Some may say I am a romantic, but I happen to think that we have much to learn from the Italians and the French who have done far better than us at preserving the intimate connection between their food and drink and the land from which they are produced.

Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot tell you how delighted I am to welcome you here today to Highgrove for the 2005 Taste of the West Food and Drink Awards. I have been Patron of Taste of the West since 1999 and, while I have watched the growing success and significance of the awards with admiration, this is the first time that I have had the pleasure of presenting them.

I have no doubt that you are all eagerly awaiting to find out this year's winners. However, I did just want to say a few words first, although I promise not to delay the suspense unbearably!

When I look around this room full of producers, I cannot but reflect that we are doing more than celebrating good food and drink - what we are celebrating is the unique combination of local traditions, individual craftsmanship, climate and geography which creates this remarkably special produce for which the South West is renowned. What I find fascinating is that in a country as small as ours, there is such a richness of diversity in the produce from region to region. And it is precisely this variety which provides our farmers and producers with so many wonderful opportunities.

Perhaps one of the most reassuring aspects of the changes which are taking place to agricultural support systems is that the more traditional breeds, which are so perfectly adapted to the weather and environmental conditions in this country, should come into their own as more extensive farming is encouraged. How wonderful it would be to see even more South Devon and Red Devon cattle in the fields, as well as increased numbers of our indigenous sheep breeds, such as the Exmoor, the Grey-faced Dartmoor, – incidentally, very good for mutton, I hear! – the Devon Closewool and the Dorset Downs which have immense value and look after themselves. I don't know if you have heard about my attempt to make a mutton renaissance.

But, to achieve this, farmers are going to need all the help available to grasp the new opportunities and find and build a market for their produce. Taste of the West, I know, is working tirelessly to do just this and these Awards are just one way in which they are raising awareness of the quality of the food available from the region and improving the marketing of it.

For what it is worth, I also happen to be a great believer in closer co-operation between farmers and producers so that risk can be spread and expertize exploited. For those among you who wish to sell your produce to the bigger retailers, I am sure that this is the way forward: you provide them with the guarantee of quality and supply which they need, while at the same time finding the necessary strength in numbers to deal with them on equal terms. And, increasingly, the retailers are selling regional produce - indeed Budgens, your main sponsor, is doing a very great deal of this and should be congratulated for it. So the market is growing for those who want it. And that is because consumers are beginning to mind a little bit more about where their food comes from and the traditions and cultures that it represents. Obviously we have a long way to go yet.

As all of you know only too well, the landscape of the South West didn't just happen by chance, it has been created by the hand of the farmer over generations. It is this wisdom and knowledge of the local climate and conditions which is the precious heritage contained in the unbroken continuity of the family farm.

Some may say I am a romantic, but I happen to think that we have much to learn from the Italians and the French who have done far better than us at preserving the intimate connection between their food and drink and the land from which they are produced. Unbelievably, they are seen as “inefficient” peasant farmers - and it is no coincidence that the Slow Food Movement was founded in Italy and has a very special Italian as President. However, it is the “inefficient bits” that make life worth living… We need, for instance, to remember that the traditional ways of doing things may not always be the most “efficient”, but they may produce the finest end product and be in the greatest harmony with Nature. The making of quality cheeses simply cannot be rushed. Good beef must be hung for weeks, not a few days. Good bread needs time to rise… That's what we need - slower food, not faster. We are already seriously out of time with the rhythms of Nature and are beginning to pay for the discord this creates…

So we have to be ever-watchful of the seemingly growing burden of regulation on our small producers, I speak here as Patron of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, who do not operate industrial-scale production plants and who struggle to cope with regulations which are, understandably, designed for the big companies. Above all, we must not let the rush for globalization blind us to our home-grown treasures. And this applies as much to tourism as to food and drink…

That is why I am particularly delighted that Taste of the West works so closely with the local tourism industry - drawing visitors to the region not just for its beauty, but also for the food and drink which the land produces. In 2003, visitors to the region spent £910 million on eating and drinking. It is clear, therefore, that the region‘s food and tourism industries are becoming increasingly interdependent. We can only hope that the effect will be a lasting one, and that when these visitors return home they will go into their supermarket and make a conscious decision to buy produce from the South West, knowing that they are helping to secure the future of the very villages and hamlets whose hospitality they enjoyed on their holiday. One of the reasons that I go back to a bed and breakfast in Cumbria is Herdwick Lamb.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a rich food heritage and there is, therefore, no reason why we cannot learn from the French and Italians whose love of their regional food is ingrained in their national consciousness. Taste of the West is leading the way and I do congratulate all those involved in their endless determination to fly the flag for local food. As you may have seen from the sign at the entrance to this place, I am apparently accused of having dangerously old-fashioned views about just about everything! But, by God, I am proud to be old-fashioned if it means minding about local identity, about food made by hand and about wonderfully dedicated, enthusiastic and skillful people like yourselves…!

Of course, these Awards would not be possible without the help of generous sponsors. There are so many that I cannot mention them all by name, but I would just like to say a special thank you to Budgens who, for the sixth consecutive year, are the main sponsor for this event. As I have said before, Budgens are one of the retailers showing a real determination to market regional food and I was so encouraged to hear of their initiative with Taste of the West to increase the range of local and regional produce available in their West Country stores. They are also pioneering a new distribution system to cut food miles and I do wish them well with this and hope it becomes a model for others to follow.

Finally, the Awards could not manage without the knowledge and experience of the many judges that have painstakingly tasted individual products or visited countless restaurants to identify the finest in the region – although I am sure I can think of worse jobs! But I know Taste of the West is extremely grateful to them, particularly to Rick Stein, and, of course, the stewards. All have given up their time to identify the winners and ensure that the high standards of the awards scheme are maintained.

The theme of Taste of the West is “pride in the region, pride in its food and drink” – I think the time has now come to find out who it is who will be the pride of the West Country in the 2005 Taste of the West Food and Drink Awards…