It was a clear, crisp Saturday – the first in October – and there was a hint of a chill in the air but not enough to make you shiver. In a photograph, the bright sun in the blue sky would have suggested a warm summers day and it was almost as pleasant. In fact, it was the perfect day for the first Food Festival at Powderham Castle.
A trendy and popular pastime – as it seems everyone is an expert ‘foodie’ these days (ahem!) – there are some events springing up which claim to be food festivals, but which actually fall short of the mark and over-charge for the pleasure of being hounded by a few low quality stalls.
I’m happy to say Powderham was not one of these let-down festivals, but quite the opposite. Attending with a friend, we made the perfect partnership: I’m a foodie (ahem!) who likes to rave about my findings and she’s a fantastic photographer in the making (all images courtesy of Lucy Ward).
Walking through those ancient gates and into the courtyard, I had a good feeling about this one. At just £4 to enter – which isn’t too bad compared to some – the festival had an impressive number and range of stalls, mostly local producers of food and drink. We’d only been there a matter of moments when we were attracted to the first stand like bees to honey (or should that be pollen??). I instantly knew I was in trouble. October is an expensive month for me, what with friend’s leaving parties, God children’s birthdays and new boots to buy for winter (essential, obviously). All this adds up to quite a list over which to spread my month’s wage and it meant I didn’t exactly have much spare cash.
So I did what any frugal, savvy and careful food shopper would do: I looked around all the stalls before parting with way more money than I should have done. Well! It’s not as if I go to a quality local food festival like this often. As demonstrated in my April blog, A Weekend of Gluttony, I’m a big fan of the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink. A mouthful, in more ways than one but this weekend is one that I actually save up for. I block the dates out of my diary months in advance and practically live there for the weekend. But this kind of extravagance doesn’t happen often, so I thought ‘why not?‘ and the budget went out of the window.
My first purchase was a hunking great wedge of gooey Cornish brie from The West Country Cheese Co. You always know you’re onto a winner when the crowds are gathering around a stand and I had to employ my fiercest elbow tactics to fight my way to the front and claim a taster. This brie is very gentle, creamy and smooth without being sickly. At the bargain price of £2.50 for a door-stop size piece I didn’t need to think twice.
Next we decided to slow our shopping antics down by going to one of the talks. I was chomping at the bit to transport myself back to Great Expectations or Jane Eyre times and listen to ‘Victorian Cook – life below stairs‘, but due to some poor communications on the part of the organisers (it was first festival, I’m sure they’ll improve for the next) we didn’t collect our ticket in time to claim a place. So instead we headed to the Music Room and caught the tail-end of a Cider, Bread and Cheese talk which was not only interesting but interactive – we all got to sample a mouthful of Ashridge Cider, and very good it was too.
This gave us a taste for more and we decided it was time for lunch. Now usually, being surrounded by such a variety of freshly made options would be heaven, but there were so many delicious smells and sights at every turn, trying to make a decision was almost torture! We did two (or was it three?) laps of the entire festival, sizing up potential snacks and changing our minds every few minutes. Would it be a bowl of steaming chicken korma from Ock’s Indian Kitchen, or a savoury pancake from The Pancake Bar? My taste buds were crying out for something fresh and different and they got it – in the form of a leek and potato rösti, topped with smoked mackerel with crème fraîche.
This dish was being cooked to order by Cockleshell Deli and it was the beetroot röstis that caught my eye first. That bright purply-pink colour is so vibrant that I just couldn’t walk past. A lover of beetroot, I could easily have chosen this colourful option topped with smoked salmon, but something about the leek and mackerel combination just screamed ‘eat me’. They looked so good that my friend chose the same, and juggling our plates and half pints of Tricky’s Cider, we found a great spot to devour our dishes, looking towards the Exe estuary.
And devour we did – the röstis were definitely a good choice, full of fresh clean flavours with the coolness of the mackerel and crème fraîche contrasting with the hot fried leek and potato rösti. I was so impressed that I decided to make my own version at home…more about that in my next blog!
After enjoying our refreshment and the scenery, we resumed our wander around the festival. Lucy bought freshly baked bread from Shaldon Bakery and violet cream fondant chocolates from Caprine Capers. The Blueberry Brothers stand was looking delicious as usual, especially the mini tarts which were glistening in the sunshine. It’s easy to see why the brothers have recently been awarded a silver medal in the sweet bakery category of the Taste of the West Awards.
I was tempted into further spending by SB Stanbury & Sons – Game Dealers. Two deep red-purple venison steaks, smooth and lean with not an ounce of fat on them. I’ll look forward to pan frying those and serving with some chunky potato wedges and either a red wine or juniper berry sauce…decisions decisions! I had a small amount of money left burning a hole in my pocket and being a northerner, I couldn’t leave without buying…you’ve guessed it…a PIE. I’m a fan of Wessex Pantry having tasted their goodies at the Exeter Food festival, and the man on the stall was such a character that it was a pleasure to part with the last of my dosh. There was a sea of pies to choose from (a northerner’s paradise!) but after much deliberation I opted for the beef and Guinness filling. The pie froze well and I ate the pastry treat a few evenings ago with mash and garden peas. I can honestly say that it was mouth-wateringly good, the perfect antidote to the arrival of this autumnal weather.
So penniless but smiling, we decided to call it a day shortly before the stallholders began packing up. Between us, we’d bought edible goodies from most of the major food groups; sampled cheeses, chocolates and charcuterie; learned from an expert cider maker and stuffed our faces with a seriously tasty omega-3 rich lunch. I’d say that Powderham Food Festival was King of the Castle and I can’t wait for the next one – I’ll start saving now!