Twenty Years of Food, Fun and (Italian) Flair in Wales

Christine Smallwood Stories

I first went to the town of Abergavenny in 2007 with an Italian called Massimo. The wine sponsor of the upcoming food festival, he introduced me to Martin Orbach, its co-founder. A few days later, I returned to the town to see if the festival was as good as everyone said.

It was. And it was such fun that it’s been inked in my diary ever since. I’ve attended as a speaker and a moderator, with bonus points (and relentless mocking) the year I was on crutches. I’ve made some great friends there, always had my thoughts provoked, and my taste buds delighted.

This year promises to be a celebration not only of local food and producers but of the festival itself. In September 2018, the Abergavenny Food Festival is 20 years old. “It’s remarkable that it’s still going,” smiles Martin. “It’s great that it is, and a lot of its success is down to the town.” And to the workers and volunteers. Those who haven’t put in time behind the scenes at AFF may be surprised at how much the festival depends on the goodwill and enthusiasm of its tireless crew. Anybody who has ever worked at a food festival will have earned a resourcefulness badge; Aber often demands atom-splitting ingenuity.

My first speaking gig in 2008 was on Food Tourism in Italy, and, a masterclass on the food of Puglia. The latter sold out, and the scene was set: timing confusion, missing ingredients, broken equipment and an unwell audience member (to be fair, it was a Sunday morning slot). In hindsight, it was my least challenging event.

I always advise Aber newbies to pack their drinking boots, their dancing shoes, and big shopping bags. Some of the best food producers, not only from Wales but the UK attend. They’re friendly and expansive about their produce and how it’s made. In this day and age when so much food has a fake name or face behind it, it’s reassuring to meet people proudly making food the way it should be made.

There are stalwart supporters who turn up every year. I can’t imagine AFF without Carwyn Adams (Caws Cenarth Cheese), Rufus Carter and family (Patchwork Foods), James Swift (Trealy Farm Charcuterie), Eric Charriaux (La Cave à Fromage), James and his team (Chase Distillery), Juliet Noble (Shepherds Ice Cream) and, Kate Jenkins (Gower Cottage Brownies), glamorously assisted by her husband Rob, aka “the brownie bitch.” Be sure to try all of their produce. And to visit Paolo Arrigo of Franchi Seeds. Because Aber is not just about grabbing festival street food on the go. It’s about where food comes from. The start of things, namely the seeds that Paolo and his family sell here. If you’re lucky, he may play you a tune on his accordion, but you’re certain to be given invaluable advice on the sowing and nurturing of your veg plants.

Not that the festival programme is a repeat of the same faces every year, and there are always new stallholders, despite the regulars. Many still miss Tom Jaine and his resolutely non-bestseller book stall (he retired). Time moves on and so does the festival. These days, there’s an ever-expanding programme of fringe events, and CEO Aine Morris is keeping an adventurous hand on the tiller having taken hold a few years ago. It’s fitting as the festival has long had strong and inspirational women involved: Sarah Dickins, Ann Taruschio and Ruth Tudor (who ran The Meat Course) have given invaluable expertise and dedication over the years.

Aine’s maintained a far-reaching programme of talks. A look at this year’s programme shows subjects such as “Is Your Milk Trashing the Planet?” “Cooking with Your Senses” and in the Farmyard Tent a discussion on “Food Justice: why do we need it?” Making the most of the location, there’s a tutored tasting on mutton (by the excellent Black Welsh Lamb) and Welsh wines and cheeses. But it’s not all serious. There’s the Party up at the Castle on Saturday night with delicious food stands, live bands playing field filling numbers and an ooh-inducing firework display. There may even be a few after-party drinks…

As well as live music, the festival beats the Welsh produce drum, showing how good it is locally and how well it travels. It was the great Abergavenny-based Franco Taruschio who took his traditional Italian recipes and cooked them, using Welsh mushrooms etc. His legacy lives on, and the welcome the festival gives to people from far afield is brilliantly shown by the presence of experts in food from Belgium, Ireland, Ghana, India, Spain, USA, China, Morocco, Israel, Italy, Greece, France and Somalia on this year’s programme.

And, the Festival has travelled too. I was heavily involved in the organisation of the two-year exchange with a food festival in the south of Italy. It would take Alastair Campbell to spin that adventure into a seamless, hiccup-free experience but I can confidently say that nobody who was involved in going to Puglia and meeting producers and chefs there, nor those who came over here and irrepressibly manned a stand of capocollo and taralli will forget what a life-affirming cultural exchange it was. Just ask the brilliant Jane Baxter (although don’t mention her "fall"). She’ll be at the festival this year, as she was the first year I went. That’s where our friendship started. We’ve become great mates, and so have many others who met for the first time at a festival stall or event.

This year I’m moderating a panel with a friend, Jenny Linford (Time: The Missing Ingredient) and participating in the Festival Stories and Secrets. Happily both events are on Saturday afternoon which means I can spend Sunday wandering around the market place, catching up with old friends and making new discoveries, and of course, doing some serious shopping. It also means I don’t need to worry about feeling a little bit “tired” on Sunday morning. To those with an early Sunday talk slot, you have my sympathies.

So, AFF is all grown up. It’s now left its teens. Has it changed? In so many ways, of course it has, but it’s still welcoming, still involved with its community, still asks difficult questions and it still gives so many people who work across the food business a chance to get together, let their hair down (perhaps wear dresses they wouldn’t normally…) and importantly it’s still a celebration of great food and producers.

Cheers and many happy returns Aber x