By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
'Tis harvest time, the traditional season of plenty, and today the time for culinary festivals. With British cuisine no longer a national joke, food tourism is booming.
Foodies, rejoice. This weekend sees a smorgasbord of food festivals, in which the bountiful produce of Yorkshire, south Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland will be celebrated. These are but a taster for British Food Fortnight, which starts the following weekend.
For no longer is British food synonymous with fish, chips and roast dinners (except, of course, for Jacques Chirac, who has complained that only the Finns have worse cuisine).
During the 20th Century, industrialisation began to threaten artisan producers and many abandoned their traditional techniques.
Rick Stein champions local produce
But in the past two decades, there's been a resurgence in demand for quality products made by time-honoured methods. The appetite is growing for regional produce, such as Somerset cider, Caerphilly cheese and Cromer crabs. Food tourism has become big business, worth nearly £4bn a year.
In a recent survey of tourist perceptions of the UK food industry, two-thirds of Britons said that food and drink influenced their holiday choice. The West Country, Wales and Scotland occupied the top three destinations.
Since the Malt Whisky Trail was set up around Scottish distilleries several decades ago, the number of food and drink trails has multiplied. New additions include a wine trail around the South-East, sausage trails in the Midlands and the North-West, and a Lake District afternoon tea trail.
Alexia Robinson, the organiser of British Food Fortnight, says food adds to a visitor's experience of a place. "Taste is one of our senses. We usually experience a place visually, such as on a castle or cathedral tour, so why not add to that through our taste buds?"
Even once-sleepy backwaters such as Bray in Berkshire, Padstow in Cornwall and Shropshire's Ludlow have become gastronomic hotspots thanks to star chefs Heston Blumenthal, Rick Stein and Shaun Hill (who has since closed the Michelin-starred Merchant House, which in 2003 ranked among the world's top 20 eateries).
Chocolate and caviar, by Heston Blumenthal of Bray's Fat Duck
And the latest series of BBC Two's Full on Food - pitched firmly at the growing foodie market - catered for the interest in regional produce by dispatching a chef to find the tastiest local treats, be it ice cream, wild salmon or real ale.
Taste of home
For Alexia Robinson, the variety of local specialities reflects the UK's diverse geography. Many regional dishes have evolved over centuries using ingredients best suited to the conditions and lifestyles of that area.
Cheese varieties are one such example, as is the Cornish pasty, devised to provide a filling lunch for the county's lead miners. And niche habitats such as salt marshes in Wales give lamb from the area a distinctive taste.
NATION OF FOODIES
Britain produces 700 regional cheeses - more than France
It has 600 varieties of apple
And 125 species of fish and shellfish in its waters
For British Food Fortnight, the BBC's Action Network website will detail local projects
What producers and caterers find is that the more local a food seems, the better the sales pitch. Hence detailed menus which name-check the farm which supplies the meat or the allotment where they grow their own asparagus.
For provenance sells, says Ms Robinson. "People want to know where their food comes from. I've even seen a wonderful menu entry for apple and blackberry pie, 'all blackberries picked from our local hedgerows'."
She says that holidaymakers want foods which emphasise the heritage and culture of a place. "If you stay in a Gloucestershire B&B, for example, you'll probably be served sausages made from Gloucester Old Spot pigs. In the north of England, tourists seek out potted shrimps, and apple pie is popular in Kent."
And who, at the seaside, hasn't been lured into an establishment famed for serving the best fish 'n' chips on that stretch of coast?
Nor do we need to travel to track down regional delights.
Delicatessens now stock British goodies as well as the more usual olives and Italian meats. Farmers' markets typically draw crowds, with London's Borough Market recently voted the capital's top tourist attraction. With producers and fine food stockists going online, tasty treats from around the UK can be delivered to your door.
Food as tourist trap
Food also holds a key place in the "think globally, act locally" debate. Some buyers are keen to support local businesses, or protect the environment by avoiding foods which have been transported long distances.
Environmentalists and tourism bosses alike must be heartened that two-thirds of Britons say they would consider holidaying at home, rather than jet off somewhere sunny, because of the food and drink on offer. Bon appetit indeed.