Times food writer Bruce McMichael attended Thursday’s Taste of Kent Awards, which saw many of our favourite local food suppliers and producers honoured…

Over 350 people gathered for the glitzy Taste of Kent Awards at the Kent County howground in Detling on Thursday [March 8] to celebrate the rich diversity of the county’s produce and the innovative way producers, growers and chefs are using local produce.

A craft mead was the big winner, impressing the judges enough to ensure it clinched the top prize of the night: Kent Food Product of the Year. Produced by Mereworth-based firm Marourde, the fermented honey drink which dates back thousands of years also won Best Specialist Drink. And while mead may be a niche product, it has recently been given a boost as the drink of choice for many characters in the hit TV series Game of Thrones.

Marourde, the historic name for Mereworth – a small village located between Paddock Wood and Maidstone – is run by husband and wife team William and Amelia Boscawen, who met while pursuing international finance careers in Hong Kong before relocating to Kent to revive a family farm.

Susanna Rynehart, a partner in Tunbridge Wells legal firm Thomson Snell & Passmore
[TSP], who hosted a table at the awards, is a passionate foodie. She was sitting next to William when the announcement was made that Marourde had won the top prize.

“We were thrilled that Will and Amelia won Kent Food Product of the Year and the specialist drink category award with Marourde,” she said. “It’s a fantastic addition to the Kent food scene.” Alisa Sweeney, another partner at TSP, added: “The annual awards night allows local growers, producers and restaurateurs to take a rare night off to celebrate all that is great about their businesses. “The sector has seen another tough year, with pressures coming from increases in business rates, Brexit, recruitment and retention issues and the casual dining crash, but these awards show that with a lot of passion and real dedication to greatness, businesses can not only survive but flourish in this sector.”

Made with honey, mead can trace its history back 7,000 years. It is an extremely versatile
drink, with or without fruits and spices, and either still or sparkling, ranging from 4% to 15%. Hannah Blake, of Tunbridge Wells-based PR firm The Dining Room, a company that represents several food and drink companies, says: “Good chefs are always looking for new, exciting ingredients, and a good mead will surely be increasingly seen in restaurant and pub kitchens and menus.”

Mead-maker William believes that we’re changing the way we view this traditional tipple. And there are so many ways you can make it. “We are turning preconceptions on their head and feel that this hugely versatile drink has a great future,” he explains.

“Because of the way that we make it, it’s much more culinary than the other drinks out there. “You need to gently cook the ingredients to extract the flavours, and must bring them to the right temperature before applying the right yeast to bring out the alcohol.
“It’s a slow and captivating dance of ingredients and conditions to craft the mead we want.”

Chef and food writer Julie Friend agrees that mead is now having a bit of a moment: “I’ve tasted Marourde mead and it’s delicious. As well as a great drink, it’s also a versatile ingredient for cooking, including poaching chicken or pork, baking cakes and making cocktails.”

Food writer Hattie Ellis, who has written two books on honey, including the popular ‘Spoonfuls of Honey’, agrees: “I’m a huge fan of good mead. It’s a special and sophisticated drink that Britain used to make in quantity.

“Unfortunately, some so-called mead made today is low-quality wine flavoured with honey, giving a cloying sickly sweet taste. It saves money on expensive honey but isn’t true mead. “Real mead is honey mixed with water and fermented with yeast. Mead in its heyday had many strengths and flavours. It doesn’t have to be sweet; it can be dry or medium-dry, a honeyed sort of sherry, if you like, or made into a less strong, quaffing drink.

“The meads flavoured with fruit or herbs and spices can be very special, too.” Other popular Taste of Kent Award-winners on the night included Penshurst Farmers’ Market
regulars Eckley Farms of Staplehurst, who picked two top accolades for their Pure Kent range of foods – best Bakery and Confectionery product for its Stoneground Wheat and Barley Flour, and the Ambient award for its Oak Smoked Rapeseed Oil. Guest stallholders at Penshurst, Wise Owl Cider, were just pipped at the post by future Penshurst guest, Turners Cider, for their Elderflower Cider, described as a ‘still, fruity and flo-ral, unfiltered and naturally sweetened with elderflower syrup’.

Based just north of Tonbridge in Offham, the charity Spadework took home the Unique Community Award. Working with people with learning and other difficulties, they offer the chance to try gardening, jam and chutney-making and working in the farm shop.

Southborough Butchers was a runner-up in the Kent Butcher Shop of the Year category, while Chegworth Valley – a fruit farm based at Harrietsham, near Maidstone, and with a grocery store and deli located on The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells – was a runner-up in Kent’s Tastiest Juice of the Year for its Apple and Cherry juice.

Awards organiser Stephanie Durling, Chief Executive of Produced in Kent – the group that represents many in the county food and hospitality sector – said: “Our annual awards is always a lively event, and a great chance to shine a spotlight on the food and drink sector in the Garden of England.

“Innovation is key to the future of Kent farming and food production, so it’s great to see a start-up company like Marourde taking an historic drink and bringing it up to date.”

Clare Eckley, of Eckley Farm and Pure Kent, agrees: “It’s a tough, but exciting time to be a farmer or food producer in Kent.

“There are lots of new, innovative products coming out of the county, and it’s important for
us to add value to our local commodity crops, such as wheat, hops, honey and apples.”

Returning to the award-winning Marourde Mead, food author Hattie says: “Mead is a drink that is being revived by some interesting companies, and I hope they grow the market as this is a drink well worth discovering, and it’s good to encourage beekeepers by creating a premium product for their beautiful honey. “I love to serve mead at the end of the meal with cheese, fruit and nuts, but you can also serve it with pudding, or as an aperitif.”

For more information on the Taste of Kent Awards, and to keep an eye on voting for next
year, visit www.tasteofkentawards.co.uk