The best food festival in the land: Abergavenny

For two days every September, thousands of people descend on a small market town in the Welsh Marches for the finest culinary celebration in the land. Local resident (and editor) Fergus Collins went to explore
20th September 2017
Giant chicken display in Abergavenny Market hall
Croncs by Alex Gooch
Legendary croncs by Alex Gooch. Fergus's flavour of the festival.

Have you ever eaten a cronc? It’s a muffin-shaped cake made from croissant pastry and appears to come in two flavours: chocolate or almond. It is also the most exquisite thing I have eaten this year. I discovered it at the Abergavenny Food Festival last weekend – a joyous celebration of food in my beloved local town.

Chickens in Abergavenny Market Hall
Chickens – light Sussex? – hang from the ceiling of Abergavenny Market Hall. Each year there is a new theme.

Croncs are the creation of Alex Gooch, a celebrated baker whose bakery is over the Black Mountains in Hay. He’s typical of the vast majority of the producers on show here: local food craftsmen and women reminding us that food is more than fuel. It is about happiness, discovery, great skill and, most fundamentally, it’s about being sociable.

The Food Festival brings crowds to the streets of this small town and puts it on the map. This year it was bigger than ever, taking in not just the Market Hall with a marvellous display of giant chickens hanging from the ceiling, surrounding carparks and the castle but also numerous hotels, community halls and even our park, Linda Vista Gardens.

Street Food Market, Abergavenny
Street Food Market – normally a windswept car park.

About a third of the Festival is free to enter and pretty much every shop in town enters into the spirit of the thing. For the main event you buy a wristband (for £10) and are then able to wander around the stalls, chat to food producers and stop to watch cookery demonstrations, listen to debates or live music or simply prop up a bar. And sometimes it’s worth simply looking up at the three Brecon Beacon hills that surround the town and appreciate the divine setting.

There are plenty of famous food critics and chefs in attendance – you pay extra for a session with Jay Rayner, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall or Tom Kerridge. But I tend to simply wander and see where my nose takes me.

My highlights:

On my wanders in the castle I discovered Gil Meller and Genevieve Taylor  (both Countryfile Magazine regulars) cooking over open fire pits. While Gil was creating a foraged feast with barbecued mussels, Genevieve introduced the crowd to the Dutch oven – a cast iron pot that you hang over a fire, cover with a cast iron lid and then put coals on the top. Essentially, this is how you can bake or roast things over an open fire. My birthday is coming up… I want one.

Genevieve Taylor
Genevieve Taylor cooking in the open air in Abergavenny Castle. Clearly mussels are popular this year. Image by Nola Hersey
Dutch oven
Genevieve cooks a bread and butter pudding in a Dutch oven. Image by Nola Hersey

 

In the Market Hall I met Bini Ludlow demonstrating her curry cooking techniques that have won her 11 Great Taste awards. Bini was born in Bradford but now lives in rural Somerset. After 15 years in teaching, she finally listened to her friends and family and set up a small company to create ready meals from her recipes. She began with £200. Now she employs four people and supplies Farm Shops and businesses all over the South West.

Bini Ludlow
Cookery demonstration by Bini Ludlow in the Market Hall.

The one tip I took away – get your spices in early, when the oil is cold. This way they have the greatest chance of penetrating the whole dish – and you don’t have to flap around looking for them later when the cooking gets more stressful.

As for great tastes: those croncs take some beating. However, I did drink some exceptional coffee from the delightful people at Hundred House Coffee from just up the road in Ludlow.

In the Farmyard section, there was a stage for debate. It was a little quiet here but I did here some fascinating talks by local rural commentator Rob Yorke and Simon Crichton of Triodos Bank. Rob was keen to point out our inconsistencies as consumers – essentially, that we want cheap food but also a wildlife rich environment. He argues that, unless we embrace new technologies like GM, indoor-reared cattle and lab-produced meat, we can’t have both.

Simon advocated a vision of Britain post Brexit with some very commonsense ideas about subsidies – and what taxpayers’ money should be used for when supporting agriculture.

And there was much much more. I still haven’t attended the legendary Saturday night party in the castle grounds… next year.

For now, I was just pleased to see my local town brought to thrilling life. If you haven’t been, make it the highlight of your September in 2018.

You are currently reading: The best food festival in the land: Abergavenny - 20th September
Get your first 5 issues for just £5 when you subscribe to BBC Countryfile magazine!

Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.

Countryfile Magazine - Current Issue