Food festivals have a ring of pretension to them. Along with things such as seasonal, locally sourced food and farmers markets they now epitomise the culinary cool. There is nothing wrong with any of these as a concept, mind! What does bother me slightly is the spin that has been put on these things in the media, effectively deterring any customer who isn’t a snobby Barbour clad type in hunter wellies and drives a 4×4 or lives in East London. This is a sad state of affairs since those who do not get involved miss out big time.
Sheffield has never been an early adopter when it comes to new fashions from the big city, however it did jump on the bandwagon last year with its very own food festival. I attended. I ate ackee and saltfish from the Yabba stall, curry from Aagrah and washed it down with Pimm’s from Wig and Pen, I remember. I came back and bought some tomato chutney from a local producer whose name I sadly forgot (but he remains a permanent fixture at farmer’s markets) and had green tea sorbet from Yee Kwan’s. All amidst essay deadline madness.
This year’s event was conceived on a much grander scale, which was immediately obvious from browsing the website. As well as the usual stalls selling all kinds of local produce there was a pop up restaurant by the folks behind the Milestone, an “award winning gastro pub” in Kelham Island. That’s the uppity place that sells sausage and mash for £16 to you and me. (Notice the merest hint of bitterness – I have never eaten there.) There was a cookery competition by Sheffield’s Women’s Institute and yes I took part, taking another important step towards changing my name to Mildred and becoming a crazy old cat lady at 24. The big marquee at the top of Fargate hosted demonstrations and talks by all kinds of chefs – and apparently there was mojito being given away at one point. And, since we are in Sheffield, there was the obligatory torrential downpour.
So, on a rather hectic Friday afternoon, Kim and I made our way into town to sample some of Sheffield’s finest food produce. With some rather frightening looking clouds forming on the horizon and intermittent rain showers the weather was far from clement – but the worst was yet to come. We decided to do a quick reccy of the whole area with the view of finding what interested us, and revisiting those places later. As a seasoned food festival goer I knew from the first that this is a sound strategy. The last thing you need is wolf down the first tasty thing you find, leaving you unable to sample anything else and defying the purpose of the event. Our master plan had a flaw: we were both wolfishly hungry. I expressed a wish to eat at the Milestone pop up restaurant, which was promptly vetoed by Kim who would “not eat offal and that’s all they do”. I then vetoed Aagrah as “we always eat there”, even though we were being lured in by smiling, sari clad girls. So our first stop was a butcher’s stall, Crawshaw’s, where I bought some chorizo style sausages and Kim purchased a delicious Scotch egg. Heavenly Cheesecake Co’s stall was right next door, and that’s where the revelation took place: cheesecake can be delicious. It just needs to be savoury. They call it chuffin (cheesecake muffin, geddit?) and mine was a creamy mixture of mushroom and tarragon on an oatcake base. Heaven.
Moving on. Wading through an ocean of cake and other baked goods, we stumbled upon the Riverford stall, where I updated Chris the veg man on the latest events of my life. Kim was amused that I am on chatting terms with the veg man, but really I cannot not be, he usually sees me in my pyjamas or dressing gown fixing my breakfast around the time he delivers on Thursday mornings. More cake and jam, and then heavens opened for the first downpour. It rained on us lots, and even though we were waterproofed we had to take shelter. Trying to protect my camera from the rain was a struggle. I stashed it away in my jacket, and for the first time I regretted having such a stupidly big lens.
Downpour over, we decided it was time to source lunch. I would not eat at the “fake Mexican” place, where they sell halal Mexican food – prawns instead of pork. They are a fraud. In addition, I needed to find something carb-free. It is actual torture going to a food festival whilst on a crazy diet. We decided on teriyaki chicken with runner beans from Fusion Organic Cafe – amazing stuff. I found it almost impossible to say no to their brownies, but no I said. The Letdown of the Day came courtesy of Heeley City Farm, who did not permit festival goers to play with sheep and goats, having to observe them from the safety of a double barrier. Shame. Absolutely outraged, we were only appeased by Yee Kwan’s delicious sorbets – I had cardamom, Kim tried lemon tart. Don’t tell the diet police, but it was worth it.
As the afternoon drew to a close we met up with Rachel and Dave, who needed a drink. We must have some kind of inbuilt barometer in us, we felt ourselves pulled to the beer tent by an invisible force. As soon as we got there, an almighty downpour broke out, came and went, hammering it down with incredible strength. The beer tent is not an entirely bad place to be stuck when rains of biblical proportions come down.
Looking back at the day to take stock, one fact stands out as blindingly obvious. There is very little difference between an ordinary farmer’s market and this food festival. With the amount of cake and jam being sold, you would be forgiven for thinking you are in Hathersage on a Saturday morning market. Sheffield food festival cannot even begin to compare with the long standing institution in Prague, which presents a unique opportunity to sample food from Prague’s poshest places, where ordinary mortals like us would not even be allowed. Prague does not have a Michelin star, but it sure acts like it does. There are places where for £16 you would not even be allowed to rub your shoes on their door mat – and this is why the annual food festival is an absolute godsend. I remember scoffing down a whole lobster a couple of years ago, followed by some Swiss grilled cheese that smelled like feet. Prague food festival is more of a game of celebrity spotting and shameless name dropping. Sheffield does not have a Michelin star either, and it does not care. There are plenty of good restaurants (good, not amazing, ground breaking and trend setting in any way) and they are all within the reach of us ordinary mortals financially. Perhaps that is why restaurant stalls were so thin on the ground. However, I do not understand why the restaurateurs are so unwilling to jump at the opportunity for gaining some easy publicity by participating. Here’s hoping that restaurateurs will overcome their shyness in years to come.
Coming up is a post on my contribution to the Women’s Institute cookery competition. Watch this space.
A few more photos from the day