Charcuterie, cheese, bread, cereal, noodles and milk: these days, there’s an award scheme for every type of food and drink. Of course, there are awards for restaurants and retailers, too, but they’re not easily won. Stamps of approval from the likes of Great Taste, Golden Chopsticks and British Charcuterie are highly coveted. Winners receive not just a gong, but a raised profile via social media, food publications and regional news outlets who love to champion the craft and care that goes into their local cuisine.
And rightly so. Britain’s food scene is thriving thanks to its fertile land, culinary traditions and rich cultural diversity. With an increasing focus on quality and sustainability, farmers are cultivating exceptional produce, to which chefs and producers apply their passion, knowledge and skill.
This melding together of quality and imagination with old, new and diverse traditions is what makes our food scene so remarkable. We spoke to a South African making biltong from retired dairy cows in Ireland, fifth-generation farmers making breakfast cereal in Suffolk, and a Turkish baker in London making sourdough pide. Food judges look for honed craft, but they also look for the unique creativity that comes when people of different ages and backgrounds bring a fresh view on a particular product or practice. Here are some of the finest food champions in the UK.
Gulsom Genc Koc – The Mill Hill Bakery, London
Winner of the speciality sourdough and flatbread category at the World Bread Awards 2022, with sourdough simit (Turkish sesame rings) and Turkish pide.
“The Black Sea region of Turkey, where I’m originally from, is mountainous and has a very similar climate to Britain, so I grew up eating sourdough. Every time we visited my grandmother, she was baking fresh bread, which she served with homemade butter, and that taste I will never forget. I moved to the UK with my husband after university, and for the first 30 years here, I worked as a landscape architect. Then one day, my mum came to visit us and brought with her some of my grandmother’s starter for me to bake with. At first, I couldn’t keep it alive, but when she brought me some more, I asked for grandma’s recipe and resolved to keep up the tradition. I spent every Friday baking: learning new recipes, perfecting my technique and looking at books, articles and recipes for tips. I first entered the World Bread Awards as a home baker with a bread my mum used to make with olives and mixed herbs – and I won that category. Then, during the pandemic, I started baking for my neighbours, then my local garden centre, and got very popular. We converted the garage into an office and kitchen space, and I bought a bigger oven, bigger fridge, bigger mixer – then I quit my job as an architect to run my bakery. I bake a variety of sourdough products, but I’m particularly passionate about converting unusual breads to sourdough, like my award-winning simit, which are like big, oval bagels, and pide, Turkish flatbread. I think my success has come from that passion – and from love. I’m keeping my grandmother’s starter and a tradition alive, and that makes me happy.”
Svetlana Kukharchuk – The Cheese Lady, East Lothian, Scotland
Winner of farm shop & deli retailer awards 2022: Scottish region with The Cheese Lady
“I’ve been working in farmhouse cheese for nearly 20 years – I have a huge passion for cheese that doesn’t seem to wane. I also seem to inspire a similar passion for cheese in our customers and my team, and think this is the foundation of our success. I fell in love with cheese as a student in New York City – at Murray’s Cheese Shop – which, at the time, was the place to be for cheese in New York. I begged for a job in the shop, then did an internship at their maturing caves. I left the States to open a cheese shop in my home country, Russia, but fate decided differently and I ended up in Scotland. I was making cheese at The St Andrews Cheese Company, which was back-breaking work, and trained with the great Herve Mons in France to deepen my knowledge of maturation. I opened The Cheese Lady in East Lothian 2017. Our speciality is farmhouse and artisan cheese, which doesn’t have to be from one particular country; we have a great range of Scottish cheese, as well as cheese from the rest of the UK and all the main cheese-producing countries. This first award has meant so much. It’s raised our profile among potential new customers, but it was also recognition from the industry of all the hard work we’ve done to date.”
Winner of Best restaurant in Wales at the Golden Chopsticks Award 2022 with Lokky’s
“My wife Jen and I took over this hotel and restaurant in Tenby in 2019, and wanted to put our own spin on the place. We went for pan-Asian cuisine because my wife is Filipino and I’m Chinese, so we are pan-Asian ourselves! My family has always been in food; my aunt started a takeaway when she emigrated to the UK, then my dad has a restaurant in Wales too, so I’ve been in hospitality since I was a boy – but Lokky’s is a passion for myself and Jen. We wanted to create a menu that was suitable for all, and an atmosphere that people could enjoy, and we wanted to showcase food that people might never have had before – like pancit noodles, which is a typical Filipino dish. Winning the award was a fantastic morale boost. We’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into recovering from the pandemic, recruiting a good kitchen and front-of-house team, and creating a special experience for everyone who walks through the doors. We’ve had glowing reviews. The main thing for us is that people walk out having had a good time, and maybe having tried something new.”
