I’d hardly call Abergavenny a buzzing metropolis when compared to Cardiff and the London soaks I’ve been dipping in and out of during the last 20 years. But next to the saturated valleys town I reluctantly inhabit, Abergavenny is a breath of fresh air. On a particular crisp Saturday morning, as the lamented summer leaves began to adopt autumnal shades and the early morning sun etched shadows across the glittering dew, thousands of peckish weekend travellers from far and wide advanced towards the idyllic panorama of the Welsh countryside for the Abergavenny Food Festival.
The border town of Abergavenny has become a taste bud Mecca for ascending food fanciers and seasoned veterans alike – gathering together some of the most reputable names in the food fraternity, from Wales and beyond, to celebrate all things culinary and calorific.
I arrived at Abergavenny bright and early for my first food fest – clumsily brushing off the evidential trails of a Gregg’s pasty I’d found in the fridge. I had just finished a night shift and was still in a daze as I headed into the town. The bright white Angel Hotel stood warm and welcoming in the distance; the staff were serving coffees, teas and scones – how quintessentially British.
The Angel Hotel Ballroom and the Market Hall were among several town venues that played host to a diverse range of master classes and demonstrations during the festival weekend; among them was the sweet and the sour fragrance of Ottoman food prepared by Bulgarian born Silvena Rowe, the best of traditional Indian street food presented by Mint & Mustard chef Anand George, and the great Welsh food menu with James Sommerin and Richard Davies.
Scattered along the main streets were stalls including Cokina cookware, Hudnalls, and Caboos Gluten Free products. I strolled along, caressing the double espresso I had bought from the Angel Hotel before knocking it back like my favourite chaser – the type that makes me see double and act single. Being a diabetic on insulin I was starting to feel like a recovering alcoholic let loose in the Penderyn Distillery – so much tempting food to yank me off the wagon. Almost immediately I felt the smack of temptation as the smoky aroma of sausages caught me like a lasso. Buck-tied and hopeless to resist I found myself tucking in to a traditional Italian herb sausage that I could have rented a room for, and visited on the side.
To me, vegetables are merely plate decorations, and I fail to get excited over herb plants. Arun Kapil and Gerard Baker’s Spices & Spice Blends session, on the other hand, stirred fond memories of South American life, and the exotic aromas that danced in the air of the spice markets. As a special treat, Chocolatier Paul A Young and teatress Henrietta Lovell joined forces to demonstrate how the art of mixing fine tea with good chocolate goes far beyond dunking Kit-Kats in a mug of Quickbrew. I was never big on sweets and chocolate, but since my pancreas decided to stop working properly I have started to crave what I cannot have in large amounts. Defiant, I refused to meet the gaze of the many truffles, toffees and other items of sweet, sweet gluttony I stumbled upon – okay, I stared at them longingly and may have dribbled.
The wide range of meat and cheese, however, were fair game – cheese in particular is my Achilles heel and I was beginning to wish I’d brought the car. For wineos, bread-heads and cheese fanatics there was a chance to receive tutored tastings from some of the top experts in the field, among them was a selection of Wales’ finest micro-beers, a cheese matured in Welsh ale and Jamie Montgomery’s showcase of his artisan cheddar cheeses. The Cheese and Wine Show included cheeses from Britain, France, Italy and Iberia, with tutored tastings provided by Eric Charriaux and Amnon Paldi’s company, Premier Cheese.
The entertainment during the festival was just as diverse as the food: Bands, buskers and the obligatory Big Issue seller lined the crowded streets – among them was an Uncle Albert lookalike squeezing pop culture classics through a wheezing accordion. The Wales World Trade Fare and Diabetes UK Cymru entertained for their cause; hosting food demonstrations, workshops and various forms of entertainment. Abergavenny Castle provided the backdrop for a number of musical treats during the course of the weekend; a smidgen of Normandy blues played by Skiffle Rendez-Vous, a sprinkling of Gypsy Jazz by guitarist Remi Harris and a teasing of Loon from Northumberland for extra flavor.
I will definitely be venturing to the Abergavenny Food Festival next year. With over a hundred events and happenings taking place over the action-packed weekend, showcasing some of the best food and drink that Wales, and the rest of the world has to offer, it was simply impossible to cover everything this time around – and there was not enough insulin in the world with which to try. Then there was the question of where to put the army of cheese, meat and beer I had enlisted. Unlike my local Wetherspoons – where a good steak is rare and often well done – I knew exactly how long my next evening meal was going to be: a little over six inches; I was having Italian herb sausages.