Post-Match Interview with Abergavenny Food Festival

The Food Festival Finder team lift the curtain on what it’s really like running one of the UK’s biggest and best festivals... 

Everyone loves a good food festival: days of eating too much, trying new things, talking to people who make a living producing things you’ve never heard of, and trying tipples in the sunshine. If you know anything about food festivals (or even if you don’t) you’ll know that the king of the festivals is Abergavenny: a glorious extravagance of a food festival held in stunning castle grounds. 

This is a festival that we, and everyone else hungry for the latest food trends, chef demos and exceptional produce, earmark for a visit religiously. We look forward to it with the same excitement a child waits for Christmas. However, we all know that it is not a mysterious legendary figure that makes this festival come to life; it’s a small and dedicated team. The last time we paid a visit to the festival we could feel curiosity creeping in. What is this amazing festival like behind the scenes – what is the Abergavenny Festival like for those who run and organise it? 

So, instead of seeking out the newest pie, the next thing to hit the cider scene or a rack of cheese – and even passing by Valentine Warner – the Food Festival team sought out those who pull the festival strings. 

For such a huge festival, the team responsible for co-ordinating it is quite small, and not easily spotted as they whizz around over the course of the weekend making sure everything is running smoothly. This year was bigger than ever, and the team deserve a big pat on the back for bringing it to life. If you ever wondered how it all mysteriously comes together, read on and find out. 



What’s your favourite and most fulfilling part of the festival to organise?

I love the fact that the festival is so connected to the town, this is what our British market towns were designed for, but many have lost that sense of place and have been overrun with cars. By claiming back the space we create a genuine sense of what towns were designed for. As a town planner by trade, this gives me a huge pride – although it does feel like organising Brigadoon! 

I also love the ‘added value’, the behind the scenes things we organise, such as helping local clubs and societies raise funds from the car parking; working with young people from local schools; engaging with local primary schools to fire up the next generation of chefs; partnering with Job Centre Plus and volunteers to build confidence and skills; and leading the way on recycling and moving towards Zero Waste. This is not viewed as the most glamorous side of the Festival but it’s the most genuine, makes such a difference to our local community and is a great legacy for any festival. 


This year saw the launch of the meat market at the festival; was it a sizzling success?

To make a feature out of our meat producers just seemed the logical thing to do. The festival already hosted a good number of really top-notch meat traders, so it was the next logical step to showcase them all together. We had very good feedback from traders and the public because it created a space for people to try meats they perhaps hadn’t thought of or come across before, such as ethical rose veal, venison, British biltong, Mangalitsa pig and goat meat. I can’t say whether we’ll do it again next year, you’ll have to wait and see; we may do something completely different. It’s that sense of ‘anything’s possible’ that makes organising this festival so brilliant. The festival is ever-changing and ever-evolving and that makes it the best job in the world. 



What part of the festival made you beam with pride this year? 

We are always really proud of what we manage to achieve because we are a small team. This year we were delighted by our Chef Demonstration programme that included Raymond Blanc, Tom Kerridge, Yotam Ottolenghi, Hemsley and Hemsley, Theo Randall and festival favourite Cyrus Todiwala. We are also proud to support rising talent such as Olia Hercules, Jamsheed Todiwala, and The Groundnut Boys. I think this wide array of chefs and culinary talent all wandering the markets to source produce and chat to people is really what makes Abergavenny so special. This combined with the press, the publishers and the food buyers, creates a unique food conversation and a network of producers that has a reached far beyond September. We connect people together, to explore ideas and create a buzz. The business-to-business support creates ripples in the food world throughout the year. This all happens as part of the Abergavenny alchemy – we want to be at the heart of British food.


Did you get a chance to get out and about and sample any of the food? Are there any traders that you were particularly impressed with? 

This question made me laugh! No, we’re so busy over the weekend itself that I rarely even get the chance to eat. I love chatting to the traders, as they are the litmus test: if they are happy we know we’ve held a successful festival. We are very lucky to be over subscribed with fantastic artisan produce from Wales, the Borders and beyond. I couldn’t pick out one highlight from the weekend however, I love the Priory Souk Market, which is where new and small food businesses are located, i.e. those who are just setting up in business. It is a microcosm of the tenacity, ingenuity, enthusiasm and sheer hard work it takes to set up a food business. This I find the most rewarding area – right there is the future of our food industry…. and it’s very exciting. 



Do you tend to have the same traders returning year after year?

Our traders are the backbone of what we do; they are at the very heart of Abergavenny. We do have our core traders who return year on year, which shows us how well they do at the festival, so it’s great feedback for us. We do rotate as we simply don’t have space for everyone, so we take in to consideration those who have been before and the range of traders for that year – we want to make sure there’s an balanced mix for those visiting. In Wales we do have the most amazing meat producers, and our neighbours in Hereford have the best cider. For this reason we do rotate traders and very carefully consider the range and mix in each of our five market areas. 


Are there any chefs that you’d love to see demonstrate at next year’s festival?

We have been so lucky over the past 17 years to have hosted most of the great British chefs, but I think it’s a mistake to just concentrate solely on the headliners. I think spotting new and rising talent is what we feel most proud of, supporting people who are starting out.  At this stage we have all our irons in the fire – I am keeping this one close to my chest at moment.


We’ll be keeping an ear out then. On that note, who from this year’s festival would you ear-mark as a chef-to-watch? 

We simply loved welcoming Jamsheed Todiwala, Olia Hercules and the Groundnut Boys – keep your eyes peeled for their future progress, we certainly will.   



What do you see in the festival’s future? Can you see it expanding even further?

In the future the challenge is to keep the ‘essence’ of Abergavenny Food Festival. It’s such a special festival and it’s really important that we maintain its authenticity and at the same time add in new twists and turns. This year we added a beer and cider festival, a meat market, and partnered with local cookery school, The Culinary Cottage, to run cookery classes. Food and music go hand in hand and we love making the most of this at the festival, we held a Swing Time Jazz event on the Friday night at the Castle, this year and the year before we added a street food night market. Expansion is difficult as we are constrained simply by the size of the town centre of an historic market town, and also the need for traffic to keep moving. Physical expansion is not really on the cards but we are always looking for new ways to extend the reach of the festival to new audiences. Who knows what we will come up with in 2016 – watch this space.


Do you attend any other food festivals in a professional or personal capacity?

Yes I do, I go to as many as I can fit in around family commitments – a few large festivals and lots of local ones. I go in a personal capacity so I can experience it first hand, and I mostly chat to traders about their stories, look for new producers, get ideas and eat (of course!). There no single way to connect with interesting local food, so I have huge admiration for all Food Festival organisers – it’s tough job requiring the most expert of project management skills, combined with a good sense of humour.  I do however have close professional links with Conwy Feast and Malton Food Festival both of whom face similar challenges to us in terms of their town centre locations. We exchange ideas and generally support each other at those  ‘left of field’ moments.


Can you spot a food trend, and if so, what did you notice from this year’s festival?

Food is full of trends, but the issue that seems to be at the heart of our all conversations are around health: namely the role food has to play on health, such as healing foods and food intolerances. We were discussing just the other day how food is becoming increasingly important for people to identify who they are, either for health reasons or ethical reasons, such as a coeliac, vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian. It’s these strands that we can see really coming into their own. 



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