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Food festival with true party atmosphere shares the love for local produce

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 20, 2013

  • Top: The Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink was attended by 15,000 people over three days last year. Above: Co-founder Michael Caines celebrates the festival's tenth birthday with Westcountry food and drink producers who have been in since the beginning

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Last week I had the honour of attending a very special lunch. Joining me around the table at Gidleigh Park hotel on Dartmoor were people whose usual lunch break would be a quick sandwich in the dairy, the piggery and winery, or, in the case of Michael Caines, executive head chef at this exclusive establishment, the kitchen.

We were here to celebrate the 10th birthday of the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink which brings people together to sample the wares of the region's artisan food producers each April in the city's Northernhay Gardens.

The lunch at Gidleigh, prepared by festival co-founder Michael and his chefs, made a point of championing the region's food and drink, just like the festival does each year. There was a terrine of local free-range chicken, a mousse of goat's cheese from Vulscombe Farm, also in Mid Devon, and sauteed Cornish pollack with River Exe mussels and saffron sauce. The bubbly, meanwhile, which kicked things off was from Sharpham Vineyard near Totnes.

Among the guests, all stalwart festival supporters, was Mary Quicke, who makes award-winning cheese on her family farm at Newton St Cyres, Mid Devon. She will be giving people a taste of cheesemaking, quite literally, at this year's festival, which runs from Friday to Sunday, April 26-28.

"I'll be getting people to taste junket, starter and fresh curd," she says. "Some of the older people get all misty-eyed about the junket, and say 'we used to have that when we were small'."

Mary, like all those invited to the celebration lunch, has been part of the festival since the beginning ten years ago, when two marquees on Exeter's Northernhay Gardens hosted Westcountry artisan food and drink producers, offering slurps and slivers for visitors to taste.

The event has grown year on year, expanding over the past few years into the courtyard of Exeter Castle, and each year includes more and more "hands-on" foodie events, alongside the demonstrations by chefs.

This year there's a "little cookies" tent where children can make such delights as South Devon Chilli Farm chocolate crispy cakes. And the cookery theatre hosting the demonstrations from top chefs, including "a medley of MasterChef chefs" James Nathan, Dhruv Baker and Steve Barringer.

The festival grew out of the desire of producers and chefs in the region to flag up to locals and tourists alike just how much special produce it contains.

That, says Mary Quicke, remains its message to this day. "There is a really lovely quality about the Exeter food festival, it is built on the enjoyment of our local food by local people," she says.

"There's something lovely about being in Northernhay Gardens because you can look out over the hills – which overlook our farm in fact – so you are completely connected with the landscape that has produced that food that you are eating right here. And it has a wonderful party atmosphere too."

Also at the lunch were pig farmer Andrew Freemantle and his wife Liz, of Kenniford Farm near Exeter, who met at the festival seven years ago.

"She wandered past the stand, said hello and then bought a sausage bap, so I thought, she's obviously got good taste," he says. "I said 'would you like to go out with me?' and she wrote her email address on the back of one of my business cards. It went from there really."

Andrew is bringing a sow and her litter along to this year's festival, to make that link between farming and food – and flag up just how many people's jobs depend on that link in the region.

For Michael Caines, who grew up in Exeter, this is at the heart of the festival, growing the food culture of the Westcountry. "What we share around this table is a huge passion for this region and for food and drink," he adds. "We felt the festival was an opportunity to link that together."

Visit www.exeterfoodanddrinkfestival.co.uk.

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