I only found out about the Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival when we drove past Montpellier Gardens earlier this week and spotted the tents going up. Given my love of all things food, I was delighted to have chance to go and enjoy a wander yesterday afternoon. Thankfully the sun came out for my visit, although the ground was a bit muddy in places from the earlier rain.
The first thing that struck me was a whiff of aromatic Indian spices, the strongest of the competing cooking smells from the various festival food stalls (including several local restaurants which have set up tent-based outposts for the weekend). Then, as I walked past the beer tent, the scent of food gave way to the somewhat less appetising odour of stale, spilled beer.
As I wasn't looking for dinner or drinks, I gravitated towards the huge shopping marquee. The emphasis on ready-to-eat food was a bit of a surprise, here: it felt like the "ideal customer" was going to serve up a ploughman's lunch of fresh bread, speciality cheeses, assorted olives, and a scoop of handmade (and probably organic) relish on the side. Which would be lovely, but not terribly ambitious... there were a few cookware stands, but I'd expected to see far more in the way of raw ingredients. Things that visitors can taste for themselves at the stall probably do sell better, on the whole, but personally I would have loved to discover some obscure and exotic flavours to experiment with in my own kitchen.
I could easily have spent a fortune nonetheless, as there were so many gorgeous products to sample. I went in with a hard-line strategy of "don't buy anything until you've seen everything" - that way, I didn't have to carry increasingly heavy bags, and I could go back at the end to stock up on the bits and bobs that I really wanted. With so much to choose from it was worth doing this to guard against excessive impulse purchasing, especially as there were so many stalls selling very similar products (the dozens of chutney producers stood out in this regard). My star purchase was a bar of chilli and lime chocolate, from a small Cornish company - I just wish I'd bought more than one bar!
Back out in the city of tents I found the stall from Whole Foods Market, who are sponsoring the festival to draw attention to their Cheltenham store (expected to open in October). As well as handing out espresso-sized tasters of delicious butternut squash soup, the team were really friendly and great to chat with. I've shopped at Whole Foods when visiting the US, so I'm looking forwards to the new store opening not-too-far from home, and that really should be a source of some great ingredients to play with. I was particularly interested to learn that it's going to have a section where you can buy dry ingredients loose, in just the amounts you need - an eco-friendly idea that I think all shops should adopt.
I only had a couple of hours, but you could easily spend all day (or all weekend) being a foodie in Montpellier Gardens - especially if you were also taking the opportunity to chill out with friends, enjoy the atmosphere, and sample the various cafes, bars, and snack stands. One corner of the park housed a live music stage, while elsewhere there was an extensive series of talks and cookery demos. (I'd advise anyone planning a visit to check out the timetables in advance, as I arrived in the middle of one that would have been interesting.)
This year's Food & Drink Festival is running until 17th June 2012.