Melton’s economic future looked bleak in the late 1990s - ‘Mad Cow disease’ had impacted badly on farmers, the Old Dalby Army depot was closed in 1996 and the Asfordby ‘Superpit’ was decommissioned the following year.
But in 1998 a group of people got together at Brooksby Hall to talk about using the borough’s food heritage to revitalise the fortunes of the area and the Melton Mowbray Food Partnership (MMFP) was duly formed.
Twenty years on, the organisation has established Melton as a prime destination for tourists with five annual food festivals, including last weekend’s increasingly popular ChocFest.
The partnership helped win geographic protection for the Melton Mowbray pork pie and strengthend the area’s connection with Stilton cheese.
It launched one of the nation’s first farmers’ markets and also funded and designed the ‘Welcome to Melton’ borough boundary signs proclaiming the area as the ‘Rural Capital of Food’.
But the partnership is not resting on its laurels and it has big plans, including a desire to set up a Rural Food Enterprise Centre, a social enterprise restaurant called ‘The Melton Pie Rooms’ and a Melton ‘Villandry’ as a national horticultural visitor attraction.
Chairman Matthew O’Callaghan has been involved since the start and he has been telling us about the MMFP’s achievements and its ambitious plans for the next 20 years.
Q1 What would you say are the main achievements of the partnership?
Matthew O’Callaghan: Our strategy at the time was to regenerate Melton through a series of connected actions. One of these was the protection of the Melton Mowbray pork pie achieved through the Melton Pork Pie Association. It took 11 years and action in the High Court and Court of Appeal, but the publicity generated boosted the town’s reputation for food. We promoted the link between Stilton Cheese and the borough as its origin which was one of the decisive factors in the rejection of the attempt by the village of Stilton to be included in protected area. This would have had a profound impact on our local Stilton producers.
The fact that there are two new abattoirs in area is in part due to the partnership efforts and our commissioning of a study by the Meat and Livestock Commission which showed the need and viability of the meat sector in the area.
The investment of over £5million in the new cattle market ceentre endorses the decision to retain and expand the livestock market in the town centre.
Q2: How successful do you think the food festivals have been?
MO: Back in 1998 we started the planning for our first East Midlands Food Festival which, 15 years ago, was larger than the original regional food festival in Ludlow and this year was recommended as one of the top five in the world by the New York Times.
We now have five food festivals in the year, including the largest cheese fair, pie festival (PieFest) and chocolate festival (ChocFest) in the country. We’ve no doubt our spirits festival will also grow.
Q3: What else have you done to put Melton on the map with its connection with food?
MO: Prince Charles visited our farmers’ market in 2000, one of the first in the country, we’ve had four Ministers of Food visit, the whole of Defra’s new policy team has been here and the Queen’s chef brought the chefs of all the main world leaders at the time on a day out to Melton. We generate some £75million from food and tourism-related activities endorsed by the building of the first hotel in Melton for over 100 years (the Premier Inn).
Q4: Is there anything the food partnership wasn’t able to achieve and, if so, why was that?
MO: What we haven’t done is to ensure that our offer of ‘Rural Capital of Food’ applies to the borough all week through, evenings and all year round. Tuesdays and festival days are great at promoting the town, but it’s the ‘Wet Winter Wednesday’ where we should be providing sufficient interest to attract and retain these visitors.
Q5: How can food and drink do even more to promote the borough to tourists?
MO: There are a number of attractions in the Melton area which, combined, give a reasonable offering to visitors, such as St Mary’s Church, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe, Belvoir Brewery, etc. But we don’t have that ‘big hitter’ that other areas have which would provide an attraction to visitors every day, every week of the year. Places like Wensleydale and Masham pull in hundreds of thousands of visitors to watch their famous products being made. There’s nowhere like that in Melton. We need somewhere the public can see pork pies and Stilton being made on a regular basis.
Q6: Where do you think new food tourist centres could be located in the borough?
MO: The Rural Food Centre has to be close enough to the town centre to attract visitors into the town and the livestock market is one of a few ideal sites that would fit that brief.
The Melton Pie Rooms could initially be piloted at Brooksby Melton College’s Rural Catering Centre, but in the long term I think we are looking at a town centre venue with the ability of coaches to drop visitors off nearby and then collect them later.
The ideal place for a Melton Villandry is the Brooksby campus. They have a horticulture department there. They have land and students. Hopefully, with cooperation from Melton in Bloom and the Leicestershire Master Gardeners we could create something unique which reinforces our food and tourism strategy.
The college would also be the ideal venue for the School of Rural Food. We’ll launch it again next year as a virtual school, then look for a central location to run a few courses before putting in a bid for a more permanent site and structure. Who knows, we might achieve our ambition for a University of Food based in Melton?
Q7: What are the biggest challenges facing the Melton Food Partnership over the next 20 years?
MO: Achieving that next step change – in providing food and tourism infrastructure to deliver our claim as the ‘Rural Capital of Food’ is our biggest challenge. We have to think big. Who would have thought 20 years ago we’d have got to where we are now? It can be done and I am really excited for the future.