Alanagh Chipperfield and Ilse van Staden – Ke Nano Biltong, Ballyclare, Northern Ireland
Winner of the Best in Class award at the British Charcuterie Awards 2021 with Pain-in-the-Hole biltong
“Everyone eats biltong in South Africa. They buy it like we buy bread here, and keep a big bag in their fridge at home. I met my wife Ilse when I went to play rugby in South Africa, and when we moved back to Northern Ireland, we started making biltong because there wasn’t anyone on the island of Ireland making it. Our recipe is Ilse’s grandmother’s recipe, and we use Irish beef from retired dairy cows, from organic farms. Our beef is the reason our biltong is so popular; the cattle are grass-fed and much older, so the meat is more concentrated in flavour, and the fat on the carcass is richer. It takes five to six days to make from the time we get the carcass in, as we have to break it down, spice it, hang it, then apply gentle heat – not so much as to cook it, but about 45 degrees. It loses 70% of its water in the process. For every kilo of biltong, two kilos of beef have gone into it, as well as the spices. Our Pain-in-the-Hole biltong is made with sauce containing the world’s hottest chilli, the Carolina Reaper.”
Jessica Langton – Cornfields Farm, Derbyshire
Winner of BBC Countryfile‘s Young Countryside Champion award 2021 and Agricultural Student of the Year at the British Farming Awards 2021
“I milked my first cow when I was seven and never looked back. I’m a fourth-generation farmer, and still milk our pedigree herd of Locklan Holsteins at our family farm in Derbyshire, as well as working part-time for Genus GBS, a company that aims to improve the sustainability of the industry through bovine genetics. On the farm, I’m focused on herd management and the breeding side of things: I incorporated Jersey and Norwegian Red genetics into the herd a few years ago, when we moved to a contract where the amount of money you get is based on the quality of the milk, rather than quantity. The crossbreeds have a higher fat and protein content, and because they’re more suited to living outdoors than pure Holsteins, more sustainable. I’m also involved in a student project looking at reducing methane emissions in ruminants at Nottingham University, and sit on the National Farmers Union dairy board, where I do a lot of work with education. Their live lessons reach thousands of primary school pupils. I think I’ve won these awards because of all the things I do in the industry, as well as working to improve the sustainability of the farm. It’s more of a way of life than a job, though. Knowing you can have an impact gets you out of bed in the morning.”
The Hird family – Yockenthwaite Farm, Yorkshire
Winner of best breakfast cereal at the Great British Food Awards 2022 with Fruity Nutty granola
Sales and production head Dave Hird, says, “The Hird family have been sheep farmers at Yockenthwaite Farm since 1842, and my dad and brother are still farming. Our cereal story, however, starts back in 2004. We had a bed and breakfast on the farm, and we’d serve homemade granola to our guests as a healthy option. They kept asking where they could buy it, so we started to sell it, starting with our local market. It’s grown organically from there. The recipe is Mum’s. She works full-time when she’s not helping with lambing. We source our honey from Lancashire, spelt flour from Stockton on Tees and groats from Morning Foods in Cheshire, which we roll ourselves before putting straight into the mixing bowl. Oats are a bit like fresh coffee: the sooner they’re made into granola after being rolled, the better. I think that’s one of our key selling points – that, and using spelt, which people with gluten intolerances can process better than wheat, and is an ancient grain. The Fruity Nutty granola is one of our newer varieties, so it was a great accolade to win an award for that. It’s amazing that what started as a bit of diversification to support the farm has gone on to become its own entity, winning awards – but we are still based on the farm, and still very much a small family company.”
Jacob Thundil – Sozye, Middlesex
Winner of the Golden Fork trophy for the South East and Startisan of the Year at the Great Taste Awards 2022 with Noya Sauce soya sauce alternative
“Many years ago we were making ramen, and one of the ingredients is a kombu – dried seaweed that you soak in water to make stock. Inadvertently, we left it for a while, and the longer we left it, the more umami it became. It tasted almost meaty. The thought of making a soy-style sauce like this haunted us, but it wasn’t until lockdown came that we were able to work on it, which we did 12-14 hours a day. We have a friend who dives for seaweed, and we experimented with different kinds and set up our own lab to test it. We’re both into cooking; I’m into discovering new ingredients, and my business partner is on point with taste. I think that’s how we got here. We won a gold star at the Great Taste Awards in 2021, and I thought, ‘brilliant job’, but my business partner is a perfectionist. She kept saying ‘we can do better’ – so we kept improving. We think people like the sauce because it’s allergen-free and sustainable and made from sustainably harvested seaweed. It ticks so many boxes and tastes good. In fact, one of the comments from the judges was, ‘I can’t see how this could be better’.”