Taste The World, restaurant review: A tasting menu at Womad? Festival food is moving on...
Womad Festival, Wiltshire, £50 a head, not including drinks
Lisa Markwell is the editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was previously executive editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday and has edited the features pages, and both the Saturday and Sunday supplements. She writes comment pieces for the papers and restaurant reviews for the New Review. Lisa has worked across a variety of newspapers and magazines and can now tick off every publication cycle from daily to quarterly. She is an enthusiastic foodie, mother of two teenagers and drives an electric car. She is writing a book about adoption.
Sunday 10 August 2014
Why review a restaurant that existed for only two nights, I hear you cry. Well, dear reader, because festival food has changed beyond all recognition and the chefs who cook in tents wearing wellies deserve some props.
Of course you can still get a slushy mushroom burger or box of insipid noodles as you drift from stage to field, but you can also now sit and eat well and imaginatively. I hadn't quite expected Womad to have caught up, though. The world music festival in Wiltshire is literally and metaphorically a bit "brown rice". I've been going for years because the music is so eclectic and joyful, and it's a manageable, fun size for families. But I've always taken my own food.
When I heard a chef was creating a tasting menu on two evenings, my ears pricked up. Which chef? Well, Dave Penfold, who was on MasterChef apparently (couldn't quite pinpoint him, but never mind). One night, a spice route menu featuring food of India, north Africa and the Middle East; on the other, a sugar route around the Caribbean and America's southern states.
We go for sugar night and, having swerved all the rotis and burgers around the place, arrive famished at 6pm for the "14-dish" extravaganza. At four long tables, the diners natter good-naturedly to their neighbours – there's a lot of "Can't wait for Youssou N'Dour's set" echoing around, as you'd expect.
Chef comes out to introduce the menu – part of his family is from the Caribbean and he's cooking dishes close to his heart. What follows is terrific fun, but the flavours feel neutered, as if either Penfold's palate is more mannered than his relatives', or he's toned down the spices and seasonings for this audience.
With a very gluggable Portugese rosé from the Drink the World bar next door (I can't remember the label; I was hot, it was cold), we dive into starters. Or rather, we don't dive. Dishes for six are brought to the tables and we divide them up ourselves. Mr M has four siblings and never holds back, which is fine at home, but there's another family at our table, so there's an oh-so-British hesitation that means there's always a bit of food left on the serving plate; no one wants to be that person.
Of the starters – Southern fried chicken, Jamaican beef and oxtail patties, Trinidadian saltfish balls and Cuban pumpkin frituras – the patties are the best. Rich little parcels of meat, they have the rootsy curry flavour of the Caribbean – but I also like that tastebud-assaulting kick of saltiness from the fishballs. The fritters are overwhelmingly sweet (this is the sugar route); the fried chicken has an OK if underpowered crumb, not quite crisp enough.
By now we're quite pally with the others, so sharing the Guyanan pepper-pot stew, Cajun chicken gumbo and barbecued mahi mahi is a breeze. Again, the pepper pot is seriously underpowered, and when there's just beef and seasoning, there's nowhere to hide. The gumbo is a bit "gumbo-lite", but soft and spoonable, just right for soaking up with hoecake. Wait… where are the side dishes?
For some reason (quite possibly a kitchen struggling with the heat and numbers), the rice'n'peas, cornbread and callaloo come after the main courses. By now I've filled up on a veggie feijoada, a classic (mild) Brazilian dish with black beans and sweet potato that has me muttering "oof" and loosening the ties on my tie-dye Thai fisherman's trousers (not really! This may be Womad but I'd sooner perform the Peruvian nose flute than wear festifare). No space for the sturdy sides, then, but a forkful of callaloo tastes as if here Penfold has the knack: it has that pleasingly iron-y, earthy mulch effect, lifted by coconut and spices.
At pudding, things come over all "tasting menu". The trio – churros with doce de leite, some soursop ice cream and Jamaican ginger cake – are presented on one plate, one per person. This is wise: if one diner dawdles over the ice cream (made with a fruit that tastes itself like a fruit cocktail), all the next along would get is a puddle.
It's been a hoot – bountiful food, gregarious people, and out in time for Fat Freddy's Drop.
Taste the World, Womad Festival, Wiltshire, £50 a head, not including drinks
To read more on festival food, get the Sunday Review magazine on 24 August
Four more foodie notes from the week
All credit to the restaurant I was recently less than enthusiastic about. They've tweaked some presentation and invited me back to try – the Daily Six starter is a hit.
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Neil Rankin, star chef at Smokehouse N1, revamps the menu at its sister pub. Stand-outs: sweet'n'sour pork cheeks and home-made snowballs.
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