It was enormous. Over 600 vendors and five halls at the NEC, all opened up together. For Torontonians who've been to the One-of-a-Kind Show, the space was at least three or four times larger, if not as dense. I'm bad at guessing with such large numbers, but there were probably 8-10,000 people in attendance. It ran for five days, and Saturday had already sold out several days before the event began. Had I only booked sooner, I likely could have snagged a spot at a live celebrity chef event (free), but I didn't. Entry was UKP 15, which didn't get me quite as much as I was hoping. Since this is Britain, they charged extra for the only slightly useful program, and a tasting wine glass (with or without handy cord to keep it upright around one's neck) was also extra. Still, neither was necessary as general maps were provided sparingly throughout the hall, and plastic glasses were also available at all tasting stands. The program included all the recipes demonstrated in the celebrity chef events, plus a map which showed where each and every one of the 600+ vendors stalls' were. The general map didn't show stalls - it was good general.
I checked my luggage and coat and, burdened only with empty backpack and mostly useless program, set out to orient myself in the vast hall. At one end was all of the alcohol; at the very far opposite end were sponsored groups of independent food producers - "Henrietta Green's Food Lover's Fair"; "Rick Stein's Food Heros"; "Welsh Food". In the middle, the majority of the show, was an indiscriminate mix of cleaning products, dining room table salesfolk, knife producers, big name supermarket vendors, and indepdendant fooderies. It was unexpectedly incoherent, and although each stall had a label (i.e. S27), neither letters nor numbers indicated aisle, only general sequence. There were a fair number of stalls selling products which only a bit of creativity could justify as being food-related. Credit cards? (To help buy that dream kitchen.) Leather chamois? (To polish that stainless steel countertop.) Sofas? (For the t.v. dinner crowd.) Non-food paintings? (To decorate the walls of one's eating place, perhaps.)
I now understand why many people take at least two days to go around the show. I only made it through in one day because I skipped most of the alcohol, nearly all of the non-edible products (of which there were many; I could have bought a full kitchen), most of the meat and refridgerated products, all of the Italian food vendors, and all of Henrietta Green's Food Lover's Fair, because I'd attended an installment of it at Covent Garden the other week. Even then, without a celebrity chef event, but with a half-hour tasting session, my day was full. After an initial bit of aimlessness, structured around being available to queue for buying a ticket for the tasting session, I pretty much worked down the rows in sequential order.
Most booths selling food offered tasting samples. Some offered coupons as well. I was surprised by quite how many major supermarket brands were promoting their brands with samples at the show: Baxter's, Warburton's, Fox's - ornamented with a juggler and stilt-walker. Overheard gossip told me that usually many of the big supermarkets have dedicated booths too; this year, only Somerfield did.
Although I nibbled my way through the day, by early afternoon, I needed something small-but-substantial in me, so I had a little venison pie, one of the dullest things I ate all day, I'm sorry to say. But my accidental three-course meal made up for that. But this post is plenty long enough already. I'll tell you about the meal tomorrow.