Only connect! … Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.
E M Forster, Howard’s End
It might seem a little odd but I recently gave up one of my weekends, one of the hottest of the year, to be at a conference in London. In the run up, when friends asked me what I was doing at the weekend, their sympathies were all too obvious as they pictured me in a stuffy lecture theatre, forcing myself to concentrate on one dull lecture after another and missing out on all the sunshine and fun. But they couldn’t have been more wrong. I really could not have been more in my element. Thinking about, talking about, looking at pictures of, tweeting about, photographing and, most importantly, eating food. I was like a pig in the proverbial.
Food Blogger Connect took place at Battersea Arts Centre in London at the start of July. It’s a major annual and truly global event, attracting food bloggers from all around the world. I hadn’t actually heard of it until back in the autumn when the lovely Louisa from Chez Foti mentioned it on Twitter and then suggested we attend as ‘buddies’ to take advantage of the two-for-one delegate offer. And I am indebted to her for doing so.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Food Blogger Connect, but whatever expectations I might have had, they were certainly exceeded. There was something extremely exciting and inspiring surrounded by more than 150 other food bloggers, writers, photographers and food professionals, all there because we share the same passion – food. So many of my friends and family can’t get their heads round why I spend so much of my spare time writing this food blog, which in all likelihood is never going to make me much (if any) money, but at Food Blogger Connect I didn’t need to explain my motives to everyone. People just understood and took great pleasure in sharing ideas, recipes, experiences and advice.
There was an impressive line up of speakers on offer to fill us with the confidence, as well as the tips, tools and a few industry secrets to take our blogs to the next level. Sadly I had to miss the Friday as I was at the wedding of some good friends in Bristol; of course there was no way I was going to miss a wedding, and it was a truly beautiful affair. But I was a little disappointed to miss hearing from food blogging supremos David Lebovitz and Niamh Shields on that first day. Plus I’ve heard tell of some incredible cheeses from La Fromagerie, including a to-die-for cheese from France layered with truffle. I hope my friends Jake and Kat realise the sacrifice I made for them…
But I did get to hear from many fantastic speakers, who have given me a whole stack of ideas I look forward to incorporating into Bangers & Mash in the coming weeks and months. I will only mention a few here as I don’t want this post to turn into a lecture itself on food blogging and so many other bloggers have already shared their learning much better than I can. If you’re after a few tips, check out Fiona Beckett’s Matching Food & Wine blog, where in the course of three separate posts she brilliantly summarises much of what was shared during the three days. Sally from My Custard Pie has also written an excellent post on Food Blogger Connect. And here’s another excellent top tips post from Laura at How to Cook Good Food. I am in awe at how well they all have captured the essence of the conference in their posts. I’m still mulling and processing…
Branding was a particular area of interest for me. As a PR consultant, I totally get the need for a strong brand in order to stand out from the ever-expanding crowd that is the food blogging community. I have a lot of work to do with Bangers & Mash to create the brand I want it to be, much of which won’t be possible until I take the leap and so self-hosted. But I have lots of ideas whirring away up there, so watch this space. Some of them may come to fruition at some point in the not-so-distant future.
Regine Wilber of Essence Design took us on a practical tour of what makes a distinctive brand, emphasising the fact that a brand is so much more than a logo and must permeate every element of what you do.
While I might have found the über confident Regula Ysewjin of Miss Foodwise fame a little awe-inspiring initially, I thoroughly enjoyed her very different talk on branding. She is a physical embodiment of her brand, or rather her brand is a graphical embodiment of her persona. Ultimately, she argues, it all comes down to the simple question ‘Why do you blog?’ – answer that and you’re practically there in determining your brand.
And it was a real delight to hear from Kerstin Rodgers aka Ms Marmite Lover, the originator of the Supper Club, who managed so beautifully to cut through all the formulaic advice on how to monetize your blog by sharing her personal story of making a living from her blog by staying true to her passion and instincts and never selling her soul to the corporate devil.
Kerstin was followed on ‘stage’ by Denise Baker-McClearn of Moel Faban Suppers talking about her experience of setting up her own take on a supper club up a mountain in North Wales. I’d always assumed living in a small village out in the sticks in Somerset that a supper club could never work here, but who knows? Surely if you can run them up a mountain, you can run them anywhere. But then again, not everyone has the sheer passion and commitment that Denise has. Anyone who can tell that good a story when the presentation equipment throws a wobbly is a bit of a star in my book.
But don’t worry, the weekend was all about sitting in a large dark room being talked at. There were plenty of breaks to chat to others and, of course, eat and drink. As well as morning and afternoon breaks, there was a two-hour lunchtime strEAT party, with another strEAT party at the end of the day, featuring a whole host of food stalls and pop up kitchens tempting us with their wares.
The event was admittedly pretty ‘brand heavy’ but that isn’t really a criticism. Many of the brands I hadn’t come across before and it was such good fun and a delicious treat to sample their goodies. Eddie’s Chilli Jam was one of my favourite finds – as you probably know I’m a bit of a chilli fiend – and it was such a pleasure to meet its founder, Mo Ellis, who developed the product to capture her West Indian father Eddie’s love of hot chilli peppers. It is her father’s face that appears on every jar. What a fantastic tribute to pay to your dad.
