Festival season. A chance to revel in the sights, sounds and unholy stench of your fellow man, catch a few bands and overload your system with a variety of mind-altering substances.
But, alas, since entering the crushing ball-ache of middle-aged existence that is my 30s, I’ve started to feel a bit too old and lazy for it all.
I’m less inclined than I used to be to wade through gallons of human effluent for an hour to see my favourite band, only to find my view obscured by the acne-ridden back of an 8ft tall shirtless teenager, or worse, the be-thonged arse spilling out of his girlfriend’s cut-offs as she sits on his shoulders.
So what’s left when you’re an idle old curmudgeon like me and the last album you actually liked came out in 2003? Food and drink festivals of course.
This summer I’ve visited one of the biggest in town, and maybe the smallest. Who will win? David or Goliath? There’s only one way to find out…
…rationally discussing the benefits and drawbacks of each before making a measured decision. We’re not savages.
First the big one. I’ve been a Cardiff International Food and Drink Festival devotee for the best part of half a decade now.
It’s become a bit of a routine; arrive early on Friday to beat the crowds, only to find that the equivalent of the population of Coventry somehow arrived there at dawn, then spend a couple of hours ducking the razor sharp elbows of feral Cowbridge grannies to snaffle a few free samples. Proceed to buy all the same stuff you did last year, and get sunburned beyond recognition in the white-hot shadeless thunderdome of Roald Dahl Plas. Finish your evening hate-drinking expensive Fosters out of precariously flimsy plastic cups, and, if a wealthy uncle recently remembered you in their will, maybe have a small watery Pimms.
And yet, for all this festival’s foibles I still have a lot of love for it. The actual food is great, with some great local and local-ish suppliers. Snowdonia Cheese Company are a fixture, and with good reason – they offer a shedload of variations on old fashioned mature cheddar, with everything from cranberries to scotch, and I’ve yet to try a bad one.
Hereford’s Handmade Scotch Egg Co. offer some thoroughly mental twists on the 1980s buffet favourite; the sour, savoury Old Stager – a pickled egg, encased in crushed salt and vinegar crisps instead of breadcrumbs – is insane genius.
And, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, Sub Zero Ice Cream (sadly not a Mortal Kombat inspired sundae franchise) and The Fudge Box (stop sniggering in the back) offer enough flavours to make your head spin.
It was good to see relative newbies like Crafty Devil, Meat and Greek and Dusty Knuckle making an appearance this year too, but I was left with the lingering feeling that the festival could do with a well-intentioned kick up the arse if it wants to stay on top – biggest doesn’t always equate with best, especially when it’s virtually the same line-up year in, year out.
Hopefully the success of Streetfood Circus and The Depot might shake things up a bit for 2016.
As you might expect from an event that’s all about barbecue and craft beer, the audience is a bit more specialist – by 4pm we reached peak hipster, and the number of handlebar moustaches and sockless loafers threatened to coalesce into a sleeve-tattooed singularity. But say what you like about hipsters (I do) – they know their food.
Some of the best of which was doled out by Shauna and Sam of the mighty Hangfire Smokehouse. Highlights included the massive king ribs with meat so tender it positively hurled itself off the bone, and their brisket laden chilli, rich and thick as an old Etonian. Their offerings were all the better washed down with a sunny pint of Pipes Kölsch or, if you prefer something with a bit more grunt, their American Pale Ale.
The Canton brewers also knocked it out of the park with their new Pineapple Berliner – one of their first attempts at a sour beer. I’m not a massive fan of chucking fruit and veg in my pint and usually actively dislike the sour stuff – I tried one of Wild Beer’s once (Somerset Wild, for the masochists out there) and reacted like a two year old tasting marmite for the first time.
But, on the barman’s recommendation – couldn’t argue with that facial hair – I gave it a bash it with some of their specially-made raspberry syrup, and lo, there was summer in a glass; sweet, but not too sweet, and alarmingly drinkable. Thank god it only weighed in around the 3.2% mark, and was too pink for a grown man to drink more than a couple of pints of with a straight face.
The festival also doubled as a launch for the new Triple Soda soft drink, created by Pipes and Hangfire in an Avengers-style crossover. It’s pretty good on its own – essentially posh lemonade with a bit of ginger zing – but, in the hands of Cardiff’s finest Canadian import, mixologist Ericka Duffy, it’s liquid gold.
I tasted all four of her cocktail offerings, including the bonkers Smoked Watermelon (I skipped the optional worm), but it was the bourbon laden Triple L that really hit the spot – none of the tooth-dissolving sweetness you get with a bad cocktail (you know, those ones you get pretty much everywhere down the Bay), and enough of a bourbon kick to taste like it’s well worth the investment. Duffy’s past as, I kid you not, a professional taster of tea, coffee and wine, plus a stint as a perfumer, has given her mad booze skills.
Which fest tests the best?
Compared to a heavy hitter like CIF&DF (good god that’s an ugly acronym) that attracts thousands of punters, 300 or so people in a (beautifully decorated) glorified car park in Canton with a couple of choices of food and booze may not seem like much of a threat.
But like the hoary old cliché goes, sometimes small can be beautiful.
See, at the risk of sounding like the kind of loathsome soap-dodging hippie that I detest, what makes a festival great is never the music/food/booze/classic cars/crochet/whatever the hell else is advertised on the poster; it’s really about making connections with other humans. Ideally while in a slightly altered state of consciousness (especially the crochet crowd, they’re mad for it).
And that’s what Pipes succeeded in doing, not only by keeping the number of people within sane limits, but also by inviting some genuinely lovely traders and artists who actively enjoyed shooting the breeze with the punters.
Every stall had the kind of inspirational story behind it that a heavy handed X-Factor producer would have blasted Snow Patrol over and ruined, and they were more than happy to take a few minutes to share. The food phenomena that people really fall in love with are not just a sandwich, or a cupcake – they’re a story that we buy into. Whoever put this line-up together gets it.
In those rare quiet moments, CIF&DF can still capture this, but when the guy on the cheese stall has to marshall umpteen thousand hungry Cardiffians pillaging their way through his free samples like a horde of starving vikings, he just hasn’t got time to tell you about how he jacked in his soul crushing job working for The Man to go and do what he loves. And that’s a crying shame.