspire.
He said: “I believe the awards keep local food producers and retailers, whether they are butchers or breweries, on their toes, perhaps more than if the awards did not exist. For winners, the increase in their business has been about 20 per cent.”
But does he think the recent horsemeat scandal will improve business for independent, local producers?
Steven said: “It is appalling that we live in a society that cons us into eating stuff that we believe is one thing, but in fact is another. The best thing we can do is make our own food.
“We created Ready Steady Cook to tell people that in 20 minutes you can cook a meal that is healthy and easy, you don’t need to buy a ready meal.
“In 2013, nearly 20 years later, we are still talking about the same thing. When are people going to get it and say enough is enough?”
To download nomination forms, visit www.northamptonshirefoodanddrink.co.uk