The Complete Guide To: World food festivals

Rhiannon Batten eats her way round the globe via some of the hundreds of events that celebrate regional produce, from pink garlic in the French Pyrenees to chestnuts in the hills of Tuscany


WHAT HAS FOOD GOT TO DO WITH TRAVEL?

WHAT HAS FOOD GOT TO DO WITH TRAVEL?

Remember the simple bowl of pasta that you ate sitting in a sunny square in Italy? The hunk of roquefort that you savoured with a glass of wine after a lazy dinner in France? The pastel de nata munched on the run in Lisbon? Food has always been one of the most memorable parts of the travel experience. And with Jamie Oliver and company shaming us into shedding processed junk in favour of locally sourced, seasonal produce, now is the perfect time for a little gastronomic tourism. If you want to make what you eat not just part of your holiday but the starting point for it, the best approach is to head to the nearest food festival.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

On home soil (or should that be from home soil?). Britain's food festivals may not be the world's biggest, but what's lacking in quantity is certainly made up for in quality. And the good news for gourmet tourists is that they also take place in some pretty spectacular locations. One of the most established is held in the pretty Marches town of Ludlow, between 9 and 11 September. As well as a large local-produce market, a series of planned events range from foodie ghost tours to the annual Magnalonga, a hike through the surrounding Shropshire countryside, stopping off at various places en route for a different course of one long meal of local food and drink (01584 873957; www.foodfestival.co.uk).

Meanwhile, up in Northumberland, the inaugural Alnwick Food Festival is set to take place on 24 and 25 September. It's the latest addition to one of the region's fastest-growing attractions. As well as the historic town of Alnwick itself, the local castle was the setting for the film version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; and neighbouring Alnwick Garden has won almost as many accolades for its dancing fountains and giant tree-house as it has for its plants. Details of the participating stallholders and events have yet to be released, but it's probably safe to assume that "butcher, baker and sausage-roll maker" Robert Carter & Son, from nearby Bamburgh, will be there selling Northumbria's finest sausage, the "Bamburgh banger" (07956 408215; www.alnwickfoodfestival.co.uk).

ANY MORE I SHOULD LOOK OUT FOR?

Other good UK food festivals include Castle Douglas Food Day on 28 May (01556 502611; www.cd-foodtown.org); the Loch Fyne Food Fair on 28 and 29 May (01499 600264; www.lochfyne.com); York's Festival of Food and Drink from 16-25 September (01904 466687; www.yorkfestivaloffoodanddrink.com); the Abergavenny Food Festival on 17 and 18 September (01873 851643; www.abergavennyfoodfestival.com); and Henrietta Green's Food Lovers' Fair in Covent Garden from 4-6 November (020-8206 6111; www.foodloversbritain.com). For other foodie fests, from cherry weekends to chilli fiestas, visit the events pages at www.thefoody.com.

NEVER MIND THE SOIL, WHAT ABOUT THE SEA?

The UK has plenty of local fish and seafood festivals, too, including one at Tarbert, in Argyll, which takes place on 2 and 3 July. As well as seafood stalls, the festivities here include the naming of a "Seafood Queen", the chance to indulge in a beer on the pier, and a traditional boat rally (01880 820132; www.seafood-festival.tarbertlochfyne.com). However, most UK seafood events are pretty small fry. Serious shellfish lovers should head to Ireland instead, for one of its annual oyster festivals. The biggest, which includes the world oyster-opening championships as well as an "Elegant Lady" competition, takes place in Galway from 22-25 September. It's a popular event; if you plan on getting into the farewell party, ensure that you book a ticket (€20/£14 per person) well ahead (00 353 91 522066; www.galwayoysterfest.com). Further afield, Sweden is also renowned for its hedonistic summer crayfish parties. Most are private events held in people's homes, but if you don't want to miss out on the fun, head to Malmo for its annual food and music festival. Events here include "the world's largest crayfish party", on the evening of 19 August, when big tables are set up on the town square. Note that you must bring your own crayfish if you want to tuck in yourself ( www.malmofestivalen.se).

I THOUGHT FRANCE WAS THE PLACE FOR OYSTERS...

It is. The wetlands of the Marennes-Oléron region of France, about halfway down the country's Atlantic coast, produce 50,000 tonnes of the glossy creatures each year (half the country's entire oyster harvest). This fact is celebrated each August with a special oyster shindig, the Fête de l'Huître et du Pineau (the latter being the local liqueur). Taking place on the peaceful island of Oléron, this year the festivities are scheduled for 7 August, with markets, competitions and tastings in the pretty port village of Château d'Oléron (00 33 546 856 523; www.marennes-oleron-tour.org).

