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Friday, 4 April 2014

Abergavenny 2014 - a sneak preview

September may seem a long way off, but if you are planning something as big as the Abergavenny Food Festival you are already hard at work planning and preparing.

Certainly the office was buzzing when I called by to spend some time with Chief Executive Heather Myers. With the festival heading rapidly for its 16th Anniversary and a new team in place over the last 18 months or so, I was keen to find out what we could expect this year.

The departures of Kim Waters and Martin Orbach, key players in the development of the festival, have given an opportunity to review and plan ahead.

Foot and Mouth devastated local farming communities and businesses and the festival developed partly to refocus communities, develop business and show the resilience of farmers and the towns near which they live. Over the years it grew and grew and is now the premier food festival in the UK attracting around 30,000 visitors each year.

With the town having only 13,000 residents they are outnumbered 2:1 each year Heather recognises this and is determined to foster a sense of community - very much part of the original ethos of the event -  by finding new ways for local people to engage with the Festival .

One way is by offering a 10% discount on ticket prices to anyone with a (local) NP7 postcode. Another innovation is the introduction of the Night Market (in the Brewery Yard) this year which will start after the main festival has closed for the day and will offer street food as well as an opportunity to visit at a quieter time. Admission is free to anyone with a wristband or for a small fee without.

 The Food Festival is still a social enterprise, and as part of this remit supports the community by giving local voluntary organisations eg clubs the chance work alongside the core team on elements of logistic support such as car-parking  to help raise funds for local community benefit.  Schools in particular are heavily involved here, supplying many of the Criw who steward, assist and help both exhibitors and visitors alike.

Of the 30,000 visitors each year around 20,000 come on the Saturday so this year Sunday will be marketed as more family friendly, less crowded and more room for buggies etc.

There are also plans to help smaller and start-up businesses for whom the 2 day festival can present big problems of cost and logistics, particularly for those exhibiting fresh products such as bread. Baking all night Friday, exhibiting all day Saturday then baking overnight again to have fresh product on Sunday is a killer!

The Priory Yard has been designated for them and a special pricing structure introduced. For small Monmouthshire producers a special rate is offered again to demonstrate that the festival wants to support and help small businesses grow. This should help businesses with limited stocks and resources to exhibit on what is a recognised big stage and build for the future.

So in many ways a back to the start approach aimed at supporting the community and developing small businesses – much to be welcomed.

But it’s not all backward looking.

With Martin Orbach leaving the post of Director of Planning Joanna Busk, the editor of Fork Magazine has been drafted in and is looking to develop the festival further.

The Children’s Food Academy, sponsored by the Organic Centre Wales, will be housed in the Castle Grounds again but hopefully in a larger marquee and, whilst top chefs will continue to mentor the participants, the ingredients may well become more family friendly, after all we don’t all have a spare Pheasant Breast and a little Truffle Oil knocking around in the fridge.

The Castle will still hold the Saturday Night Party but it will become more centre stage during the day as well. Already hosting the Rude Health Rants, where some of the burning issues in food are discussed, the Festival Debate is likely to join them. Usually the Debate, which attracts some major names to discuss serious issues about food, is held at the end of the day and maybe loses a little of its importance by being peripheral to the festival rather than a main plank. Moving it to the Castle for a lunchtime start will attract a bigger audience and provide some talking points for visitors.

 With Rants both before and after the Debate the Castle will be the focus of the more serious side of the festival, but still offer a lot to see, do and eat! Enrol the children into the Food Academy, grab some lunch and enjoy the debate!

Back in the main areas it’s business as usual, over 200 stalls over several venues, Chef Demonstrations and Masterclasses. Abergavenny has a great reputation for attracting the best and this year will be better than ever. Although the full line-up has yet to be announced, it will involve leading lights of the culinary world and will be as big an attraction as ever.


Whilst it may be too late to influence this year’s line-up, Heather and Joanna are looking to the future and will be travelling to the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine in May to make connections and learn what makes a new festival shoot to prominence after just one year. Expect changes to Abergavenny in the future, but building on strong traditions.

In practical terms there will be a few changes this year, but all aimed to improve the visitor and exhibitor experience.

Last year an App for the festival was introduced and proved popular, though the limited bandwidth available in Abergavenny made it quite slow. Approaches are being made to boost the bandwidth available over the festival weekend to speed things up and, whilst there will not be a dedicated App this year the website  is being redesigned to make mobile access easier and faster.

The website itself has undergone change too, the bright orange used in logos for years has now been supplemented with a brown ‘paper’ treatment, more in keeping with the soil from which all good food derives.

As mentioned local residents will be able to get 10% off admission prices but everyone can benefit from reduced prices as Stroller Tickets can be bought online at 2012 prices from April 7th till August 31st.  Saturday £8.00, Sunday £6.50, Weekend £12.00 (prices from 1 September will be: £10.00, £8.00, £15.00) and there’s Free entry to children under 16


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So put the weekend of 20th and 21st September in your diaries and head for the UK’s best food festival. See you there!
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