Rather predictably the heavens opened on our arrival at the main entrance, but free ponchos given out on the gate and the promise of lunch and cocktails within were enough to keep our spirits up. The place was already full of hungry punters, but numbers seemed to be kept to a manageable amount so the queues didn't get out of hand, and overall organisation was very good. (and the loos deserve a special mention for being the nicest I've seen at any festival thus far) With the weather quickly brightening up we set of for some grub.
The festival currency is crowns, with two crowns equating to one pound. This makes it easier for the stalls to take payment for their dishes , but also easier to spend huge amounts of money without really noticing. I ended up feeling rather like the banker in Monopoly, peeling off huge wads of 'funny' money to pay for things. Crowns can be redeemed at most stalls (all?) within the festival but cannot be exchanged back, so we started with five books of twenty crowns each, and bought more as needed. Luckily there are plenty of crown sellers, wearing bright pink t-shirts, dotted about the site if you're caught short.
Skylon's warm smoked Loch Var salmon, lemon verbena jelly and pickled cucumber and sweet rye kicked things off nicely. Helena Puolakka's dish won second prize in Best in Taste and the delicate tranche of smoky fish paired nicely with the fresh jelly and cucumber. The dense bread was topped with rich butter, chopped egg and dill mixture which the Ewing made light work of.
Launceston Place's Spit roast suckling pig and black truffle roll. We were lured over by the bronzed piglet turning on a spit and the wonderful roasted meat aroma. The sight of Tristan Welch's twin sons happily being fed said snacks by their dad confirmed our next purchase. Succulent slices of hot pork were interlaced with shards of crackling and generously covered in truffle shavings. A little piggy treat.
Gauthier Soho's Top-dog deluxe: smoked Strasbourg sausage hot dog, honey bacon mustard / mayo relish, golden soft and warm pain au lait. Who could not fail to be charmed by the idea of a Michelin starred tube steak? While the gourmet in me was tempted by the summer truffle risotto they were also offering the gourmand wasn't to be swayed. This was high end ball park fare. The bacon was pleasingly brittle and contrasted with the soft smoked sausage and authentically slightly stale tasting bun. All this finger-licking fun for a relatively 'bargain' 10 crowns.
Scott's scallop and shrimp burger. This was a whopper (size-wise, not because of its resemblance to any other famous fast food product) The burger had a good, coarse texture and a fine fishy flavour that stood up well to the punch of the pickles and the spicy sauce.
Club Gascon's foie gras burger with summer truffle. This was the 2011 Best in Taste winner and it was pretty busy when we arrived at the tent. Luckily we had Pascal Aussignac there to entertain us with some Gallic charm while we waited. (The bowls of Gascon mess he was putting together looked delicious too) A thing of beauty: this tasted extremely rich and decadent, with a hint of sweetness coming from the glazed bun. Overall I found this slightly underseasoned, and the creamy dressing on the lettuce was too much for the fattiness of the liver.
Club Gascon's black salmon with celariac remoulade. While I was getting my offal fix the Ewing was happily chowing down on her second salmon plate. This time the fish came with crispy lotus root and was crusted with fennel seeds, which gave it a nice aniseed note. The Ewing proclaimed this one her dish of the day.
The Modern Pantry's - Krupuk crusted soft shell crab, Singapore style sauce, pickled shimeji and cucumber. Soft shelled crab is anther of the Ewing's favourites and when she heard it was on the menu we had to hunt it down. The crab was freshly fried and crisp, and while I didn't care much for the Singapore style sauce the pickled shimeji and cucumber made a great accompaniment.
Asia de Cuba's Mexican doughnuts filled with butterscotch with a mojito sorbet. I believe these were here last year, and after tasting them, I'm very glad they bought them back. Just the right side of doughy; the piping hot cinnamon and sugar sweetness was offset by great sorbet that that really was boozy summer nights in a glass.
Le Caprice Cru Virunga chocolate crackle pot with raspberries. Not one of my usual choices, but the Ewing loves raspberries and chocolate and I'd heard this was good. It didn't disappoint; it was like a milky rich set custard, not too sweet and lifted by the sharpness of the berries. And the addition of Pop Rocks make everything more fun.
Despite a slow start, not helped by hunger and a untimely downpour, we ended up having a good laugh and a fun afternoon. Overall the food was decent although we found the simpler dishes (burgers, hot dogs grilled meats) to be the best, not to mention easiest, to eat when you're balancing on the muddy grass while trying to avoid losing an eye to an errant umbrella. More fun than it sounds when you've had a few Cooper's Pale Ales already.
Yes, the whole experience doesn't come cheap, (although discount tickets can be found online, especially for Thursday and Friday) and there is a strong commercial feel not helped by the new 'Secret Garden' area, (which costs a whopping £95 pounds per ticket) but there are some bargains to be found and lots freebies on offer as you walk about. There are also plenty of other things to keep you amused, including a demonstration theatre, cookery school, wine tasting, and producers market.
Despite all the entertainment on offer we found our happiest moment was late in the afternoon when, nicely full of food, the sun finally broke through the clouds and we could relax in the sunshine while sipping from a green coconut generously filled with Jamaican rum.