This article was originally published on Santé Bon Viveur.
And he’s not wrong. Since it started nearly 20 years ago, Abergavenny Food Festival has grown into a hugely important cutting-edge movement, successful in transforming the way people think about food and where it comes from.
Foodies come from far and wide to hear, and mingle with, chefs, food businesses, journalists, farmers and food producers. All are there to enjoy, celebrate, revel in, and learn about food.
1. Abergavenny & the Food Festival
2. Market Food Stalls
– including coffee, chocolate, cheese, gin, wine and curry!
3. Street Food
– burgers and so much more!
– Jay Rayner, Tom Kerridge, & Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
5. Master Classes
– innovations in chocolate
6. Abergavenny Christmas Food & Drink Fair: Sunday 10 December 2017
7. Links to Visitor Information
1. Abergavenny & the Food Festival
Abergavenny is a beautiful market town dating from ancient Roman times on the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park, in the county of Monmouthshire, in Wales, UK.
Two local farmers started Abergavenny Food Festival in 1999, responding to reduced consumer confidence in British produce as a result of the BSE crisis. The Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001 furthered the need to showcase great British produce, and so AFF grew.
Some 30,000 people now attend AFF in September, and about 5,000 attend the smaller, one-day, Christmas Market. And AFF generates around £4 million for the local economy. AFF say that, as a not for profit organisation, they put back what they can into the local community e.g. by employing local young people.
Demonstrating its commitment to the local economy and to sustainable food production, AFF 2017 sponsors included local and foodie businesses like Williams Chase Distillery, 20 or so miles away in Herefordshire, England (I am a big fan of their gin and their marmalade vodka!) and Riverford Organic Farmers. Triodos Ethical Bank, which lends money to food and other businesses for positive social environmental and cultural change, were also a sponsor.
One of my favourite things about AFF – apart from all the gorgeous food obviously – is that it’s spread right across the (small) historic market town, rather than being in a field like so many other festivals. So you get a great mix of the ‘market’ of the festival, while also being able to enjoy the food, drinking, retail and cultural opportunities of the town itself while you’re at it.
You’d expect a good food festival to have top quality street food and produce stalls to wander around, and of course AFF does in abundance. But other ways to spend your time include product tastings, kids’ activities, masterclasses, hands-on cookery lessons, topical talk and debates, and a party at the medieval castle on Saturday night. Combined, these activities are intended to provide the latest information on food issues, offer new ideas about the future of food, and showcase rising stars in the food industry.
There was so much to do at AFF that, even being there for the whole festival as I was, I couldn’t manage even half of what I would have liked to have done. What a complete feast for all the senses it was, and I can’t wait to go back in 2018. In the meantime, what follows is just a snapshot of all my favourite bits of AFF 2017 as I experienced it.
2. Market Food Stalls
It was both relaxing and exciting to wander round AFF’s dozens of stalls selling street food and produce to take home. Three streets and two squares were closed for stalls, and inside space included Abergavenny’s wonderful Victorian Market Hall.
AFF select traders carefully to offer visitors a wide range of the highest quality, (mostly) local and regional artisan food. That obviously means much Welsh produce, although also produce from the Shropshire/Herefordshire Marches, and counties in the South West of England, plus some artisan produce of absolute top quality or unique interest from elsewhere in the UK and abroad.
Here’s a sample of some of my favourite producer stalls that I visited – reflecting my particular penchants for coffee, curry, chocolate, cheese, gin and wine!
I was full of inspiration and admiration after talking to the owner of Mayhawk Chocolate, based in Lydney, around 30 miles from Abergavenny over the English border. He runs a proper boutique cottage industry – roasting and grinding the single origin cacao beans, after deciding the right roasting profile; coming up with flavour combinations for different bars and making many of the flavourings; and even using his own photography for all the different funky chocolate bar outer wrappers.
Left to rest for around 12 weeks, following taste-testing, all the tempering, pouring into moulds and wrapping are done by hand. The obvious care and attention to detail that goes into this chocolate, where each bar takes months to make, is evident in the sampling – it is stunningly good.
This is proper chocolate as it should be with just cacao, sugar and natural flavourings. All dark bars are vegan and without soya lecithin. Properly savour small amounts of this instead of eating larger quantities of the cheap stuff please.
