Abergavenny food festival is no flash
in the pan. Now in its eighth year, we spoke to organiser Martin
Orbach about why, when and how many stalls?
From milking sheep to making carob ice cream,
from music festivals to organising Wales’ best-known food
festival – this may not be a traditional career ladder for
a farmer, but it is one Martin Orbach climbed.
Orbach was a Herefordshire farmer, an entrepreneurial
ice cream maker who wanted to bring his sheep milk produce to
the public without going through wholesalers. He and his partner
opened Shepherds ice cream parlour in Hay on Wye, and travelled
to music festivals selling cornets of ginger or lemon ice cream,
among other flavours.
He said: “I used to attend a lot of events
with the ice cream company. I didn’t think I could do it
better but it started me thinking that we needed to focus on having
a festival in celebration of food, where food is the star.”
He started the food festival with Chris Wardle,
a friend who owned a smallholding on the Welsh side of the border.
The tug of war between possible venues ended with a Welsh win
and the Abergavenny Food Festival was born.
Year one was on a stormy October weekend. 3000
people braved the wet weather outside to get to the market stalls
inside. Since its rainy inception the date has moved backwards
to September, and with better weather, has gone from strength
to strength to sushi stalls. With anything and everything from
cheese to cockles, and with cooking exhibitions, presentations,
talks and music taking over the whole town, a visit to the Welsh
market town on this September weekend will have you either permanently
drooling or eating. Martin told us why the date was important:
“It is a logical time of year, to coincide with harvests.
And the tourist businesses and traders are always interested in
doing anything to extend the summer season. June, July and August
are already packed with events; September is a better time for
“We started not long after BSE when there
was a lot of discussion of food about. People began to take more
interest in where their food comes from and small producers and
local markets started to matter more,”
Recent years have seen rapid growth in the
popularity of allotments, in organic food, visitors to local food
markets and customers simply wanting to know where their food
comes from. Supermarkets now emblazon home-grown products with
flags and prominent signage, and it is no wonder this food festival
attracts big name sponsorship from Waitrose and has no shortage
of snappy sound bites attached to it. Everyone wants to live a
bit of the Good Life and food festivals and farmers’ markets
are springing up all over the country. The Observer dubbed Abergavenny
Food Festival the Glastonbury of Food Festivals. Celebrity cooks
love it. The people of Abergavenny and surrounds are won over,
with two thirds of last year’s visitors from Wales.
With 27,000 paying visitors the festival is
big enough to support the year-round employment of three part
time staff. Stall space is permanently over-subscribed; which
meant this year’s event growing in size again. The festival
is now eating up space alongside the regular Friday market as
an extension to its usual two weekend days and a new venue has
Yet there is no foreseeable danger of mass
expansion ruining the spirit of the festival. Martin said: “If
we do increase it we want to increase it in ways so people get
a better experience. Not just increase it for the sake of more
Abergavenny Food Festival is all about the
ingredients. Martin is encouraging visitors to sniff out the cheese
and wine show, pad around the Fish Market, or take in the non-stop
programme of chef demos in the Victorian Market Hall. For children
there are hands-on workshops at the Food Academy. It is not just
about organic food or healthy living. There is an emphasis on
locally produced food, but: “We try not to focus on any
single thing like that. Individual traders will tell you all about
their products themselves. We are just interested in giving them
the space and opportunity – and providing the electricity
to do so!”
One of the more unusual events for 2006 sees
cooking and music together when classically trained bamboo flautist
Guo Yue demonstrates his experience with food and cookery during
China’s Cultural Revolution. His new book couples memories
of lining up to prepare vegetables in icy water with recipes for
minced pork-filled aubergine boxes.
The River Cottage’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
will be double-barrelling his way through the stalls to present
their world view on cookery and the importance of good ingredients
in the grounds of the castle. He will be roasting a pig on a spit
for the inaugural Thursday banquet for all participating speakers.
Usually a private event, this year entry tickets will be on sale
to the public.
The festival has always been a paid event,
visitors to the town wander the street stalls – but inside
is where the action is. This year’s programme goes global
– around a corner you may visit China, India, or Italy and
Eastern Europe - alongside the best produce in Wales. Mark Hix
features the best produce from Wales and the Borders; Cyrus Todiwala
of Café Spice Namaste focuses on Indian food, pickles and
spices; Silvena Rowe sings the praises of Eastern European cookery;
Giorgio Locatelli cooks up Italian cuisine. It also continues
to take a hard look at ethical issues surrounding food production.
At the Abergavenny festival, the land of song
shows the world there’s more to Welsh cookery than cheese
on toast. The Abergavenny Food Festival takes place over the weekend
of Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 September.