Feeling Flat: Cardiff International Food and Drink Festival

Summer has rolled around once again, bringing with it a predictable mix of British tennis misery and rained off BBQs.

For foodies, it's also the start of the food festival season, kicking off this weekend in Cardiff Bay with the Cardiff International Food and Drink Festival.  Anyone would think I'd be overjoyed to have such an event in my adopted city, but I have a confession to make.

Whilst I always end up going to the festival, I never actually enjoy it.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy sampling new produce and chatting with stallholders as much as the next foodie, but for various reasons this event always leaves me feeling a little flat.

Setting

On the face of it, Roald Dahl Plass in the heart of Cardiff Bay is a perfect setting for the festival.  Located in the heart of the bay, it nestles between the restaurants of Mermaid Quay and the impressive architecture of the Sennedd and the Wales Millennium Centre.  Stalls take up most of the space in the Plass, with a farmers market sprawling off towards the Norwegian Church. 

Perhaps it's the tightly packed marquees, the packed out public transport or the sheer volume of people - it gets positively claustrophobic.  Heaven forbid you actually want to take your children with you as it certainly isn't buggy friendly.

For visitors to the city, parking can also be tricky - filling up quickly or being damn expensive. 

One solution could be to expand the site, perhaps onto the Barrage to open up the space, give people room to move and explore the area further.  Or why not abandon the bay altogether, instead focusing on the wonderful parkland the city has to offer - though this could prove a thorny subject for some who already feel the green-space in the city centre is over-utilised for such things.

Food Court

Moving away from the Plass, you find the food court - which for the past 2 years has been situated to the side of the Sennedd.  Here you'll find your usual mix of charcoal grilled meat products as well as a few vegetarian options.  No issues here, but I can't help but wonder if the festival organisers aren't missing a trick.  Whilst Cardiff doesn't yet have a Michelin starred establishment, it would be great to see local venues host "pop-up" restaurants whilst the event is on - giving diners from the city and further afield a chance to sample everything the city has to offer as well as encouraging repeat custom, creating a sustainable and vibrant food scene for everyone. 

Events

Take a glance at the event website and tell me which talks you'll be attending.  Oh, they're not listed you say?  Look a little closer and you'll see there are cheese and wine tastings happening over the weekend (contact the Norwegian Church for more info on ticket pricing and times) and the John Lewis Food Theatre, which promises "Signature dishes and seasonal recipes will be prepared using local fresh ingredients many of which are available to buy on site" as well as special kids' workshops.  To get a ticket for these, you have to turn up on the day and get one at the information caravan.  Tricky if you don't know what's on or when. 

Surely these things are planned in advance so a schedule on the website wouldn't go amiss.  If the organisers wanted to go one step further, online ticket booking and e-tickets could be the way forward and with sites like Event Brite, it needn't be a hassle.

Crafty Stallholders

Now, let me make it clear - I'm not implying that the stallholders and producers are dishonest, it's more the content of the stalls that I'm concerned with.  With a small site (in comparison to other Welsh festivals), why is so much space given over to those selling non-food and drink items?  I'm not sure about others, but I go to food and drink festivals for exactly that, food and drink.


Some things tie in nicely with the theme of the festival - olive oil pourers and herb plants, whereas others selling artwork, jewellery and clothing, whilst very nice, don't sit well with me.   

International?

Perhaps my biggest problem with the festival is the "International" tag.  Whilst I've seen many non-UK stalls in my visits over the years, they tend to be from European countries, mostly Wales.  Nothing wrong with that and it's great to see countries such as Sweden and Germany showcasing their wares, but it hardly gives the weekend an international flavour.  The question is getting the balance right - whilst it's vitally important to give Welsh producers a platform for their excellent food and drink, if you are to be truly international you need to look a bit further afield than mainland Europe. 

How do you encourage this?  Just as Wales True Taste promotes Welsh produce outside the principality, we need to encourage other countries' tourist boards to do the same here.  If this cannot be done then the name of the festival needs to change. 

Another option would be to split the core of the festival in two, either running two separate events - one for Welsh produce and then an international one, or run the event in two distinct sites, again with a Welsh/International focus on each.