Eating oysters has been part of life here for centuries and, even outside festival time, you won't go far before coming across a simple oyster or mussel shack. Over on the mainland, you can work up an appetite by visiting the 17th-century fortress village of Brouage, whose grid-patterned streets, still enclosed within picturesque stone walls, were once at the water's edge but are now surrounded, rather surreally, by miles of marshland. Guided visits cost €8 (£5.70) per person (00 33 54 685 1916; www.officedetourismebrouage.com).

WHAT ELSE CAN FRANCE OFFER?

One of the quirkiest food festivals in France is the annual nettle festival. This is no gimmicky village fête; connoisseurs and producers from all over France arrive for a weekend of exhibitions, cookery workshops and tastings, while tourists make the most of a specialist market. Again, this is more sophisticated than you might imagine; almost as much care goes into labelling and packaging gourmet nettle cheeses, soups and biscuits as in producing the food. You'll have to rush to get to this year's festival, though; it takes place today and tomorrow in la Haye de Routot in Normandy. Tickets cost €5/£3.60 (00 33 23 257 3574; http://ortiesfolies.free.fr).

Another distinctive ingredient is celebrated in the country's annual Fête de l'Ail Rose (pink garlic). This free festival takes place on 5 August in the small town of Lautrec, in the Midi-Pyrenees. The region's unusual rosy-hued garlic is so prized that it even has its own red label. The celebrations culminate with crowds of visitors descending on Lautrec to indulge in local dishes and attempt to build record-breakingly long ropes of garlic. For more information, contact the regional tourist board (00 33 56 375 3140; www.tourism.midi-pyrenees.org; www.lautrec.free.fr).

THAT SOUNDS A BIT CHEESY...

Not as cheesy as Italy's Slow Food Cheese Festival, which takes place from 16-19 September in Bra, Piemonte. The Slow Food Movement was founded nearby, in 1986, with the idea of promoting food made, essentially, without the help of additives or mass production. The organisation's main food festival, the Salone del Gusto, takes place bi-annually in Turin, with the next one in 2006. Gourmets need not go hungry during the "off" years because the organisation then runs biannual cheese festivals (0800 917 1232; www.slowfood.com).

*If you want to make this year's festival part of a foodie holiday, Tasting Places offers trips to the Slow Food Cheese Festival that also take in visits to local restaurants and wine tastings. Prices start at £630 per person including accommodation, meals, wine and transfers, but not flights (020-7460 00 77; www.tastingplaces.com).

ANY OTHER ORGANISED TOURS COVERING FOOD FESTIVALS?

Gourmet Touring (00 33 632 800 474; www.gourmet-touring.com) can put together tailor-made tours in the Bordeaux region, travelling by classic car and taking in various local food festivals. These start at around £500 per person for a three-night break. Another option, if you're interested in truffles, is an organised trip to the October truffle festival in Alba with Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344; www.winetours.co.uk), which is unfortunately fully-booked for October 2005. However you can still go truffle-hunting on the Gourmet Piemonte trip from 9-12 November, which includes trips to other regional markets and wine tastings. Prices start at £699 per person including transfers, guided trips, accommodation and most meals.

AH, TRUFFLES... THAT OLD CHESTNUT

Er, no. If it's chestnuts you're after, head to the medieval town of Abbadia San Salvatore, in Tuscany. Here, starting on the second Saturday of October each year, is an autumn celebration dedicated to chestnuts and mushrooms. As the locals compete to rustle up the best recipes, you get to taste the results in the town's main square - and work it all off again with live music and dancing. For more information, contact the Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

Alternatively, try the Fieira de la Castanha in Mourjou en Chataigneraie, in the Auvergne. At this annual festival, which takes place on 22 and 23 October, visitors can eat chestnuts, take a "chestnut discovery trip", or even join in the harvest (00 33 4 71 63 85 00; www.mourjou.fr).

ANYTHING FOR A SWEET TOOTH?

Head across the Atlantic to the annual chocolate festival at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This year's event, on 10 and 11 September, is the 10th. As well as the usual chocolate stalls there will be a hands-free sundae-eating contest: the first person to lick their way through eight kinds of ice cream and eight toppings takes home their weight in Ghirardelli chocolate). Admission is free but you pay for tastings; these start at $8 (£4.20) for five (001 415 775 5500; www.ghirardellisq.com).

A more serious event is the Salon du Chocolat. Usually held in Paris, this year it will also take place as the Chocolate Show in New York's Metropolitan Pavilion & Altman Building. From 10-13 November there will be tastings, demonstrations and a children's area (anyone for chocolate make-up?). Admission is $20 (£10.50) for adults and $10 (£5.20) for children (001 866 246 2692; www.chocoland.com).

I'VE GOT MORE ADVENTUROUS TASTES

Then head south to Mexico's mole festival, a celebration of the savoury, chilli-flecked chocolate sauce. The Mole Fair has been going strong in San Pedro Atocpan, to the south of Mexico City, since 1978. The town boasts 50 mole mills, where the ingredients for the sauce are ground, sorted and packaged. This year's event takes place 15-30 October, and there will be a rodeo and fireworks.

