Abergavenny Food Festival

The Abergavenny Food Festival is now one of the top food festivals in Britain.  We spoke to Martin Orbach who launched the Abergavenny Food Festival with fellow farmer Chris Wardle in 1999 in the wake of the BSE crisis in cattle.

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 us.

“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 been added.

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 numbers.”

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 every Septmeber. For more information visit the Abergavenny Food Festival website.