Food festivals: defiantly middle class?

Alexander Larman on why food festivals sometimes leave the faintest, lingering suspicion of a nasty

Wonderful as they are, there is no getting around one central facet of the food festival- they are deeply, unapologetically and defiantly middle class. Something of a recent addition to our nation’s summers (and autumns, and winters, and springs – they’re nothing if not consistent), the food festival is already accumulating its own set of clichés which will surely end up being parodied in the Telegraph’s Social Stereotypes.

The stallholders, who are either over-eagerly selling slightly peculiar cheeses and sausages, the likes of which have never been seen before with good reason, or handing out miniscule morsels of food and drink with ill grace; the patrons, who wander round marquees with expressions of mingled hope and bewilderment; and finally the drunks, who see them as an opportunity to ask for free drink with impunity, and who end up dominating the bar at the back.

After a dreadful recent experience at the London Food Festival (£15 admission, and you would have been better served, as well as better fed, by a visit to Borough Market), recent visits to two, very different festivals were eye-opening.

The Coventry & Warwickshire Food & Drink Festival ( -snappy names are very seldom on the agenda in this business) decided, probably quite rightly, that it’s an artificial and unfair experience to herd all the best food producers and merchants in the region into a room for a couple of days to fight it out.

Much better to make it last a civilised period of time (it’s on until 4th November), encompass a wide range of bars, gastropubs, restaurants and cafes. Eventually, the festival will end in an awards ceremony on 20th November, where local talent and innovation shall be rewarded.

Of the places visited over the weekend – in what we were assured was a typical cross-section of Warwickshire food & drink – there was a mixed standard, but generally good quality was maintained. Mallory Court ( is Warwickshire’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, and is quietly confident of its excellence, but deservedly so.

Housed in a deceptively modern country house (it looks 15th century but dates from the 20th), it specialises in top-quality food and luxurious surroundings at less punitive rates than many of its competitors.

Highlights of a visit include fine venison, excellent, unusual wines (including a Lebanese red and rare Canadian ice wine) and a smashing breakfast. Other excellent venues participating in the festival included The Kenilworth (, a quirky, brilliant cocktail bar with stylishly decorated 15th century rooms, that’s deservedly won countless awards and plans expansion, and Leamington Spa’s Thai Twig (, the very model of what an unpretentious, friendly neighbourhood ethnic restaurant should be.

There were, of course, less salubrious venues participating in the scheme, but a veil shall be drawn over them. (Coventry, it is fair to say, is not the district’s best place for a traditional Sunday lunch). Nevertheless, the festival at least appears to be confident in its identity, which is more than can be said for the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival.

Although taking place in a number of locations across Suffolk towards the end of September, the main set-piece event (the obligatory producers’ fair of fare, if you will) took place in Snape Maltings, much beloved former stomping ground of Britten and Pears. It is tempting to believe that the organisers felt that the Aldeburgh name was a bigger sell, which is perhaps true; nonetheless, given that the two locations, though close, are hardly next door, punters might feel some confusion.

Stylishly sponsored by the brewers Adnams, who seem to have taken their environmental remit to heart – literature distributed at the festival spoke proudly of their new eco-friendly distribution centre, to say nothing of the beer money ploughed into restoring beaches – the usual suspects were all on display.

The varied, well-planned range of special events included the Guardian’s Matthew Fort discussing whether local food could survive supermarkets (which would have worked better had there been any major supermarkets in a 20 mile radius), an account of a Guinness Book Of Records-winning mushroom and some instantly sold-out tastings of Adnams’ sensational cellars.

The queues for the local pork belly focaccias lasted for 20 minutes; the pints (of Adnams, naturally) were sold at bargain prices, a welcome change from the £4-a-shandy horrors of other festivals. It was all terribly good fun.

Suffolk has acquired a reputation – not unwarranted, judging by the clientele – of being home to more visitors than locals. While this may seem slightly harsh, the people who were willing to chat (the organisers’ habit of handing journalists badges emblazoned “Press” ensured a few funny looks, and probably some crossing and spitting as well) all spoke with the happy confidence of those who knew that “a jolly little food festival like this” was being run with them in mind, with their tastes and interests, and that those living in places like Lowestoft and Ipswich – a far cry from the picture-postcard image – would, most likely, have no interest or knowledge of such an event.

It would be unfair to condemn food festivals for not being something that, arguably, they could never be; truly inclusive. But after all the rich fare and fine wine there is sometimes the faintest, lingering suspicion of a nasty taste in the mouth.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.