Why would you bother messing about with the barbecue when you can run away to the Circus?
Who doesn’t love a bit of al fresco dining? From sunkissed Barcelonians tucking into tapas outside chic cafe bars to bearded good ol’ boys chowing down on pulled pork from pickup tailgates in the Deep South, everyone loves eating outside.
Of course, Barcelona and Birmingham Alabama have something in common – plenty of sunshine. Our own climate is distinctly less balmy, meaning most of us only venture into the garden to cook a couple of times a year. The results are predictable – we are, for the most part, absolutely awful at it.
For most of us, the format of the Great British BBQ is as follows:
Step 1: Light disposable barbie purchased from nearest Spar. This will take 3-4 attempts due to the wind and/or drizzle. Be sure to glance nervously up at the ominous grey cloud resembling an Imperial Star Destroyer that just appeared from nowhere.
Step 2: Wait for the coals to turn white. Or, more accurately, give it twenty minutes, run out of patience and chuck the sausages on regardless, ensuring the first batch carbonises instantaneously.
Step 3: Squat uncomfortably next to the screaming hot coals sweating for an hour while everyone else eats your food and drinks your beer. Wince as the guy from work you only invited out of politeness finishes the last of your Tesco Taste The Difference burgers, leaving you with a half-cooked Iceland own brand horsemeat patty and a badly fingered bun.
Step 5: Choke down a disturbingly crunchy burnt sausage doused in ketchup just as the rain starts. Vow never to barbecue again as long as you live.
Now, there are ways to get better at this barbecue lark – for starters, the Hangfire girls published their barbecue bible earlier this year.
It’s a cracking little book featuring tips and recipes picked up everywhere from South Carolina to Splott, covering rubs, sauces, coal placement and even building your own smoker out of plate steel (BA Baracus has nothing on Shauna and Sam).
If you’re anything like me though, becoming a barbecue pro seems like a lot of effort for something you get to do about twice a year. Far more efficient to let someone else deal with all that pesky outdoor cooking for you instead.
Enter Street Food Circus, Cardiff’s go-to outdoor dining destination. You know the drill by now – the big top seating area in the middle with food stalls all round and a merciful dearth of clowns, evil or otherwise (get back in your drain, Pennywise).
Relocating to leafy Bute Park has only enhanced SFC’s status as an Instagrammer’s wet dream – it’s all artfully rusty old trucks, peeling paintwork, bunting and fairy lights – even the picnic tables seem to have been chosen for their qualities as food photo backdrops.
As an additional twist, this year traders are divided into a series of ‘zones’ – a bit like the Crystal Maze, only with an unfortunate lack of Richard O’Brien and a fortunate lack of Ed Tudor Pole.
There’s The Farmyard which mostly consists of British and European ethical produce-y stuff, the Asian themed Singha Street and The Block, which focuses on US-style grub. It’s quite fun to be able to zip from Bangkok to Boston in the time it takes to scarf down a Little Bao Peep bun, so kudos for that, even if some of the stalls don’t quite fit in with the themes (La Ffroga and Prego’s next to Got Beef in The Block? Eh?).
Sunshine was in short supply on our last visit, so a bit of South Asian heat was the order of the day. While everyone is quite rightly raving about Anand George’s Purple Poppadom spin-off Tukka Tuk, I thought I’d give fellow Singha Street denizens Gopal’s Curry Shack a try.
I’m glad I did. Despite sitting in the unenviable shadow of their more famous neighbours, they’re no slouches themselves, dishing up some solid veggie fare.
Their £5 pakora taster dish sends flavours and textures bouncing all over the shop; fruity little bursts of pomegranate, a deep warming hit of curry spice, and an unexpected crunch from the deep fried sev noodles. There’s enough going on to distract even the most determined carnivore from the lack of meat.
Speaking of meat though, there’s only so long a man can stand in the blazing sunshine with a pint in hand before he needs to demonstrate humanity’s mastery over nature by eating something that used to be alive. It was time for chicken wings.
I woke up a week or two ago with a furious need for chicken wings that I just couldn’t shake, like having a terrible song stuck in your head, only far more delicious.
Thankfully I rediscovered Lola’s Wings at just the right time. I first came across them at the Grillstock festival in Bristol a year or two ago, and other than Levi Roots actually singing the song off his advert and running into the guy who played the original Lord Commander of the Nights Watch, they were one of the highlights of the day.
Let’s not mince words here – they are quite simply the best chicken wings I’ve ever tasted.
The thick, sticky sweet barbecue sauce is so good you don’t care that it’s just dribbled all down your best t-shirt. There’s probably some in your hair right now, but you’re too busy noisily slurping up every last morsel like a starving hyena chomping on a wildebeest carcass to be bothered. If you’re not careful you’ll forget the side of creamy blue cheese dip with honking great chunks of stilton in it. I really hope you brought some wet wipes.
The only complaint I can possibly have is the price – £6.50 for 5 wings just feels a little bit steep – you’re certainly getting what you pay for (organic, free range etc), but psychologically a quid per wing would feel a little fairer. More on that later. Now it’s time for tacos. Bearded Tacos to be precise.
I make no bones about my love of tacos – the ancient Aztecs had been enjoying them for centuries while we were still dicking around trying to invent sandwiches, and I firmly believe we should replace 60% of the UK’s manky kebab shops with taquerias.
BT’s efforts are a fine example of the breed – soft corn flatbreads loaded with a rainbow riot of colours and flavours. The pork is rich, meaty and so juicy it drips all down your chin (Christ, you’re going to need some Vanish for that t-shirt), while the tempura avocado is a bit of a revelation; somehow light, creamy, crispy and just as satisfying as its carnivorous counterpart. Just the sort of thing to set you up for dessert.
If, like me, you have a sweet tooth AND enjoy a dose of Frankenstein-esque mad science, you can’t go far wrong with Science Cream. It’s impossible not to enjoy watching their lab coated minions beavering away under clouds of billowing liquid nitrogen like a deleted scene from Willy Wonka, and even more impossible not to love their ice cream. It’s obscenely creamy, and their toppings (everything from homemade honeycomb to peanut praline) are er… top.
Again, a slight word of warning, particularly to anyone with a couple of kids; you’re looking at just South of fiver a pot. Given the quality and the theatrical flourishes I’m ok with that, but if I had a tribe of young ‘uns to cater for I might wince a little.
Which brings me back to what seems to have been a bone of contention at this year’s SFC. There’s been quite a bit of heated back and forth on social media about cost vs portions size lately (what kind of dick starts an argument about food on the internet?!).
I’m a bit conflicted on it to be honest. SFC isn’t the cheapest day out – for some folks, the prices – £5 for smaller bites, around £8 for the more substantial stuff – might be a turn off, particularly if they’ve got kids to feed or plan on sinking a few beers too (averaging about £4.50 a pint).
It’d be a shame if people didn’t feel like they could expand their horizons a bit and try some new things because of the cost. Who knows, maybe a modest entry fee and a quid off some of the food prices could work wonders.
Personally I don’t mind paying that little bit more when I know I’m getting good quality grub – especially if the money’s going in the pocket of a small business who put a lot of love into their work.
Besides, it’s a lot more fun than burning sausages on a disposable barbecue.
Does SFC 2016 make you want to run away to the circus or is it strictly for clowns? Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter at @fuudblog…
All photos by the ever wonderful @scruffyDuke