Mid September and a buzz returns to the small market town of Abergavenny as the Food Festival descends for one special weekend. The sun seems to ascend at the same time – in the six years I’ve been going, the weather never fails to be perfect.
Three Brecon Beacon peaks – Skirrid Fawr, Sugar Loaf and Blorenge – embrace the town with rusty caps of bracken and heather glowing red-brown in the slanting sunshine – a reminder that raw, wild landscapes are within just 15 minutes’ walk of the handsome Georgian/Victorian streets of the town’s centre.
As a local of five years’ standing, I love the festival. But when I popped to the plumbers early on the Saturday morning (17 September) just as the festival was about to start, I heard some grumbles. One woman was complaining about the traffic and disruption, another about the price of the tickets (roughly £10 for a day); the plumber himself claimed that no local businesses benefit.
I strongly disagree with the latter point – the Food Festival puts Abergavenny on the map, draws in thousands of visitors who spend in the local cafes, pubs, hotels and garages. They also often return to holiday in the area, being seduced by the beautiful hills. There are many small Welsh towns in beautiful surroundings that have slipped off the map – and it’s a salutary lesson to see what becomes of them when visitors and the money they generate dry up.
And without making this article a defense of the organisers, the festival costs between £400K and £450K to put on. It’s a not-for-profit event but the money has to come from somewhere to cover costs. That said, there is a lot of poverty in Abergavenny – hidden away from the handsome high streets, funky coffee shops and boutiques – and even £10 might be too much for many local people. I’ve heard some people talk about posh food for middle class people.
But that’s not actually the case. It’s a chance to sample great tasting food largely sourced in Wales in a wonderful, friendly atmosphere. And most stallholders generously give you a free taster of their wares. This can be dangerous in the gin tent. I sampled local cheeses, cured meats, sourdough loaves, crab from Pembrokeshire and chocolates crafted in the Black Mountains.
The festival is focused around half a dozen key sites, where you need your access all areas wristband to enter. At the heart is Abergavenny’s fabulous airy market hall, where each year volunteers create wonderful decorations of livestock or vegetables. This year the theme was owls – linking production of food with the impact on farmland wildlife.
There are also expert chefs, food writers and historians giving talks and demonstrations, including Cyrus Todiwaler and Monica Galetti. Apparently even Stephen Hawking was spotted among the 240 food stalls. I didn’t see him.
The festival spills from the hall into the surrounding carpark and there are further hotspots to explore around St Mary’s Church, the Castle and Lion’s Yard. The Castle is my favourite the place to have lunch – accompanied by musicians or listening to a food-oriented debate – I sat near a panel discussing why fat is better for you than sugar. It didn’t put me off the chocolate brownie I’d just bought.
But the whole town centre is taken over by the festival spirit and beyond the areas that you pay for entry, there are streets of stalls and entertainers that are completely free to explore. Local shops offer their own specialities and pubs and hotels provide mini bases for cookery schools and demonstrations.
I recommend arriving early as everything sparkles in the cool morning light – the stallholders are equally fresh and bright-eyed and you beat the crowds that by lunchtime are thronging the whole town. This year, 30,000 people visited on the Saturday – the busiest day in the festival’s 17-year history.
Long may it last and long may it put my local town on the map.