Why food should capitalise on that festival feeling

Liz O’Keefe
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I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of festivals. Before this summer my last experience was the Reading Music Festival and at 25 years old I vowed it would be my last. I’d had enough of the camping, the rain/dust (why is it always one or the other?) and the dubious toilet arrangements. So what enticed me to break my self-imposed festival ban 10 years later? Well, food, of course. What else is there…?

I soon realised that festivals have changed. Or, to be more precise, they’ve evolved. In the same way that we used to be happy with a milky coffee in a polystyrene cup whereas now we wince and moan if a simple latte is not available, festivals have become an entertainment extravaganza to be reckoned with.

Gone are the dodgy sandwich vans selling day-old prawn cocktail baguettes that some are stupid enough to eat (me at Glastonbury in 1998) and the only vegetables you can easily buy are actually illegal (no comment).

Now, festivals are all-singing, all-dancing affairs when it comes to food – from artisan cider tents to raw food stands, vegan dishes to hog roasts and massive corn on the cobs. This is especially the case when it comes to festivals like the Jamie Oliver and Alex James collaborative – The Big Feastival – where I ended up doing chef demonstrations for the ingredients brand Thai Taste, in a bright pink tuk-tuk-turned-kitchen.

Families galore

But first on the tuk-tuk tour was the Just So Festival in Cheshire – a pleasant three-day festival with around 2,000 people, where visitors are told to attend dressed up as either owls, foxes, stags, lions or frogs.

I wasn’t prepared for the amount of children at the festival – it was pretty much for families, with the odd couple of adults walking around looking a bit lost (usually foxes). My planned demonstrations quickly turned from being knife-skill based to turning blanching a tomato into fun (it is actually) or playing ‘name the fruit and veg’ game. We also did rounds of smelling the various exotic lemongrass and galangal pastes and kaffir lime leaves we’d brought, after learning very quickly that fish sauce was not the product for this particular game!

The kids loved it. Despite the allure of The Spellbound Forest or the tribe tournament surrounding us, it was the fresh produce that garnered the most appeal. I underestimated the level of interest that little people would take in cookery, especially for fruit and vegetables.

In the mornings, I put together ‘Thai smoothies’; one consisting of coconut milk, mango, banana and a pinch of fresh coriander; and the other comprising apple, cucumber and a drop or two of yellow chilli plus ginger sauce. The kids camped out around the tuk tuk to get more! Children are generally honest by default, so if they didn’t like it, we would’ve known about it.

Kids came back for more, and more

Later we put together tom yum soup (where tomato blanching and dehydrating black fungus were the main wondrous events); a som tam salad, where julienning carrots, spring onions and bright red chillies caused oohs and ahs; and whipped up a multitude of veggies for a Thai green curry paste to marinate kebabs for the grill.

Kids were dragging their parents back for more and one family even turned up for breakfast, lunch and dinner samples each day. Their two girls, around 10 and 8 years old, were budding cooks. The younger one had made her own pasta in a local class and knew the names of every fruit and vegetable we had, with the exception of the dragon fruit and black fungus. But, let’s be fair, she did very well.

At Feastival the following week, which features a more mixed demographic and age range, food wasn’t just an added bonus, it was a main event. Food demonstrations featured Monica Galetti, Nathan Outlaw and Gizzi Erskine on the main AEG-sponsored stages set up across Alex James’ farmland in the Cotswolds.

Yet our little tuk tuk still powered on amongst the big kids and food offerings from Gaucho and Alex James’ The Cheese Hub where if there’s anything cheesier than cheese, it’s probably Alex James, who was delighting in playing ‘cheesy’ music on a DJ booth, whilst selling his cheese.

It was a tougher crowd, to be sure. One older boy, who was ironically working on a corn on the cob vendor for his farming family, took a disliking to a harmless courgette, causing a host of “yuck” from our tuk tuk crowd. But they were soon appeased by the always delightful ways of baby sweetcorn on a skewer.

But above all, the potential for fresh produce companies was blindingly clear, especially when it comes to influencing the next generation of fruit and veg eaters. From the tuk tuk, we gave away free samples after demonstrating various recipes and although the free element always helps, next to us a team from Riverford Organic Farms brought in the crowds by simply displaying their fruit and veg to highlight their veg box scheme and new recipes, with the help of the vegetable-spiralising Hemsley and Hemsley sisters.

The value in teaching children about fruit and veg and where it comes from must surely be priceless, and, what’s more, teaching them how to cook with different products in different ways creates a much more susceptible audience for future years, and probably more importantly, a healthier one.

The future is now

And it doesn’t have to stop at festivals. More initiatives in schools, like during The Year of Food and Farming, would be a great move for commercial fresh produce companies. The children I encountered at the festivals were particularly in-the-know, but they were still interested in the various uses and origins of fruits and vegetables – the jared pea aubergines caused quite a stir in our Thai-style scrambled eggs.

Kids also tried papaya for the first time, as did some adults come to mention it, and they marvelled at the fresh baby aubergines and slivers of cucumber which looked so different to their normal salad cucumbers – just because of the way we had cut them.

So, was it worth coming out of my festival retirement? Absolutely! If only for the realisation that my favourite things to cook with (fruit and veg – if you’ve not been following) are as interesting to the next generation of foodies as they are to me.

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