The specialist operator South American Experience (020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) offers one-week packages to Mexico City including flights, transfers, accommodation, a city tour and excursions including the mole festival, from £892.

If that is a little too adventurous, how about a saffron festival in Spain? Saffron from La Mancha may be one of the most expensive spices you can buy, but no self-respecting paella chef would be without it.

One of the reasons that the mellow yellow spice is so pricey is that the saffron crocus flowers just for a few hours and all the harvesting is done within a week or two each October. At the end of the harvest, the locals throw a festival to celebrate.

This year's event takes place in Consuegra on 30 October. If you want to see it as part of a tour, A Taste of Spain runs an eight-night "Spanish spices" trip, starting in Madrid on 23 October and including visits to cheese and paprika producers and cooking lessons as well as the saffron festival. Prices start at €3,060 (£2,185) per person including accommodation, most meals, transport, guides and activities but not flights (00 34 956 455 005; www.atasteofspain.com).

I LIKE THINGS A BIT SPICIER

Singapore's Food Festival, throughout July, is the answer. Events range from food tours and culinary workshops, to the "chilli crab chase", allowing all visitors to the country during that month a chance to try the unofficial national dish for free. That the festival is on such a grand scale isn't surprising given the locals' love of food - the customary greeting from residents of the city state isn't "how are you?" but "have you eaten?".

Details for this year's festival are still being finalised but for more information contact the Singapore Tourism Board nearer the time (08080 656565; www.visitsingapore.com).

A FORK ON THE WILD SIDE

In March, New Zealand's most adventurous foodies make a beeline for the annual Hokitika Wild Foods Festival, on the South Island's west coast. If the thought of hares' testicles, magpie pies or huhu grubs makes your stomach rumble, this is the place for you - fortunately, there's also rhubarb champagne, home-cured bacon and whitebait for the rest of us (00 643 755 8321; www.wildfoods.co.nz). A more conventional grazing experience is on offer at the annual Great Long Lunch in Napier. Here, also in March but at the other end of the dining - and geographical - spectrum (it's in the east of the North Island), up to 700 visitors sit spread out along 250m of the city's Marine Parade Gardens, eating special dishes and sipping the local Hawke's Bay wine (00 646 834 3917; www.greatlonglunch.co.nz).

I'M STARTING TO FEEL FULL NOW

Then head to the infamous Tomatina in Buñol. Here, food isn't to be eaten so much as thrown, using the surplus from the tomato harvest. The event started in the 1940s as a small-scale food fight in a local restaurant. These days, 30,000 tourists turn up at this Spanish village and spend a couple of hours lobbing kilos of red antioxidant-rich missiles at each other. Which is a lot of ketchup to mop up at the end of the day. .

For more information, contact Valencia Tourism (00 34 902 123 212; www.turisvalencia.es).

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Cheese rolling, UK

This traditional event takes place this year on Cooper's Hill, Gloucestershire, on 30 May. Cheese lovers who want to eat the stuff rather than roll it may prefer the Great British Cheese Festival at Imperial Gardens in Cheltenham on 22 and 23 October (0845 241 2026; www.thecheeseweb.com).

Spamarama, USA

"The Greatest Pandemonious Potted Pork Party on the Planet" takes place every April Fools' Day in Austin, Texas. Ostensibly dedicated to making spam edible, you don't have to actually go there to get the T-shirt; logo souvenirs are now available online (00 1 512 834 1827; www.spamarama.com).

Fried fish day, Spain

The Torremolinos beaches may have an image as the kind of place where sun-baked Brits scoff fish and chips but during the Dia del Pescaito, which takes place in La Carihuela on the first Thursday of June every year, tourists are instead invited to branch out and try fresh sardines and red mullet free of charge (00 34 952058694; www.visitacostadelsol.com).

Thorrablot Feast, Iceland

If you've missed Buns Day (eat all the cream puffs you can) and Bursting Day (Shrove Tuesday), there's always the traditional Icelandic feast of Thorrablot, celebrated throughout February. After a meal of rotten shark meat, pickled testicles and congealed sheep's blood - washed down liberally with Black Death, the lethal local liqueur - you'll be lucky if you manage to follow local revellers on to the dance floor (00 354 535 5500; www.icetourist.is).

Mango Madness, India

Temperatures may be soaring to unbearable levels but at least there is one good reason to celebrate the onset of summer in Mumbai; it's also the start of the Alphonso mango season. During the month of May, the city goes barmy for the sweet, tropical fruit with a whole host of promotions, events and stalls (00 91 22 202 5420; www.maharashtratourism.gov.in/mtdc)

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