I’ve got a big thing about high cacao chocolate, so my absolute favourite of the bars I tried – which also happens to be Mayhawk’s signature chocolate – was the Midnight Blend 79% plain dark. It’s made over three days from an in-house-designed blend of cacao beans of different origins and different types of unrefined cane sugars, and then rested over 7 months.
I adore good quality coffee, but I don’t usually like it in chocolate. So I was surprised to find that I also really liked Mayhawk’s 70% Dark Blue Mountain Coffee Chocolate Bar, made with single-estate cacao from Trinidad, stone-ground with coffee beans from the Jamaican Blue Mountain, and an unrefined cane sugar with a deep molasses taste. The chocolate bars are rested for three months and really do have notes of a good quality cup of espresso.
Other flavours to look out for include London Gin – a 70% dark bar containing no actual gin, but Venezualan single-origin cacao blended with 11 natural botanicals similar to those used in a dry London Gin, with the flavour notes being led by juniper. This bar’s alternative name is 11B7M (11 Botanicals 7 Months) because it is rested for 7 months to allow the taste of the botanicals to mellow, just as a barrel-aged gin would.
Also gorgeous was the 70% dark maple bar made with single-estate Trinidadian beans, sweetened with maple sugar house-made from top grade maple syrup from sustainable Canadian forests.
Hundred House Coffee
Among all the many other coffee sellers vying for my attention, Hundred House grabbed it because of the unusual beer pump apparatus on the counter promising Nitro coffee. Nitro is cold brew coffee that has been infused with nitrogen, leaving a drink that is sweeter, and with a much creamier mouthfeel, than normal coffee. I was offered cherry with it, but declined as I like my coffee neat and black. It was gorgeous, refreshing, silky and mellow.
Hundred House set out to source superior coffee from small holdings around the world, but principally in Central America and East Africa. Coffees are responsibly sourced through speciality ‘green’ suppliers that pay fair prices to farmers. Hundred House develop a uniquely calibrated roast profile at their roastery in the Welsh Borders to complement the beans’ unique qualities of taste and fragrance.
The company is run by Anabelle de Gersigny and Head Roaster Matt Wade. Matt has been in the coffee industry for 20 years, having started as a barista at a number of different coffee houses and roasters in New Zealand, since when he has bought his expertise back to England and has been a luminary in the coffee roasting world, including representing the UK on the international coffee stage.
Hundred House sell their coffee online and it’s possible to buy by regular subscription.
Reflecting the current national and international zeitgeist, there were shed loads of craft gin distillers at AFF 2017, and I bought a selection of small bottles and miniatures so I could sample a range, rather than put all my eggs in one bottle, as it were.
Having said that, I’m already very familiar with the range of Williams gins and vodkas – some being made from potato vodka, and others from apple vodka. Williams Chase’s vodka and gin distillery is 20 or so miles away in Herefordshire, and since they were an AFF sponsor and so had several stalls, I took the opportunity to pick up a full bottle to stash away for Christmas.
AFF 2017 had a whole market area dedicated to cheese and wine, and I spent a couple of happy hours getting just as squeakily excited about all the cheese as we are led to believe a mouse would.
The cheese stall I got most excited about was the Blaenafon Cheddar Company. Blaenafon, where this specialist cheese company hand-makes all its cheese in its shop, translates as ‘where the river flows in the upper reaches of the valley’, and is a World Heritage site in South Wales.
I had a great chat with co-owner Susan Fiander-Woodhouse who told me that their Pwll Mawr cheddar is matured 300ft below ground in the shaft of Big Pit coal mining museum (which, incidentally, is part of the Welsh National Museums, with free entry 7 days a week).
Blaenafon Cheddar make numerous other flavours, of which two really waved at me because of my love of spicy things – Anadl y Ddraig (Dragon’s breath) with hot chilli, tempered by the sweet creaminess of Brains S.A. Welsh ale – and a new cheese in the range – Punjabi Aubergine Firecracker Pickle. And if you’ve been paying attention then you’ll know that I had to have that one because I believe that aubergine is nature’s most perfect vegetable!
The company prides itself on the work it does for international tourism for Wales, and has won awards both for that and their cheese. The cheeses can be bought online, and the coloured wax in which the individual cheeses are dipped gives them a long natural fridge life of 5 months.
