It's one of those glorious, hot spring days and I'm sitting outside on the balcony of a first floor flat tucking into the best buffalo mozzarella I have ever tasted. Amazingly it's made in the UK, from a farm and dairy in Hampshire that is now producing the first serious organic buffalo mozzarella in the country. Sure, it took me some time to track the cheese down (it's available in 200 Waitrose stores or online) but now I've discovered it I feel like I've been let into a secret that I didn't know existed until a few months ago.
Rewind to February this year, to the Real Food Festival launch at Borough market. There, along with a dozen or so other producers who will soon be exhibiting at the show in Earls Court, was Petal, a live water buffalo. Petal, apparently a very gentle and docile creature, seemed unfazed by the gaze of the crowds. She is part of herd of 2,000 water buffalo from Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire which produces all things buffalo - milk, ice cream, mozzarella, ricotta and meat (including burgers, sausages and roasting joints).
Laverstoke Park Farm had a stand at the market. I eye up the products and decide to have a trial taste of their ice cream - rich, creamy and smooth.
'Our dream is to sell the best ice cream in the world,' says the driving force behind the farm, former Formula One racing driver Jody Scheckter. Buffalo produce half the amount of milk of a normal cow, but that half, according to Scheckter, is ‘twice as good'. He believes slower-growing, rare breeds produce healthier animals that also taste better - and produce the best milk.
Very white in colour, the creamy milk has a high solid content which makes beautiful cheese, ice-cream and milkshakes. It does not contain lactose so is often used as a substitute for those allergic to cow's milk (but always seek medical advice on this first).
The buffalo are free range and, except for the coldest winter months, live outside and feed off pastures planted with 31 different herbs, clovers and grasses.
The 2,500 acre biodynamic/organic farm is also home to jersey cows, herds of rare pigs, wild boar, sheep, cattle and chickens. ‘All our animals are more slow-growing than commercial, modern breeds. This gives them a happier life as well as producing much tastier meat,' says Scheckter.
His ‘slow' ethos is quite a turnaround for a Formula One driver, but within it there is a serious drive to 'become self-sustaining and self-sufficient, producing the best tasting, healthiest food without compromise'.
Real Food for all
Between May 7-10 you'll have a chance to buy or try Laverstoke Park Farm's buffalo mozzarella, ice cream and meat at the Real Food Festival, in London at Earl's Court, as they take up a stand with 400 other small producers from the UK and Europe.
In case you haven't heard of it, the festival champions fresh food grown and reared on healthy soil, free from chemical pesticides, fertilisers and artificial additives. Importantly, it brings together artisan producers and thousands of food lovers.
As Philip Lowery, founder and director of the Real Food Festival explains: ‘What we can and will demonstrate at the festival is that there is an alternative to the so-called convenience and value of supermarket shopping'.
He admits that supermarkets have their place in our ‘100mph lives' but that even in these financially constrained times, it's possible to buy quality ingredients from alternative sources and to eat tasty, healthy food without spending a small fortune.
‘Buying direct from producers or independent retailers will nearly always give you a better quality product, often at the same or better price than its supermarket equivalent.'
Money well spent
That's not to say shopping this way is the cheapest. It can take more effort and maybe cost a bit more, but it's worth the extra investment. ‘In terms of quality of life, the daily pleasure you can derive from it, and the potential health, economic and environmental benefits are surely enormous,' Lowery says.
Like a giant farmer's market, complete with small flocks of animals (rare breed pigs, sheep, chickens and Petal the water buffalo), The Real Food Festival is a place to not only discover these producers, but also support them.
Cooking up a storm
You can brush up on your cooking skills there too. An impressive line-up of chefs including Michelin-starred Raymond Blanc, Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers, Carlo Cracco (one of today's most highly regarded Italian chefs) and Ollie Row (owner of Konstam at the Prince Albert which sources all ingredients from within the M25) will be doing cooking demonstrations.
There are also classes (butter making, anyone?), debates on current and controversial food issues, a ‘Mad Hatters Tea Party' serving cream-teas in a re-created Cornish garden and restaurants - the star attraction being the Riverford Organic Field Kitchen.
But the real star attractions of festival are, of course, the producers. Here are seven more to look out for.
Tregothnan, The Cornish Tea Garden
It sounds unbelievable but Tregothan Estate in Cornwall produce teas ranging from classic assam and china green (using Tregothnan leaves), to herbal infusions. All processes are entirely free of chemicals. Tregothnan doesn't have a stand at the Real food Festival, but is having a ‘Mad Hatter's Tea Party' there in partnership with Henrietta Lovell and her Rare Tea Company. www.tregothnan.co.uk
South Devon Chilli Farm
Over 10,000 chilli plants are now grown at this in Devon farm every year, which are either sold fresh or used in a range of chilli sauces, preserves and chilli chocolate.
Flour Power City Ltd
If you're a fan of quality, 'real bread' you'll need no persuasion to visit the Flour Power City Bakery stand which sells everything from a 'tangy' white sourdough to a moist apricot and walnut malted loaf, plus wheat-free options such as 100 per cent rye or spelt. Then there's the cakes: twice-baked banana cake, apple and almond tart, pastries.... Organic ingredients are used where possible.
100 per cent organic fruit juice made with fruit sourced from the UK, where possible. RDA says it can trace every fruit back to its farm and field. The company uses plastic packaging, but argues that this takes less energy to produce and transport than glass.
This gourmet chocolate company based in Cardiff makes traditional chocolate recipes with ethically sourced organic chocolate... but without the dairy. Its main products are the very successful truffles - flavours include maple syrup, coffee, chilli, cardamom, and the slightly weird-sounding balsamic vinegar and salt 'n' pepper flavours. It also produces chocolate bars, drinking chocolate and more.
Simon Weaver Organic - cheese
Creamy, fresh organic brie from the Cotswolds made using traditional methods. All their Fresian cows feed on grasses grown organically at the farm. Fresh organic milk from Kirkham Farm is taken to the creamery each morning, where it is turned into a new batch of cheese.
Harvesting sloes from wild blackthorn hedgerows (mostly in Yorkshire) and using traditional kitchen recipes this small, family business creates a range of sloe based products. As well as the classic Sloe Gin, the company has experimented with other base spirits - whisky, vodka, brandy - and also produces sloe chutney and sloe chocolate truffles.
The Real Food Festival 7-10 May, 2010 Earl's Court, London
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The Real Food Festival, London, 7-10 May
The Real Food Festival at Earls Court celebrates fresh, healthy, sustainable food
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