SPENDING the first seven to eight years of her life in Nigeria exposed Sue Hitchen to different flavours at an early age.

“My parents had an African cook – as was the way in those days – and he used to cook a lot of African food for us,” explains the founder of the Edinburgh-based Foodies Festival, now the UK's biggest series of food festivals.

“So that really opened up my taste buds to completely different flavours. He used to cook the most amazing coconut desserts. The food was full of spices and a lot of vegetables rather than meat. And when it was meat, it was definitely goat.”

Ms Hitchen, 59, now has four daughters of her own and has always encouraged them to “eat the food of the place.” The family has travelled extensively, including five years living in Spain.

“One of the key missions of the Foodies Festival is to encourage children to try different flavours they may not have tried at home,” she adds. “We have a children’s cookery theatre where we encourage children from the age of four to come in and cook food from around the world.”

When the family returned to Britain from Nigeria – where her father had been heading up a company for consumer goods giant Unilever – both parents started their own businesses.

This inspired Ms Hitchen to take a business studies degree at what is now Westminster University. After some work experience – including three years in Saudi Arabia teaching business studies and maths – she started her own publishing and events company at the age of 28.

“It ran events and magazines for years and years and meantime I had four kids,” she explains. “I was approached to sell the company and decided it was a good time to sell. At the time, we ran a magazine called Build It and the National Self Build Home Show, which I’d run for five years. So I sold the business to Trinity Mirror and we then decided to move abroad with the children. But we became very bored.”

After five years in Spain, the family decided to relocate to Scotland. From their new home in Edinburgh, Ms Hitchen launched the Spain, Living Abroad and Edinburgh Festivals magazines. Being heavily involved in the festivals led to the inspiration for the Foodies Festival.

“I was literally in the shower one day and just thought: There has to be a festival celebrating Scottish food and drink and our wonderful produce,” she recalls. “It has to be something that welcomes children and is a great family day out. Wouldn’t it be great to see top chefs preparing the dishes instead of being hidden away in the kitchen? It doesn’t sound all that innovative now, but 12 years ago there weren’t windows in kitchens and there hadn’t been this huge development of food festivals.”

The first Foodies Festival was in Edinburgh’s Roxburghe Hotel and was a huge success.

“The place was just packed out,” Ms Hitchen says. “We realised we had to expand, so we moved to the Sheraton the following year. We had some outside space there because I realised as well that tasting food in an outside environment is just so splendid compared to being locked inside.”

In year three, the festival moved to Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park and launched down south in Brighton and Hampton Court Palace. Fast forward to 2016, and there are now ten summer festivals and two winter festivals in locations including Bristol, Birmingham and Harrogate. The events attract more than 3.5 million visitors a year and turn over around £2 million.

“It has taken ten years to really feel as if every event is just going to work like clockwork,” she says. “It’s still very weather-dependent and it’s very hard work doing each festival. We do have a core team of contractors who work with us and travel from event to event, which makes it much easier,”

Three of Ms Hitchen’s daughters, Sarah, 28, Lucy, 27 and Zoe, 23, also work full-time in the business, alongside a core team of seven, including four sales people.

“The chefs, traders and exhibitors really like the fact they’re working with a family rather than a faceless corporation,” she says.

Key features include the chefs’ theatre, where chefs including MasterChef and Michelin star winners hold cookery demonstrations, and the cake and bake theatre, which this year will feature some demonstrations from Great British Bake-off winner Nadiya Hussain. There is also a drinks theatre serving up beer, cider and wine.

“We have a vintage tea room run by a family who all get dressed up in vintage costume and have tea dances in between serving – it’s such fun,” Ms Hitchen adds. “We also have a barbecue arena, street food and some really wonderful bar experiences, including a mojito galleon that is towed up from London and a Pimm’s teapot.”

Another growing feature is the unsigned bands stage, run in association with the Unsigned Music Awards, where unsigned bands are encouraged to play their music.

Ms Hitchen’s plans are to continue growing the business – including expansion into Glasgow next year.

“We want to expand in the UK but are also looking to take it abroad,” she says. “We have been approached by destinations who have attended Foodies in this country and see it would work abroad. It’s a question of deciding whether that’s something we should do, and that’s a process we’re running through at the moment.”