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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times