I wrote this guest blog post today for my good friends and colleagues in MCSquared so that they could share with their friends and clients some of the fun of Savour Kilkenny. I thought some of my regular reviewers at home and abroad might also enjoy an insight into a special Irish food festival and the power of local volunteering.
What makes a good food festival great? Well take one of Ireland’s most beautiful cities, a community well versed in getting behind a shared passion and an engaging approach from the volunteer organisers that gets young and old, professional chefs and amateur cooks, local producers and consumers all involved in a weekend of fun and good food. Invite in some celebrity chefs, a few respected food critics and lots of enthusiastic food producers and bloggers. Throw in excellent dinners prepared by the best local chefs and a dash of beautiful Autumn weather on an October bank holiday weekend and you have all the makings of a fun and entertaining event.
After a sublime meal on Thursday night in 3 AA rosette The Lady Helen restaurant at Mount Juliet to launch the 2012 Festival, I spoke at Foodcamp at Savour Kilkenny about Shananigans Blog early the next morning.
The aim of my talk was to convince the audience that it is possible to make authentic Chinese food with the best of Irish ingredients. A slow-cooked Chinese stew made with Irish produced wagyu beef, from James Whelan Butchers’ herd in Garrentemple, Co. Tipperary , simmering on the hotplate in the background, helped lure the punters in. I enjoyed telling the story of the blog and of the fun I have had experimenting with using products as diverse as Flahavan’s Porridge Oats from the Love Irish Foodbrand and Irish artisan beers in regional Chinese cuisine.
No sooner had the session finished than I was whisked off to KCLR to The Sue Nunn Show. There I waited in turn to be interviewed after a wonderful bunch of young students who had been through a foodie boot camp with celebrity chefs Anne Neary and Edward Hayden and were to sell their produce in the Young Food Producers Market on The Parade the next day. Their confidence and enthusiasm was inspiring. It seems that every young Kilkenny person aspires to be a chef or play for Kilkenny.
It was only slightly daunting to have my wagyu stew “stolen” and tasted live on radio by Chef Anne Neary as soon as my back was turned.
Foodcamp is an excellent concept. During the morning a number of sessions run in parallel and participants can pick and choose which ones to attend. They get to meet a range of producers, bloggers and people with interesting perspectives on the food we eat. Attendance is free of charge and everyone who participates brings along something for the long table lunch which is a great chance to mingle and make connections as well as tasting new products. I can confirm that every mouthful of the wagyu stew was gobbled.
The theme of the afternoon panel discussion at Foodcamp was “Taking back our food – avoiding a delicious disaster”. Chaired by John McKenna of the Bridgestone Guide, it focussed on the challenge of re-establishing a sustainable relationship with the land and taking back control of our food chain. Board Bia also gave a briefing on their Origin Green mission to make Ireland a world leader in sustainably produced food and drink.
The festivities continued on Saturday and Sunday with a lively food market taking place on The Parade along with cookery demonstrations from, among others, Rozanne Stevens, Catherine Fulvioand Irish Times food writer Catherine Cleary. Clare Anne O’Keefe of Masterchef fame made an excellent MC and a deft cooks assistant.
There were up to 20,000 people in the city over the weekend, including day-trippers and those making a weekend of it. It seemed that everyone in town was in on the Savour Kilkenny act. Apart from the tented village on The Parade, with produce as diverse as kangaroo skewers, buffalo burgers, craft beers, artisan cheeses and hand-made chocolates, twenty local cafes and restaurants had special Savour menus and many shops had tastings of wine, chorizos or cheese.
There was a Young Chefs competition, celebrating local produce, where first prize went to two youngsters who made Granny’s Genius Cupcakes using Highbank Orchard Syrup and their granny’s apples. Highbank themselves were crowned local Food Producer of the year in the Local Food Heroes competition – their Orchard Syrup is to die for drizzled over local Knockdrinna goats cheese – and a new Food Trail was launched.
For us the festivities ended with an engaging double act from Sunday Times food writer Mona Wiseand her husband Ron who prepared a Thanksgiving dinner in the demo tent as the evening darkened and the chilly evening breeze rustled the marquee.
Mona, winner of four blog awards at Blog Awards Ireland 2012 including Best Blog, even managed to “live-blog” while the session was underway.
I was entertained throughout the demo by a local woman in her late 70s who had cycled into town on her bike and was determined to stay for the tasting. Her husband was waiting for her somewhere on the edge of town. “Let him,” she said, “I’ve been waiting on him all my life…”
This was the sixth year of Savour Kilkenny, an event that has put the city firmly on Ireland’s food map. “This is a city and a county where food people all collaborate, work together rather than in competition,” said John McKenna, speaking to the Kilkenny People.
As I left reflecting on on the new friendships I had made in a weekend savoured and on that spirit of co-opetition, I pondered the lessons to be learnt from it right across the Irish food sector. Could we get it this right for the country as a whole?