Saira Hamilton on the ingredients for a tasty food festival
As I write, I am mentally preparing myself for another appearance at a food festival. I will be sampling the delights of Letchworth Garden City and cooking a few dishes from my cookbook, My Bangladesh Kitchen, on stage.
I have been to so many food festivals in the last few years. Whereas there used to be just a few big set-piece events, held two or three times a year, now there are hundreds all over the country, from small town-centre events with a few stalls selling produce, to massive affairs with full on-stage kitchens and huge marquees which take over a field or even the gardens of a stately home.
What can you expect from your typical food festival? Well, if it’s not too obvious a point to make... food! At Brighton Foodies on the first May bank holiday, there was an embarrassment of riches. You can pretty much find dishes from all over the world, and it's a great way to discover new flavours and cuisines. I spotted stalls from as far afield as Guatemala, Burma, South Africa, Greece and dozens of countries in between.
My favourites at Foodies are the souvlaki stall, for which the queues are often the longest. There is also the potato-on-a-stick stall (much better than it sounds), the mac ‘n’ cheese stall, the crispy duck truck, the Belgian fries van, the ubiquitous churros (which are usually my breakfast – no chocolate, just cinnamon sugar for me), the Flaming Rooster (wings, ribs and pork belly) and finished up with a banana and nutella crêpe.
You will often find German sausages with a mind-boggling array of toppings, always Thai food, always Indian street food, usually paella and Caribbean jerk chicken... and I would eat my hat if there wasn’t some kind of gourmet burger van. One of my favourite ever finds was a raclette stall which was melted with a massive blowtorch and then scooped over freshly-cooked chips (drool).
It’s a great place for chefs and food producers to try out new products. If they have the biggest queue at the food festival, it’s likely they could work in a fixed restaurant premises, and it is often a route to market for some of the best-known high-street brands.
The other thing you will find will be drink – and not just alcohol, although there will be plenty of that. There is likely to be kombucha (the popular fermented tea drink from Japan), bubble tea (fruit or milk teas with tapioca pearls), milkshakes and any number of coffee and frappe stands. But the alcoholic choices can be spectacular and often come with amazing freebies.
You can try the pirate ship with rum-based cocktails with bar staff dressed as pirates, the limoncello stand which gave out amazing bright yellow hats that saved everyone from sunburn one year, the Mateus rosé stand with the free pink sunglasses and let’s not forget the giant Pimm's teapot.
That really is the joy of a great food festival, the absurd and the kitsch comes to town, and you can enjoy them without fear or embarrassment of being judged.
It really is liberating and a great way of connecting with complete strangers, who amazingly become so much friendlier when they have alcohol and a free hat!
You also get to try new things; don’t hesitate to try any of the numerous tasters of food and drink that will be on offer. Last weekend I got to try a Dominican rum and coconut liqueur, sort of a tropical Bailey’s alternative. It was called Sisserou and it was made by a lady to her grandmother’s original recipe. One taste and I was hooked, and I walked away with a bottle to share backstage with my chef buddies.
There will also be any number of kitchen-related things and you will almost certainly go home with a new knife sharpener, garlic grater or a hand-thrown vinegar shaker that you almost certainly didn’t need. But why not? The whole idea of these events is to celebrate food, cooking and local producers.
Finally, you have the demonstrations. Big or small, a food festival is likely to have a few local chefs preparing some of their signature dishes or a seasonal concoction for your viewing pleasure. This is the part I usually play, and I love the chance to meet other chefs and sample dishes from restaurants that I don’t otherwise have time to visit.
It is wonderful for the audiences too – a chance to see some of their favourite chefs in person, to hear the stories and anecdotes. More importantly, it's so much better to see a recipe being cooked in front of you than merely read from a book. It means you can share in all the little hints and tips that can make all the difference between a facsimile and the real thing.
Some of the best food festivals are in our local area in the coming months. Come rain or shine this summer, these would definitely be worth checking out...
June 19-23 – Taste of London, Regent’s Park
June 28-30 – Foodies Festival, Cambridge
July 21-22 – Great British Food Festival, Knebworth House
August 25-27 – Benington Chilli Festival, Benington Lordship, near Stevenage
September 13-15 – Pub in the Park, St Albans
September 15-16 – Eat Your Hert Out, Hertford
September 28-29 – Essex Autumn Food, Home and Craft Fair, Cressing Temple Barns
October 12-14 – Hertford Food & Drink Festival