This year I'm taking a break from the festival, mainly as I'm moving house this weekend, but also seeing the same stallholders and set up year in, year out has left me a little jaded.  Perhaps a year off is what I need.  Or maybe, just maybe, there's something in how I feel about the little festival in the city.

Comments

Gomez said…
I agree with everything you say, which is why I didn't go last year and I won't be going this year!
Emma said…
Agree with all your points. But I have to say that going to the Cheese festival last year in Cardiff Castle grounds was a huge rip-off. Last year it was £8 to get in. This year it's £8.75 (that's more than inflation, if I've got my sums right...). And then you pay for the talks once you're in. It's £27 for 2 adults and 2 children. That's before you've bought any food or drink. And 'concessions' are £7.50... hardly a discount.
mark said…
I agree, it is a bit pants. Cardiff Vegetarian Festival is way better and it's a shame this one isn't as good, especially given all the money that's sunk into it. It always feels a bit soulless to me.
Wow - was really worried about the feedback to this so great to see so many of you agree!

Just to answer a few points.

Emma - completely agree about the Cheese festival and wrote pretty much that in my review of it for The Guardian last year
http://cardiffbites.blogspot.com/2010/09/guest-post-great-british-cheese.html
A great venue but wasted and hugely overpriced.

Mark - I agree it can be a little soulless at the bay, a shame given the passion that others inject into smaller festivals such as the Vegetarian food festival. Imagine what they could achieve with half the budget that the big hitters have!
Peter D Cox said…
Last year I was severely shouted at by a Cardiff councillor for expressing much the same sentiment in a Tweet. Glad to know the observations are not just mine.

The council, which invests heavily in the event, would be minded to take on board some of these perfectly valid criticisms and get it sorted. And be able to cope with this weekends probable gales.
Peter - I think it's important to stick my head above the parapet on this one as the event is supposed to represent this city amongst a sea of food festivals. It *could* be fantastic, perhaps not on the same scale as Abergavenny but certainly a destination festival.

As I've tried to set out, a few simple tweaks is all, in my opinion, it needs. Surely with heavy investment from the council we all should have a say?

I'm still awaiting a backlash but most people seem to be agreement that things have to improve.
Thanks for starting this debate Nicki. I enjoyed my visit to the festival yesterday. This year there's a good programme of cookery demonstrations (e.g., Dominic Powell from Park Plaza and Martin Blunos from Crown Social). However, with such a dynamic local food scene in the Cardiff area at the moment, I feel that this festival could be much better and more representative of what is happening in the city as a whole.
Rebecca said…
I agree too. I'll be going this year again but I always approach it with some trepidation rather than enthusiasm and excitement.

Whilst some of the produce on offer is excellent, I always hate the feeling of constantly being elbowed by people clamouring for the free samples. And I've never even been near the food court due to it being so rammed.

I agree that just a few little improvements would make the whole experience much more user-friendly.
Have to say I couldn't agree more ! I almost resisted the temptation to attend this year due to the crowds, the parking, the inflated prices and all of the other issues you mention !

It needs a serious re-think.....
Anonymous said…
I do agree with all your comments on the festival and after reading i get a feeling that' much said but nothing done'. Those who point out deficiencies (including me)have a responsibility to come out with a solution also.My suggestion is that Nicki should take leadership to organize international food festival.There are a large number of Asian restaurants in cardiff. We may associate them. There are also a large number of foreign students in Cardiff. Some of them may be interested to join. we may start it as a 'not for profit' program to keep the charges low since economy is in downward motion. Food products made in different counties along with food ingredients may also be made available on cost basis. I am of the opinion that these will add real spice to the festval. Why not Penarth International Food Festival?
Hi anonymous, why not indeed?!

I'm pleased to say that I am getting involved in new ventures and will hopefully be able to say more very soon as things are still in the planning stages.

However if anyone did want to start up anything new locally then I'd be happy to get involved so please drop me a line at the usual address.

As for this event I'm not sure the council etc like being told what to do (as Peter's comment demonstrates) and a similar event with a similar name might be too confusing for people.

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