It would be possible to spend every weekend of the year at a food festival - every city has one and most counties have more than one. Newspapers regularly recommend the best and there’s at least one website dedicated to helping us navigate them - it currently lists 338 - almost one for every day of the year. There’s sausage festivals, oyster festivals and local to me there’s an irregular Herring Festival and even the Peasenhall Pea Festival.
While I’ve overheard many a punter complaining about having to pay to go into a “glorified farmers market”, we still flock to food festivals in our thousands, they’re the new local fete or day at the fair and the civilised festival experience for those who don’t like camping and smelly loos.
But what do we find to do at these festivals? We get stall upon stall of indistinguishable jams and over-the-top cupcakes swamped by people eating their body weight in samples with no intention of parting with any cash. We fight our way through a stampede of buggies only to decide it’s too far back to the car to bother buying any meat and veg and we’ll stop off at Tesco on the way home.
We see the same band of hungover chefs, touted out by their publishers to publicise their latest book, being marched bleary-eyed onto the stage only to burn the onions because, after a night of boozing, it’s as much as they can do to string sentence together, let alone cook at the same time. Even without the help of hangovers the demos can be chaotic with missing ingredients, stoves that don’t work and interruptions from crying kids, snoring grandpas and ringing phones. If you’re really lucky they’re might even be a video screen focussed on a pile of washing up!
Don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of food festivals, particularly the old guard and the innovators. Ludlow, the first in the UK founded in 1995 and Abergavenny, four years later, still have their hearts deeply rooted in celebrating local, seasonal food and drink - a harvest festival for 21st century. There are innovators like Bristol Food Connections which engages the whole city and both entertains and educates. These festivals are run on shoe-string, dependent on funding and hard-working volunteers to make them happen.
But there are too many that have just jumped on the band waggon with high ticket prices, corporate sponsors and an army of street food vendors serving raw burgers, warm beer and over-cooked paella with no local connections and ingredients from the cash and carry.
Meanwhile dedicated farmers and producers get up at crack of dawn come rain or shine, drive hours every weekend, to farmers markets which struggle to keep going because we’re not using them. You’ll find them there every weekend - because we need to eat every day not just on food festival day. You don’t have to buy a ticket, you can park close by and you can buy fantastic meat, veg and bread - quality everyday food, not just for treats.
We need to stop seeing food as entertainment, going to food festivals to scoff all the samples andspot our favourite celebrity chef in the flesh. Neither should it be the one day of the year we choose to shop from local food and drink producers - we should support them all year because they are there for us all year and we need to eat everyday.
Long live food festivals - but longer live farmers markets!
The original version of this article appeared in Delicious Magazine September 2016.