Have fork, will travel

Food festivals are the new rock’n’roll, and Ireland’s chefs are the new rock stars.” So says Avril Bannerton, self-confessed food evangelist and event director at Taste of Dublin, one of the gourmet festivals that will be vying with big music events such as Electric Picnic and Forbidden Fruit for our attention this summer.

As you read this, thousands of people are enjoying the lectures, workshops and indeed food on offer at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival, in Co Cork. If you’ve missed it, don’t panic. You don’t have to travel far to enjoy a world-class gourmet festival, and we’ve got all the best ones covered.

Ireland’s burgeoning foodie scene has led to an explosion in the number of such events being staged across the country, from tiny boutique festivals to all-encompassing giants that attract visitors in their thousands.

No longer the preserve of militant gourmands, they are rapidly becoming the highlight of a busy summer social scene for twenty- to fortysomethings keen to avoid the mud baths and perilous portable loo visits associated with open-air gigs.

This year’s calendar is bustling with established players, exciting newcomers and old favourites. With food becoming a big component of any festival — musical, literary or otherwise — organisers are going to great lengths to stand out from the crowd. As a result, Bannerton believes Ireland’s food festivals can compete on a global scale.

“Eating out with an emphasis on exciting gastronomy is now part of our culture; the offering is vast and constantly evolving. Twenty years ago there were few restaurants of the calibre we’ve now come to expect,” she says. “Chefs and cooks such as Darina and Rachel Allen, Ross Lewis and Clodagh McKenna are a huge inspiration to young, up-and-coming foodies, not just in Ireland but worldwide. I travel the world visiting food festivals and Ireland is right up there with the best.”

Launched nine years ago, Taste of Dublin was originally held at Dublin Castle before moving to Iveagh Gardens in 2007 and doubling in size to its present-day form. This year’s event, on June 12-15, is expected to draw about 30,000 visitors. Attractions include a new layout featuring 20 of the capital’s top restaurants and 11 complimentary experience zones. Visitors can recline in rotating garden pods with waiter service, practise their samba moves at a Brazilian carnival, visit a food photography exhibition or take part in a bake-off. Starting prices have been reduced from €25 to €15 to attract savvy festival-goers.

While we’re not quite at the stage where cookery demonstrations are accompanied by diva-style tantrums and outrageous rider demands, ensuring a successful event means attracting big-name celebrity chefs and putting on a show.

Taste features a strong international line-up, including leading chefs Michel Roux Jr, Tom Kitchin and Monica Galetti, joined by homegrown talents such as Darina and Rachel Allen, Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke, Kevin Dundon, Clodagh McKenna and Catherine Fulvio. “Our visitor demographic ranges from people in their mid-twenties to sixties, and it changes daily,” says Bannerton. “Friday’s ‘style afternoon’ draws the fashion crowd, while Friday and Saturday nights are the party nights. Saturday and Sunday afternoons have a more relaxed, family feel.”

With Ireland exporting more than €10bn in food and drink worldwide each year, our reputation as a world-class producer means food tourism is a boon for the economy. Bord Bia’s flagship event, Bloom, which took place this year between May 29 and June 2, is expected to attract more than 110,000 visitors to Dublin’s Phoenix Park, many of them travelling from overseas. “When we started out in 2007, Bloom was very much a gardening festival with some food content,” says Mike Neary, Bord Bia’s director of horticulture. “As we have grown from 50,000 visitors to more than 110,000, the food village has become a key part of the event.”

This year’s Bloom includes cooking demonstrations by Neven Maguire, Kevin Dundon, Donal Skehan and Catherine Fulvio, as well as restaurants, cafes, a seafood bar and craft-beer inn. For the second year running it will also host the Irish Cheese Awards, featuring
112 entries across 17 categories.

“There’s a huge appetite for these festivals because they provide an insight into where the food that lands on our table comes from, something we had started to take for granted during the boom times,” says Neary. “People want to buy local and get a chance to meet the person who makes the product. They can also taste new dishes, enjoy a seminar or participate in a masterclass.”

Maria Moynihan Lee, whose company, Milestone Inventive, previously organised St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin and the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway, has taken over the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival in time for its 60th anniversary. She plans to bring the event, which runs from September 25-28, from the harbour area back to its city-centre roots. “We have always had visitors from Britain and America, but more recently China and Japan,” says Moynihan Lee. “The focus is on the oysters, but we have a diverse range of restaurant offerings, in addition to the world and national Oyster Opening Championships.

“These guys are deadly serious and train all year round because it’s not just about speed, it’s about opening them without damaging them,” adds Moynihan Lee. “It’s important to offer something different, but we are in a nice position in that we have a tremendous setting, so we don’t need to rely on big-name chefs.”

Part of the role of an event director is spotting emerging food trends before they take off. Bannerton, who studied catering management in Galway, has been organising events for 20 years and was voted Image magazine Businesswoman of the Year in 2010. She sold her company three years ago but was invited back by the new owners.

“A few years ago nobody would have seen the whole craft-beer thing coming, but now it has,” she says. “This year at Taste of Dublin we have a huge fire pit, which will change the way people barbecue. It’s taken off in America and Britain, and it’s just a matter of time before we have a restaurant devoted to it here.”

With just 10 days to build the Taste of Dublin site, the pressure will start to kick in as launch day approaches. “It’s a really established event, but it’s about listening to the public and making sure you provide content they want. This year we are turning the festival on its head and giving it a ‘Glastonbury meets Taste’ feel,” says Bannerton.

Despite going up against a raft of emerging rivals, she says it’s a sign that confidence is returning to the market. “As a nation we love our food and we love a party, so there’s certainly breathing room
for more festivals.”