Mr Todiwala and Café Spice Namasté
For years I used to live in Battersea in London, just a few doors down on Lavender Hill from the old branch of the Indian restaurant Café Spice Namaste. I adored its fabulous and innovative food, which tasted like the complete treat it was. The mix of traditional Indian and French culinary techniques used means the food is really quite different from what’s served in run-of-the-mill high street curry houses.
The Café Spice Namasté restaurant in the City of London has held a Michelin BIB Gourmand for 18 years. The owner and Chef Patron, Cyrus Todiwala, has been showered with awards, including an OBE, BBC Food Personality of the Year 2014, and awards for sustainability and environmentalism.
But with the Battersea branch long gone, and me now living outside London, Café Spice Namasté had completely fallen off my radar. So I was surprised and delighted to discover this blast from my past serving street food at AFF. And since I was last acquainted with them, they’ve also branched out into the company Mr Todiwala’s, selling high quality spices used in the restaurants, and unusual chutneys and spice mixes.
While sampling the goods, like most British shoppers I was initially surprised to find that Mr Todiwala’s Wild Boar Vinadaloo Pickle actually had pig in it. But then I thought this through a bit further, with the patient help of his son running the stall at AFF. And I realised that of course the whole point of mixing curry spices and vinegar with pork meat originally – as in the traditional pork vindaloos I sampled when in Goa some years ago – was to preserve it. So of course there was no reason not to have spicy pork in a jar.
After a bit of agonising because everything I tried was fabulous, I ended up buying the gorgeously hot Tomato and Garlic chutney, the Minted Mango and Ginger Relish – which I think will go fabulously mixed into yogurt as a quick raita for dipping poppadoms – and the Aubergine Pickle, because I believe that the aubergine is nature’s most perfect vegetable – see above!
Hawkins Bros. Fine English Wines
Having reacquainted myself with Café Spice Namasté, what another coincidence it was then to stumble across another stall run by a business near to somewhere I’ve lived. But this time where I actually live now – Farnham in Surrey. This is where Hawkins Bros. Brut Reserve Sparkling Wine – a blend of 46% Chardonnay, 36% Pinot Noir and 18% Pinot Meunier which won a silver medal at the Independent English Wine Awards 2017 – is made. That’s done at Greyfriars Vineyard, where the grapes are hand-picked from the south-facing chalky slopes of Surrey’s North Downs.
So many English wines are in all but name a Champagne – that name being region-protected of course. With it meaning I’d be supporting a producer local to me and all, it seemed churlish not to buy a bottle of the Hawkins Bros.
I was also intrigued to taste the Signature Red from Winbirri Vineyards in Norfolk, since so few English reds are made, and I’ve never had a wine from Norfolk. I found it to have the slightly toffee-ish flavour of the also relatively rare German reds, such as those made from the Dornfelder grape.
3. Street Food
Alongside Café Spice Namasté, there were so many other fabulous eating options in the streets and markets of Abergavenny that weekend – I just wished the festival could have lasted for at least a week.
One street food stall that stood out for me was Beefy Boys, who run the fantastically-named Meat Boutique restaurant in Hereford. Describing their venture as ‘the definition of a drunken BBQ that seriously got out of hand’ and themselves as ‘just four backyard amateur cooks sharing a passion for local produce and dirty American-style burgers’ – after a lot of online research and experimentation on friends and family, they won Best Burger 2014 in Grillstock, the UK’s biggest BBQ competition.
They then went on to represent the UK at The World Food Championships 2014 in Las Vegas, where they competed against 50 of the best burger chefs in the world for the title of World’s Best Burger, coming 2nd overall. The winnings from that allowed them to launch the Meat Boutique as their first restaurant.
Their burgers are made from 100% 21-day-aged Hereford beef without any breadcrumb fillers – so low-carb then! – with semi-brioche buns from a sourdough starter baked by an award winning local baker, and homemade sauces.
Some of The Street Food I Didn’t Get to Try!!
Finally, here’s a selection of street food at other stalls that I oooohhh so wanted to try, but just didn’t have the stomach-room or time left to do it. Oh well, there’s always next year….
It’s by engaging influential chefs, commentators and journalists, both nationally and internationally, that AFF has become one of the highest profile food events in Britain. As AFF has grown, for some years it has attracted top food heavyweights, which this year included Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Tom Kerridge and Jay Rayner – among several others – and I went to see the talks by these three.
