BBC Countryfile Magazine editor Fergus Collins reports from last weekend's Abergavenny Food Festival.
We recently ran a feature in Countryfile Magazine looking for some of Britain’s finest market towns. Living in Monmouthshire, it would have been too easy to put forth my lovely local town, Abergavenny. I wax overly lyrical about it to my long-suffering colleagues so I felt duty bound to look further afield.
But after the food festival in the town this Septemberg, I can stay quiet no longer. It was a two-day party that showed how to bring life – no, not just life, a tangible buzz – to a small rural town that might otherwise be forgotten and dwindle – especially since its livestock market closed earlier this year. This is how to connect people to their food – and to their landscapes.
If you’ve ever been to Borough Market in London, imagine it spilling out into the surrounding streets and then encircle your image with mountains. Oh, and treble the atmosphere. The Festival has been running since 1999 and this year, 31,000 people attended. Being set in stunning countryside just 20 minutes from the M4 and Severn Bridge helps. The Guardian once described is thus: “…to food what Cannes is to film.”
The centerpiece of the festival is the large, airy Market Hall – a feature of every Welsh market town, from Brecon to Welshpool via Newport and Swansea. Each year, local residents create great papier mache sculptures to hang from the ceiling – a different theme each year. Last year was vegetables, this year pigs. So glorious litters of piglets, saddlebacks and old spots dance above you as you sample breads, oils, cakes, salamis, cheeses, wines…
Local chefs demonstrate their skills and food luminaries such as Jay Rayner, Valentine Warner, Tom Jaine and Joanna Blythman dispense wisdom and acerbic asides at talks in the pubs, hotels and gathering places. Outside the market hall, the stalls run riot around the Georgian streets of the town. Live music and street performers add melody to the colour – while even the chain stores and charity shops stirr themselves into food-themed window displays.
Perhaps my favourite area is the ruined castle – turned for two days into an almost medieval pageant of tents offering street food, crafts and, in one area, a place to rant about food (‘Rude Health’). Luckily, this is next to the Blorenge Bar – named after the whaleback of a hill that looms over the town. From here, I can look up to see the white speck on the hillside that is my house – and check I haven’t left the chip pan on.
We were blessed this year with the most glorious warm weather, which meant warm evenings that led to lots of chinwagging, beer drinking and even dancing in the streets in the various parties across the town. For a moment, it felt just a little like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. And for two days the food was even better.
What’s interesting is that the sense of celebration doesn’t die when the festival ends. The market hall is in use almost every day – usually for food but also collectors fairs, crafts and charity events and the town has a discernable swagger. There’s something about this place and I urge you to come to the food fest next year.