Over the last decade or so it is hard to deny that there has been a bit of a revolution in the way we approach food in this country. For years we, and others, thought our food was dreadful, we were the poor relation culinary wise, not just in Europe but in the world. Our food industry had, and still does, to some extent suffer from the intensification of agriculture needed during the Second World War. Small scale producers found it increasingly difficult to compete with large companies and then the supermarkets came along and food became about convenience. People no longer wanted to spend time making food, ready meals and microwaves were the way forward. I can remember watching Tomorrow’s World and there being a story about us only needing to swallow a pill in the future and we would get all our nutritional needs that way. *shudders*
But things have changed, nowhere near enough, I’ll admit, but we are no longer seen as a culinary desert. We are learning to celebrate our food and nowhere is this most evident than at the Abergavenny Food Festival. Held on the second weekend in September, people from all over flock to the small market town on the edge of the Brecon Beacon National Park. September and October have traditionally been the months of harvest festivals and ever since man started to grow their own food I imagine that early autumn was seen as a time of abundance, a time to be thankful for the crop that year. Over the last decade or so food festivals, like the one at Abergavenny, have sprung up all over the country and are, I think, a modern day version of the harvest festival.
Abergavenny is only a short drive from my home and I can’t quite believe my luck that we have such a great event on our doorstep. Food producers from the local area and beyond set up stalls in the town centre and the market hall selling their wares. There are plenty of opportunities to taste and stock up the fridge and larder for autumn and winter.
At various venues there are talks from chefs and food producers giving an insight into subjects as varied as the wonders of garlic and foraging to urban growing and setting up a rural skills centre.
There is a great buzz to the town, so with cool bags at the ready we set about the ever so slightly daunting task of navigating ourselves around so much tasty food.
There can’t be many occasions when you have sampled pumpernickel bread, a variety of goats cheeses, rose petal syrup, roasted seeds, crayfish tails, raw chocolate, lavender jelly and a shot of Herefordshire gin all before 11am and all this was topped off with smoked salmon and bubble and squeak for lunch. It’s certainly a test of your digestive system and reading the list now, makes me feel slightly queasy. Where’s that mint tea?
It shows how far we’ve come though, as a country, in regards to food. There was a whole range of food I hadn’t eaten until I went to university. I can’t imagine cooking now without ingredients such as aubergines, peppers, hummus and pesto but these were foods I’d never come across until I was in my twenties; they were the staples of health food shops rather than supermarkets, seen only as foods for hippies but now they are ubiquitous. The wealth of produce on offer now however, is quite incredible, from smoked garlic and goats meat to wild boar and pickled unripe blackberries. We’ve rediscovered classic British recipes but by using the best ingredients it has meant they can rival any other cuisine. We’ve also started to produce our own versions of classic foods from around the world such as our own charcuterie, mozzarella and parmesan.
My favourite stalls were the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm, along with the colourful chillies from Sea Spring Seeds. Jekka McVicar’s herb stall is always a treasure trove of the most essential herbs for cooking and something a little bit different, such as ginger mint. Probably the best discovery though, was the Forage Fine Foods stand. The brainchild of Liz Knight, there were all sorts of concoctions made from wild, foraged foods such as the elderberry viniagrette or from locally grown produce such as the herb garden rub which could be used on meat. My favourite had to be the rose petal preserve. I’ve always been a bit wary of floral scented food products, I think I was scarred as a child by being given parma violets. As a result, I thought everything with flowers in it would taste like old fashioned soap but this rose petal preserve was so delicious. The taste of a British garden in June. I know that sounds a little strange but believe me it was lovely and would be delicious on ice cream, pancakes, sponge cakes, even porridge.
Events like this are a great way of trying different foods and ingredients without having to buy lots of jars only to find you’re not that keen on something. Here you can try until you can take no more and then, when you find those products that tickle your taste buds, you can make your purchase safe in the knowledge it won’t sit at the back of your cupboard unused for years.
Abergavenny may be over for this year but over the next couple of months there will be foodie festivals the length and breadth of the country. Hopefully I might get to squeeze in a few more but for now I’ve got to go and find some recipes for goats meat!