I was also rather taken with the Peppermongers‘ offerings, especially their Indonesian Long Pepper. It’s fantastic with sweet, ripe strawberries and as an unusual flavouring for ice cream. I want the recipe. Now.
Chobani had a massive presence at Food Blogger Connect. I’d never come across their strained yoghurt before but I fell for it hook, line and sinker. They say it’s 100% fat free, but I don’t believe them. It tastes far too good. Pots and pots of it were available at every break and for days afterwards I found myself pining for it during my tea breaks at work. I’ve heard it’s available in Tesco so I might be paying the store a visit very soon.
Brunch on Sunday was also sponsored by Chobani, where we saw the yoghurt featured in pizza muffins and scrambled eggs (decadently served with smoked salmon), as well as with plenty of fruit and granola.
Other delicious new products I came across during the weekend and will be keeping an eye out for include the amazingly refreshing Jax Coco coconut water, heavenly Moose Maple Butter (spread it on hot toast and I challenge you not to make noises you’d normally only hear in the bedroom), Joe & Seph’s surprising popcorn flavours (I was taken aback to find I actually rather liked their Cheddar & Paprika version, but wasn’t so impressed by the Gin & Tonic variety) and Luchito’s addictive range of products made with smoked Mexican chillies – yum!
I heard from some who’d been to previous Food Blogger Connects that the amount of food on offer during the numerous strEAT parties wasn’t as much as in previous years. But for one who’s never been before, I wasn’t complaining, although I was glad not to be vegetarian as meat, and particularly barbecued meat, featured heavily.
The curry served up by Lovedesh Curry cooked over a wood fire was ever so good. Shame the portion size was so small but I guess there were a lot of people to cater for. And I loved the way Yasmin’s young daughter was on hand to demonstrate her skill in crushing the spices.
The artisan cakes from Petit Gateau were every bit as good as they looked and I somehow found myself beside their stall for quite some time. Regrettably I didn’t manage to get a photo of their pretty macarons – my focus was clearly on eating them rather than photographing them.
Thai food is one of my favourite cuisines and I could have eaten the deliciously hot and spicy Thai street food on offer from Pig a Chic all weekend long. As you can see from the queue they were rather popular. If you happen to be in North London at the end of the month, you can catch Pig a Chic at the Islington Summer Fayre from 26 to 28 July.
Bethany Kehdy is the impossibly beautiful, young and talented force behind Food Blogger Connect and founder of Taste Lebanon. Somehow she has also managed to find time to publish her stunning cookery book The Jewelled Kitchen Souk, officially launched at Saturday night’s strEAT party. Of course I had to buy a signed copy to add to my ever-expanding collection – just don’t tell the other half! Bethany cooked a selection of sumptuous dishes from her cookbook for the party and I can’t wait to try my hand at her incredible Venison & Sour Cherry Nests – see bottom left below.
And finally a few more mentions must go to the Funky Chicken Van - don’t you just love their van?, Vegan Tart, creators of a mind-boggling array of tarts and cakes you’d never guess were free-from gluten, nuts, dairy and eggs, and last but not least African Volcano, whose spicy peri peri sauce I simply couldn’t get enough of, especially when served up with pulled pork in a bun. Oh dear – I’m drooling on the keyboard…
At the final party, the winners were announced for the various giveaways that had been running all weekend. Like the airhead I am, I completely missed the giveaways but was so chuffed for Louisa when her name was read out as the winner of the Kitchen Nomad recipe box, full of lots of Greek delights. I didn’t feel too jealous as I was sent a box recently and spent last weekend cooking up lots of amazing Greek dishes. Watch this space for the review and recipes. But I did feel slightly jealous when another blogger won a trip to Canada. How on earth did I miss that one?
So what was the best thing about Food Blogger Connect? My daughters would say the goodie bag I brought home…
It certainly was rather impressively full and we’re still working our way through the contents almost a fortnight later. A tin of vegetable soup was a rather incongruous inclusion though…
But as so may delegates have already said before me, the best thing about Food Bloggers Connect was meeting other bloggers. As the name says, it’s all about connecting. I’d been chatting to many of these people across the ether over the last year or so and it was dead exciting to meet them in the flesh and discover they were absolutely every bit as interesting, inspiring and downright lovely as they’d come across online.
While I spent much of the time feeling like a rabbit in the headlights and fighting in my head with my silly shy self, I did manage to ‘connect’, and a glass or two of wine in the evenings certainly helped. In particular it was fantastic to finally meet Lou from Chez Foti and Karen from Lavender & Lovage, who were two of the first bloggers I started following and whom I’ve always found so supportive.
What rounded the whole weekend off perfectly was going for drinks at a new Italian restaurant in Battersea called The Lavender – very fitting for Karen of course. It was pure serendipity. As we turned up on the doorstep they weren’t yet open, but when they heard we were in need of refreshment, they asked us to wait 10 minutes before warmly welcoming us in. It turned out it was their opening night and couldn’t believe their luck when they discovered we were a group of thirsty/hungry food bloggers! They looked after us wonderfully, serving up beautiful platters of antipasti and delicious glasses of some sparkling orange concoction I’ve completely forgotten the name of. It looked a little like Tizer but tasted much more grown up. If you’re in the Lavender Hill area in Battersea, please do check them out.
And do also check out the blogs and latest recipes of some of the wonderful bloggers I met that weekend…