I’m a big fan of beer festivals because you get to sample a huge variety of beers without breaking the bank.
I was disappointed then at my first visit to a proper food festival last year when all I essentially found was a one-off farmer’s market. I was expecting an event where I could buy and try small portions of lots of different food and drink.
Fortunately, the opportunity to try different foods and culinary experiences is the order of the day at the Hampshire Food Festival, which begins on 1 July.
The festival is organised by Hampshire Fare, a non-profit that supports and promotes local farmers and producers. The festival is just one of the ways Hampshire Fare does this throughout the year.
A month of food and drink
Unlike most other food festivals, which happen in one location and run for one or two days at most, Hampshire Food Festival lasts a whole month and takes place at venues large and small throughout the county.
There’s some interesting venues too including vineyards, farms, the heritage railway station in Alresford and HMS Victory in Portsmouth, as well as pubs, cafes and restaurants.
All this means that thousands rather than hundreds of people have the opportunity to nibble and quaff the best of what Hants has to offer – 2015’s festival attracted more than 185,000 visitors over 80 events.
More chances to get involved
This year is also Hampshire Fare’s 25th anniversary. To mark this milestone, some of the county’s leading chefs have created 25 special dishes using local produce. They’re offering these for the duration of the festival at venues and up and down the county.
The “25 plates” range from a “Best of Hampshire” sharing board at the Royal Exchange in Lindford to Treacle-cured River Test trout at the Greyhound in Stockbridge to a good-old New Forest bacon, sausage and egg breakfast over at the Big Blue Cafe in Totton.
So if you can’t make it to an official event you can still get involved in this celebration of local food and drink.
I got a taster of what to expect at this year’s festival at the launch event at Rownham’s House, a Georgian mansion nestled in a residential area between Southampton and Romsey.
Despite some stormy clouds on the horizon it was a warm and sunny evening, which was just as well as the event took place in the house’s handsome gardens.
A fair few Hampshire Fare producers had stands dotted around the edges of the lawn. There was also music from vocal duo Lilo’s Wall and further entertainment from a juggling stilt walker. Courthouse Catering, McCrimmon and Reid, Elizabeth’s Kitchen and Vanilla Catering provided the canapés; Veggie Patch, the welcome cordials.
My first stop was the Upham Ales stand.
I’ve drank their flagship beers many times so tonight I opted for their seasonal offerings: “Odds On” (4.3%) and “Fields of Gold” (3.8%). I particularly enjoyed the sweet and citrusy Odds On, made with American hops and English malt.
Next up I chatted with Sarah from Parsonage Farm as I chewed on some slices of their salami.
Hampshire has a thriving charcuterie industry. So it’s only right that some of Parsonage Farm’s salami has a local twist. This includes one type made with the aforementioned ale from Upham Brewery and another with Twisted Nose gin. Naturally, their meat is from Hampshire too. In all, there were three Hampshire charcuterie producers here tonight.
I devoured some samples of their bread as head baker Pete explained his baking process. He clearly knows a thing or two – I don’t think I’ve ever eaten bread as fluffy and moist. The focaccia, made with local rapeseed oil, was particularly memorable.
I made a mental note to visit the Bakehouse 24 cafe in Ringwood where you can watch Pete ply his trade as you sip on a coffee and munch his creations.
Bread then cheese
After bread, came cheese (naturally) at the Lyburn stand. This cheesemaker is based just outside Hampshire at Langford between Southampton and Salisbury. They make several regular cheeses from their own cows’ milk, ranging from soft continental-style varieties to cheddars.
I sampled five today. I’m a hard-cheese fan, so I loved the crumbly and tangy 18-month-aged “Old Winchester”. Their Garlic and Nettle cheese was also tantalising on the tongue.
After all that food a pick-me-up was in order. Unfortunately, I’d only this week decided to give up drinking caffeine. Happily, the barista at Mozzo fixed me up with a delicious decaffeinated coffee.
He went on to explain the different ways that manufacturers take the caffeine out of coffee and how it affects the taste – useful knowledge if I stick to my caffeine-free experiment in the long-term. Mozzo, you’ll be glad to know, uses the natural “Swiss Water” process. This doesn’t use chemicals that can spoil the taste of the coffee.
Pizza and gin
Even though the events was beginning the die down, the embers in Catch a Fire Pizza’s wood-fired oven were still glowing. That meant I could sneak in a slice of traditional Neapolitan Margherita pizza before a crash-course in gin tasting from Andy Daniels, owner of Four Marks’ Gorilla Spirits Co.
Tonight, Andy was offering samples of Silverback, a 46% dry gin. And, as a gin newbie keen to learn what lays beyond the mass-produced gins and cheap tonics that have put me off in the past, I was keen to have a taste.
First Andy poured a measure over ice, slipped in some orange peel and encouraged me to fill my nostrils with its aromas before I had a swig.
He then topped my measure up with cardamom tonic. This complemented the gin’s botanicals, which include coriander, angelica and lemongrass, brilliantly (see, I almost know what I’m talking about now). I was almost tempted to find myself a deck chair so I could retreat to the shrinking patch of sunlight in the corner of the gardens to finish this G&T.
Before I left I caught up with Ruth from Tipsy Wight, one of the three Isle of Wight producers at this evening’s event. Tipsy forages natural ingredients from the island’s fields and hedgerows and infuses them with vodka.
Their flavours include chilli, spiced pear, damson, sloe and elderflower. Actually, I wondered if the elderflowers in the corner would last the evening – I could see Ruth eyeing them up as we parted.
Then again, that’s what the Hampshire Food Festival and Hampshire Fare is all about – farmers, producers, chefs and entrepreneurs making the most of what’s close by to create something delicious.
Info: Hampshire Food Festival 2016 runs from 1-31 July. Pick up a free programme or find out what’s happening on the website.