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 (www.foodanddrink2007.co.uk -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 (www.mallory.co.uk) 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 (www.thekenilworth.co.uk), 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 (www.thethaitwig.co.uk), 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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