Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink

The seventh Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink took place last weekend. This is one of the biggest food and drink festivals in the UK, spearheaded by chef Michael Caines. This was my third visit to the festival - my first was a site visit as part of the Cookery Diploma I completed at Ashburton Cookery School in 2007.

I studied at Exeter University for 6 years, so it is always nice to go back and see what has changed. This year I booked a B&B on campus; here's the view from my room:

Student accommodation has improved over the years: I found myself in an ensuite room complete with telephone, Internet connection, and fridge - quite a contrast to the hall I stayed in my first year, where toilet and showers were shared, and the corridors and stair wells had bare brick walls and concrete floors. That hall has now been demolished and there are an awful lot of new buildings on campus. I felt a certain nostalgia as I wandered around campus and it struck me that it's now almost 20 years since I first set foot in Exeter.

Back to the food festival. This is spread across two adjoining sites in the centre of the city: Northernhay Gardens, where you will find marquees housing local producers, a "Food is Fun" tipi, festival cafĂ© and restaurant, and various stalls; and the courtyard of Exeter Castle, with the cookery theatre, festival bar, music stage, food stalls, and more vendors. The courtyard was also the venue for the Festival After Dark: live music, beer and food after the main festival closed on Friday and Saturday evenings.

There is a huge range of local produce on sale: fresh lamb, beef, eggs, honey and preserves, bread, cakes, chocolate, chillies - and, of course, cheeses and cider. There are also food stalls selling pies, burgers, mussels, hog roast, oysters, a beer tent with 15 local ales and a selection of ciders, and several local breweries with their own stalls.

I was travelling light, with just a small rucksack, so couldn't get too carried away. Still, I came away with some beer and a glass from a new micro brewery, Hunters Brewery, who tempted me with real ales at 10 o' clock in the morning, some goat's cheese from Norsworthy Dairy Goats, cheddar from Worthy Farm, some mild and creamy Cornish Blue cheese, and a small bottle of Brimblecombe's cider. With more space in my bag, I'd have snapped up some olive oil from the Tuscans too.

Throughout the day there are cookery demonstrations by local chefs and the odd celebrity - Michael Caines himself, Mark Hix (author of some great books on British food), Masterchef winners, and runners-up James and Alisdair from The Restaurant. In addition to the main cookery theatre, there are pasta, bread and sausage-making demos and a host of themed talks (bread, wine, cheese, ...) in the "Food is Fun" tipi.

I enjoyed a talk on cheese making by Mary Quicke of Quickes Traditional, who make a farmhouse-style cheddar, Sharpham who make soft (think Brie) cheeses from Jersey milk, and a group from Tuscany showcasing pecorino, a hard cheese made from ewe's milk. It was interesting to learn something about the cheese-making process and how it differs for the different types of cheese. Best still, I bought some pecorino agend in straw to make a traditional carbonara when I got home on Sunday evening.

The cookery demos were fun and it was nice to see Jane Baxter from Riverford Field Kitchen with her hearty organic vegetable dishes; Mark Hix who turned up unprepared and hungover, but turned out half a dozen appetizing dishes in 45 minutes; and the guys from Ashburton Cookery school who were on top form. I caught up with them afterwards - they are very excited about their new teaching kitchens, and I'd like to go down for a short course later in the year. Ideally this would tie in with their new dining club, but we'll have to see.

I managed to snap a few shots in the Cookery Theatre on Sunday morning, during a cook-off between local chefs and a group from Tuscany, all using local produce.

The Tuscan group was from a club called "La Salamandra". They explained that the salamander after which they are named has a double meaning: it is both a grill and a reptile. The chefs of La Salamandra  also lead double lives: they are all amateur cooks with "normal" day jobs, who come together because they are really passionate about cooking and about food.

This is a really interesting idea:  they get together each month to design a theme for a meal (which might be local fish just off the boat, or a season, or a meat) and invite friends and followers of La Salamandra to Michaela's restaurant, where they cook dinner. The guests pay just to cover the cost of the ingredients. Their first La Salamandra dinner in Devon was scheduled to take place at Darts Farm on Monday evening, and the organisers of the food festival are hoping to inspire a similar group in Devon who will reciprocate by going to Tuscany to cook for La Salamandra over there.

It was a great festival, and the date for next year's has already been set: 29th April to 1st May 2011. I must remember to take a bigger bag.

1 comment:

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