That is until I spotted the piglets; huddling together in a hay-filled pen just inside the entrance. Then I noticed the floor of the hall was strewn with straw, and there was another pen housing an enormous water buffalo (named Petal) to my right, and behind that a village green-style bandstand surrounded by rustic benches, while at the back of the hall, a sheep-shearing demonstration was in full swing. And very quickly I realised this event - which provides a subsidised platform for hundreds of small producers who can’t normally afford to exhibit at such shows - is actually pretty special.
I could sample and buy juice from the Chegworth Valley, Chiltern Cold Pressed Rape Seed Oil, Elan Valley Mutton from Wales, oysters from Essex and ice cream made in London by an opera singer. Ok, there was the odd slightly incongruous stall; Thorntons confectionary, for example, and Sacla the pesto people, but otherwise it was all about bringing the best of British producers together with the country’s food-lovers.
While the focus of the festival was definitely food growers and producers, restaurants were well represented. As well as the eating opportunities at almost every stall, the Riverford Organic Field Kitchen served up dishes of lamb cooked in milk; chicken, chorizo and chickpea stew; and meatballs, and there were regular chef demos from the likes of Giorgio Locatelli, the man behind Michelin stared Locanda Locatelli; ex-Master Chef winner and owner of the Wahaca Mexican chain, Thomasina Miers; Ollie Rowe of Konstam, the King’s Cross restaurant which attempts to source as many ingredients from within the M25 as possible; and Andrew Parkinson, executive head chef at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in Shoreditch.
On the aforementioned bandstand, various chefs, food writers and producers took to the stage throughout the day to rant and rave about their passions. Christina Baskerville, from the Easy Bean Company, argued that it’s not necessary to be vegetarian to love beans. Festival director Philip Lowery ranted about the pleasures of drinking raw milk. And chef/baker Richard Bertinet – recently interviewed by Fluid - could be seen flinging slices of plastic processed bread at his bemused audience, while raving about his love of ‘real bread’.
Bertinet has close links with Sustain’s Real Bread Campaign, which works to improve the state of bread in Britain, and ran a ballot for best festival loaf from the stalls at this year’s event. Also present from Sustain - the London-based alliance for better food and farming - were the Local Action on Food team, who canvassed visitors about what ‘real food’ meant to them, and plotted local food projects from around the UK on a huge wall map.
Another highlight was the Taste of Freedom Project, a new social and environmental venture which turns unwanted fruit which would otherwise go to waste into fruit desserts, and even makes edible cones out of nothing but fruit to serve it in. Look out for them at a festival near you this summer.
The presence of projects like these reinforces that this festival isn’t just a cynical attempt to cash in on the current foodie fad. As well as offering a great place to spend a day out for lovers of good food, it has some seriously lofty aims, centered around the message that ‘business as usual’ is not an option as far as food production is concerned, because of climate change, population growth, water scarcity and peak oil.
By suggesting an alternative to industrialised agriculture, food manufacture and distribution, the festival organisers hope visitors will take home, not only some delicious things to eat, but also the knowledge and means to tap into an alternative system of more localised food production.
And for anyone who missed the festival but fancies tasting a bit of real food, from July the festival will be holding a market on the South Bank. The market will take place on the first weekend of each month, and 40 selected festival producers will be showcasing their wares.
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