As Durham prepares to welcome the Seaham Food Festival to its cultural calendar, PETER BARRON gets a taste for the importance of the food and drink sector to the county's economy

WHEN it comes to assessing the value of the food and drink sector to County Durham’s economic fortunes, the latest statistics make impressive reading. You might even say that the proof is in the pudding.

Visitors to the county spent £867m in the local economy during 2017, and food and drink accounted for 37 per cent (£320m) of that total. That is being translated into jobs, with the food and drink sector responsible for 38 per cent of the 11,682 people employed in the county’s tourism industry.

“The food and drink sector is hugely important to us,” says Michelle Gorman, Managing Director of Visit County Durham. “It is by far the largest contributing sector to our tourism economy.”

It was a recognition of the growing importance of the sector that led to the introduction of the Taste Durham scheme in 2009, formally recognising and celebrating the excellence of authentic local food producers, suppliers and retailers.

“Over the last ten years, we have seen a huge rise in the number of small local producers, many of them starting out from the kitchen table and growing into successful businesses,” says Michelle. 

Tourism in Durham is enjoying a five per cent growth year-on-year, with existing attractions being  enhanced and new ones continually being added.

This year’s introduction of the Seaham Food Festival on June 8 and 9, following the decade-long success of the Bishop Auckland Food Festival, is just one example of this.

However, Michelle is quick to point out that it is not just about the big festivals – Durham has always had a strong reputation for a network of country shows. 

For example, Wolsingham hosts England’s oldest agricultural show. First held in 1763, the Wolsingham Show is still going strong and now attracts 30,000 people each year.

“The food and drink sector has become an integral part of our brand, it is growing all the time and helps raise awareness of Durham nationally and internationally,” says Michelle.

As the leader of Durham County Council, Simon Henig is also excited by that growth and particularly loves the diversity of Durham’s food and drink sector, seeing it as a striking example of Durham’s Powered by People movement.

“When you walk around our festivals, country shows and markets, it’s fantastic to see the range of food and drink being produced by incredibly passionate and talented people,” he says. 

“From cheeses to chocolate, fudge to fruit and veg – there’s something for everyone.” 

Simon proudly points out that the latest Bishop Auckland Food Festival also attracted around 30,000 visitors and more than 150 traders in April, and that gives him confidence this kind of success can now be repeated in Seaham.

“One of the strengths of the county’s food and drink offer is that we have really distinctive local businesses in each area, so Seaham will have a taste all of its own and visitors will get an authentic experience,” he says. 

“As well as being a great opportunity for local businesses, the event will also showcase the award-winning regeneration of Seaham to a fresh audience, and I’m really excited to have it as an addition to our calendar in Durham’s Year of Culture.”

• To book hotels and accommodation, find places to eat, check out events and things to do, visit County Durham’s official tourism website – thisisdurham.com.