HAVING long set out its stall as fierce supporters of local produce, the Co-op is once again honouring its homegrown talent.
East of England Co-op members and customers are being asked to vote local in a bid to single out the best of Essex produce with a host of talent in the running for their annual Producer of the Year Awards in 2017.
Winners will be chosen from each of the three counties covered by the Co-op, who will then go forward to compete for the title.
In Essex, Hannah Marriage of flour producer Marriage’s in Chelmsford, and Michael Coe from Great Tilkey Honey, in Coggeshall, have been shortlisted for the award.
Now in its fifth year, the awards are a celebration of farmers, growers and producers from across Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk and voting is now open.
Votes can be cast online and in East of England Co-op stores on selected dates. 
These votes will then select the three County Champions, who will be visited by a panel of food and farming experts who choose the overall Producer of the Year, announced at the annual Supplier Supper in March. 
Also in the running are Krusty Loaf and Dann’s Farm Ice Cream for Norfolk and Alder Tree and Hillfarm Oils in Suffolk.
Kevin Warden, Local Sourcing and Fresh Food Product Manager for the Co-op, says of the scheme: “These awards provide consumers with an insight into how the local food and drink on our shelves is produced and the opportunity to say thank you to those producers whose products they’ve enjoyed this year. 
“The six shortlisted producers were chosen for their innovation and performance, packaging and promotion, and for demonstrating true co-operative spirit. 
“Each year we create short films so you can hear first-hand from the people behind the products and learn what it takes to create the food and drink it’s often too easy to take for granted.”
The East of England Co-op works with more than 100 local producers through their Sourced Locally initiative. 
Marriage’s has been supplying its award-winning flours to East of England Co-op stores for many years and has been milling for more than two centuries.
Twin brothers William and Henry Marriage founded the business in 1824 aged just seventeen and today it is run by fifth and sixth generations of the Marriage family at the historic Chelmer Mills.
Its Director Hannah Marriage says: “We use the best quality bread wheat to produce our flours. 
Essex is a prime wheat growing area due to its climate and soil, and we’ve been working with many local farming families for generations. 
“We also use our own wheat from our arable farms just a few miles away from the mill.”   
Marriage’s mill a wide range of bread making and culinary flours, organic varieties and speciality flours include stone ground wholemeal flour, traditionally milled on horizontal Victorian French Burr stones.  
It is a highly skilled job which is still done by hand using techniques unchanged since the earliest days of milling. 
To ensure consistent quality for professional and amateur bakers there is an onsite baker testing the flours with regular test bakes and even an on-site laboratory.  
Hannah adds: “We’re always looking to the future and introducing new flours. For the health conscious home bakers, we launched two new flours in the East of England Co-op this year ; Golden Wholegrain Bread Flour and Golden Wholegrain Plain Flour.” 
Marriage’s has already won two 2 star Great Taste Awards and its Golden Wholegrain Plain Flour was shortlisted for a Delicious Magazine Produce Award. 
The other Essex finalist, Great Tilkey Honey in Coggeshall, has been producing clear and set honey for the supermarket chain since 2012 starting with a handful of shops and now supplying stores across Essex and Suffolk.    
Owner Michael Coe explains he is hugely proud of his “small cottage industry” and what it has achieved over the past five years.
“It’s been a long, steep learning curve – as a former carpenter what did I know about bar codes, purchase orders and delivery notes ? 
“What I knew for sure was that I had a premium health food that tasted exquisite, was 100 per cent natural and was foraged from the local countryside of East Anglia – what could be better than that?”
He started with just one hive in his back garden and a converted shed for jarring and now has a well-established business with a bespoke extraction unit, six apiaries across Essex and Suffolk and a strong customer following. 
During the summer months Michael takes his bees to events to help people learn more about the insect and how honey is produced. 
“We are a family business; everyone has a part to play. It truly is a labour of love; very early mornings, late nights and lots of stings! 
“But we wouldn’t change a thing. The journey has been phenomenal and the future looks bright. 
“We are growing the number of bees and continuing to educate the public on the welfare of these amazing creatures. 
“The honey however will remain the same – you can’t improve on nature’s perfection.” 
More than 15,000 votes were cast in 2016, when Colchester-based potato and hand cooked crisp producer Fairfields Farm was crowned Producer of the Year. 
Everyone who casts a vote will automatically be entered into a prize draw to win £100 of shopping vouchers and voting closes on Tuesday January 31. 
To find out more about each of the shortlisted producers, and to cast your vote, visit www.eastofengland.coop/poty2017