Organic burgers and fair-trade coffee: it can only be a literary festival
A weekend at the Hay-on-Wye festival provides ample nourishment for the brain. With the likes of Germaine Greer, Zadie Smith and Antony Beevor figuring in this year's event (running till Sunday 4 June), there is plenty to get the grey cells going. For those who consider physical nourishment to be the equal of cerebral stimulation, however, not everything on offer is quite so tantalising. Hay, like some rock festival, has become a kind of mini-metropolis, erected instantly and then gone within a couple of weeks. A network of marquees springs up over a muddy field a mile or so outside the town; portable loos are put in place; surrounding fields are commandeered for parking. And besides this basic infrastructure, various food stalls and hospitality tents are assembled.
Hay, it has been said, is like London's media world transplanted to the Welsh borders. The food on offer certainly reflects the imagined preferences of your typical middle-class Londonite. Instead of a hot-dog stall, there's an organic burger bar. There are wine and coffee tastings (fair trade, of course). The grub on offer in one marquee wouldn't seem out of place at a posh restaurant: customers help themselves to little ramekins of duck confit, chicken liver pâté and fish mousse, which are accompanied by rounds of olive ciabatta. With these upmarket products come upmarket prices. Main courses cost nine or ten quid. Drinks are pricier than in any pub. Not surprisingly, plenty of visitors decide not to partake of the food. I spot a large number eating packed lunches.
The countryside surrounding Hay-on-Wye is known for the quality of its produce (Hereford beef, Evesham asparagus). Ludlow, west England's gastronomic capital, is just up the road. Couldn't the organisers have done more to reflect this? Perhaps they should devote part of the festival to food: its focus, after all, has already been extended well beyond literature, with rock concerts and film screenings making up a sizeable part of the programme.
After the relatively slim pickings of Hay, I longed for a meal of substance, a bodily counterpart to all that intellectual fuel. And so, aided by the Good Food Guide, I selected a place to stop off on our way back. The Falcon Inn in Poulton (five miles from Cirencester) is a village pub that has turned itself into a restaurant of note. The food is mostly well-executed traditional English fare, with one or two more cheffy touches: pea soup comes drizzled with truffle-infused cream; roast Gloucester Old Spot pork is served with a wild mushroom sauce. We finished our meal with a delectable sticky toffee pudding, which was served with a dollop of Cotswold clotted cream. I arrived back home feeling both physically and mentally replete.