Something that amused me, and which I certainly didn’t expect, was that in all three talks I attended Findus crispy pancakes were mentioned. How interesting to find these being used as a short-hand reference for a certain type of food culture for people of a certain age (in 2017, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is 52 years old, Jay Rayner is 51, and Tom Kerridge is the baby at 44).
A life in food: Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall
Chef and activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall spoke about his life in food and his latest campaign to get us all to eat more, and more interestingly prepared, vegetables. That’s not just for the good of our own health, but for that of the planet and animal welfare. You can find my in-depth post about his important messages here.
Tom Kerridge in conversation with Tim Hayward
Chef and TV personality Tom Kerridge runs The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England – the first and only pub in the world to acquire two Michelin stars.
I was keen to see Tom speak as I am completely in love with his book The Dopamine Diet, which sets out many of the low-carb recipes he devised to effect his own weight loss of around 12 stone in 4 years. He figured that all diets work if you stick to them, so he needed to come up with a way of eating to lose weight that he could live with long-term. After some research, he settled on a low-carb way of eating, which substitutes flavour for quantity and cheap carbs. And that is in exact harmony with my own healthy eating philosophy.
Tom’s book is called The Dopamine Diet because the recipes include ingredients – such as grass-fed meat and oily fish – that can trigger the release of dopamine, the ‘happy hormone’.
The Ten (Food) Commandments: Jay Rayner
Award-winning writer, journalist and broadcaster Jay Rayner is best known as restaurant critic for The Observer newspaper, and also appears regularly on TV and radio.
Jay’s was a hilarious one-man show – which he does actually describe on his website as standup comedy – based on his book The Ten (Food) Commandments, which gives his ten rules for eating in the 21st century. We hooted with laughter throughout, with highlights included a photo of Jay ‘doing an American Beauty’ with pork scratchings (pork rinds to American friends), to demonstrate commandment number 5 that Though Shalt Not Cut Off the Fat. And it was another great and typical AFF experience that Jay then coincidentally sat at the table next to me at the Nepalese restaurant I went to after the show.
I’m not going to repeat any more of Jay’s commandments here as that would be spoilers if you wish to see his show or read his book. But I will say that the commandments of their own that the audience were invited to tweet during the interval included ‘thou shalt not order a terrible dish at a restaurant and try to get me to switch mine’ and ‘thou shalt not double dip’.
5. Master Classes
Part of AFF’s raison d’être is education about food and related themes, and AFF 2017 hosted a big range of masterclasses. The two that I attended – on Food Writing and Innovations in Chocolate – exemplify the broad spectrum of food-related issues that the master classes covered.
At the chocolate masterclass, run by Demarquette Fine Chocolates, we heard much about how the best chocolate is now being responsibly-sourced and produced, and got to sample some very unusual varieties.
We learned that fermentation gives chocolate a more intense taste, and that some companies are experimenting with harnessing the best fermentation bacteria profile to get the best from cacao beans. We heard about the merits of roasting beans versus keeping fermented beans raw, and the influence that different roasting profiles will have on the flavour of different beans. Land Chocolate, for instance – based in Bethnal Green in London – roast their Honduran beans slightly longer than usual, to give a milder dark chocolate with a malt flavour coming through on the finish.
We also learned about a dark chocolate that doesn’t look dark – Catongo, found in the Amazon, that looks like a Criollo Porcelana bean, but is genetically a Forestero bean. And about Grandiflorum – a smooth, rich and decadent chocolate which technically isn’t a chocolate at all. Only very small batches are produced from beans found from trekking in the Amazon. These beans are hand-harvested, and have to be bought back in quantities that are only as much as the individual harvester can carry.
Many of these unusual bars are stocked by Cocoa Runners, who had a stall at AFF in the Victorian Market Hall, and who sell online and by subscription. Theirs is a wonderful website, with much fabulous information for the connoisseur about different chocolate and how it is made.
6. Abergavenny Christmas Food & Drink Fair: Sunday 10 December 2017
If you want to experience AFF for yourself, the next one is being held in the third weekend of September 2018. But you could always join a smaller crowd of around 5,000 people for the one day Christmas Food & Drink Fair on Sunday 10 December 2017 10am-4.30pm. Once again there will be producer stalls in the Victorian Market Hall, plus marquees in Upper Brewery Yard and the inner courtyard at St Mary’s Priory. See you there!
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