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Culture

Wales – Food festival nation?

08 Oct 2022 6 minute read
Food festival nation (Pic: Carwyn Graves)

Carwyn Graves

Wales, the country of Eisteddfodau, the Royal Welsh and County Shows aplenty, has also become something of a food festival mecca over the past few decades.

This may seem somewhat surprising to those of us who retain a slight suspicion that there is something iron-like in Welsh culture, something idiosyncratically antipathetic to the celebration of good food.

What are we doing with world-class food festivals all over our backyard all of a sudden?

And it also raises those uncomfortable questions, all too present, all too pressing, but always somehow at the back of our minds, about poor food too.

Do food festivals, aspirational destinations for a day out for those with money to spend and refined taste, make any real difference?

Artisan food

There is no doubt that Welsh food festivals are over-represented within the British Isles as a whole (with Visit GB touting ‘over a hundred’ in the UK, and several dozen of those within Wales alone), and that several of the longest established festivals first sprung up in Welsh market towns.

Ludlow, just over the border, was the first to be established in 1995, followed within a couple of years by several fixtures this side of Offa’s Dyke – Cardigan Bay Seafood and Lampeter (1997), Narberth (1998) and Abergavenny (1999).

The latter of these was founded by two local farmers, Martin Orbach and Chris Wardle, who had seen the success of the nearby Hay literary festival and, concerned about the divorce between farming and food, saw the potential of creating a market for their own produce and that of other local producers.

‘The idea we had,’ explains Martin, ‘was to combine artisan food producers with the conversation and debate we’d seen at Hay. Food is never just a business – it is always present in politics, and we wanted to both create a way for stallholders to connect directly with customers, and also create space for that spark of discussion around the place of food in society.’

Abergavenny, like many others, has since grown to a sell-out capacity of well over 20,000 to the town and has helped weave good food into the DNA of the area, now a major part of its tourist appeal.

Connection

But although food tourism is part of the food festival landscape, visitors from within the region account for the vast majority of attendees at Welsh food festivals, according to Welsh government research, with stallholders at the festivals studied also overwhelmingly based in Wales.

The most frequently cited reason by visitors for attending food festivals is, unsurprisingly but importantly, to buy local produce.

And herein perhaps lies the key to the enduring success of these events – they tap into a latent local desire to support food production and celebrate their area.

As Corinne Cariad, one of this year’s organizers at Narberth Food Festival (‘the friendliest food fest in Wales!’) put it to me, these things get pulled off year on year because ‘locals want it to happen, they make it happen – and it’s a fun thing to do in places like this, or Lampeter, or other small market towns, where you just don’t have several dozen cultural offerings to pick from each weekend. So people look forward to these as an important part of the annual calendar.’

Ethos

Narberth relies heavily on volunteers, whether from the town Rotary Club or Guides and Scouts, to steward on the day, run the park and ride and do the months of admin beforehand.

On the day before the festival starts, the site is opened up to pupils from local schools, who get the opportunity to be immersed in experiencing quality food and cooking ahead of everyone else.

‘That also costs extra to run – money and volunteer time. But it’s just part of that ethos – we want local kids to connect with food.’

The statistics bear this out – Welsh food festivals are clearly local affairs; volunteer-led, connecting local people with local businesses.

Culture

And over the two decades since the first wave of festivals were established, a clear local legacy is starting to take shape – replicated across much of the country.

Festivals have become an important catalyst for many farms and food businesses, like the small organic veg outfit that only turns up to Narberth (like 64% of exhibitors, who only attend one food festival) but find it makes an outsized contribution to their veg box sign-ups for the year, or the countless producers who have used festivals to test-run products and concepts before scaling them up.

Big questions

But perhaps the greater contribution these make to Welsh culture lies not in the businesses themselves but in their educational impact, both direct and indirect.

I put it to Martin that an event like Abergavenny is still in many ways quite exclusive, catering to an affluent subset of the population who can afford the entry tickets and still go on to pay for artisan street food or raw-milk cheese once through the gates.

In an era of climate crisis and heading into a winter where many are already choosing between heating and eating, how can this be justified?

He pauses before answering. ‘It’s true, we do attract a certain subset of people. But we educate them – about provenance, about food production, about the big questions facing the food world.

‘And we’re not ideological – we’re a forum. By putting these issues in front of people, over food, we hope that people who can afford to spend money on good, local food keep deciding to do so. And when they do, that has wider effects too – on food politics.’

Perception

These events are numerous enough that they make a real contribution, alongside farmers’ markets, CSAs and food co-ops, to an alternative food ecosystem in rural parts of Wales to the dominant supermarkets.

They do almost nothing to feed the nation; but viable business alternatives to industrial supermarket food need exactly these sorts of incubators before they can be replicated, or scale up.

More than that, Welsh food festivals have already done something significant to shift the dial on perception. And that matters.

This is part of a monthly series on nation.cymru on the diversity of Welsh food culture by Carwyn Graves, whose Welsh Food Stories is out now. You can read the first installment of the series here.


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