Monday, 12 September 2011

Harvest festival: Alex James presents cheese and cheesy tunes

A weekend of tasty food and live music in the open air, so close to home I don't have to rough it in a tent? What's not to love? When I heard that Harvest were bringing the festival formula they've successfully employed at Jimmy's Farm in Suffolk for a couple of years to Oxfordshire, I was keen to snap up a ticket. Set on ex-Blur-bassist-turned-cheese-'empresario' Alex James's land in Kingham, Harvest promised a weekend of household names of both the culinary and musical varieties, along with enough good grub to satisfy even the most discerning palates. And camping was strictly optional.

After much debate, Sarah of The Peas Kneas and I decided we preferred Sunday's line-up: not because of the usual festival criterion of who's playing live, but for who was cooking live. Yes, we chose Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Mark Hix and Rachel Allen over The Kooks (and sadly Ottolenghi: what was I thinking?) and parted with £45 for a day ticket. A day out on Mr James's 200-acre farm certainly doesn't come cheap.

On arrival, we were surprised at the festival's size: I'm not dissing the size of AJ's estate (nor the sprawl of his be-chimneyed country pile either, for that matter), but we'd both expected rather more in the way of stalls to peruse. The family area and big top wasn't of much interest to two childless twentysomethings (although the helter skelter did appeal), but we were hoping to sample plenty of local produce. Surprisingly, there was actually far more in the way of take-home treats and culinary tools on offer at the Oxford Foodies festival in August. Our appetites were well-provided for by the likes of London tapas bar Salt Yard, pop-up restaurateurs the Salad Club, a marquee of Mark Hix creations and a 'Chef's Table' tent offering dishes dreamed up by the chefs topping the bill. These culinary maestros graced a smaller stage equipped with a kitchen, while the musical entertainment took place on the main stage.

The food

Gooey not glam
Entering into the spirit of things, the first morsel to pass our lips was a delicious Cotswold rarebit from cheesemakers Paxton & Whitfield: made with local bread, cheese and cider, it was a gooey, (slightly) greasy and flavoursome treat for the modest price of £2.50. At £3 for some Alex James Presents cheese 'blankets' on white Warburtons toast, it was an easy choice to make. Although Alex's three artisan cheeses received some acclaim (and Farleigh Wallop won best goats cheese in 2008), the muso seems to be aiming at the convenience end of the market these days, with a new range on Asda shelves now.

 Although the rarebit put up a good fight, the real foodie highlight was our cookery class with Daylesford Farm. With a choice of 4 dishes to recreate under the expert tuition of Raymond Blanc-trained head chef Vladimir, we opted for pistou soup: a light, summery broth filled with seasonal vegetables grown at Daylesford, garnished with a garlicky French pistou (like the Italian pesto but minus the parmesan and pine nuts). We joined ten other would-be chefs for the hour-long workshop in a portakabin kitted out with 6 state-of-the-art work-stations, and before long my arm was aching from pulverising the fragrant basil with the heaviest pestle known to man. 'The first tool ever invented', enthused Vladimir. I was feeling distinctly less enthusiastic, but the knife skills we learned won me over. As the chunk currently missing from my left thumb will testify, I'm not the most skilled of choppers, but I can now slice an onion, julienne a carrot and chiffonade some basil with the best of them. I may finish ten minutes behind them, but all my digits are intact.

An uncharacteristically domestic moment

Vegetables all chopped, we set about frying them on a high heat and then made the broth. Our bubbling pans yielded takeaway bowls of September delight: carrots, onion, romanesco and, to my woe, fennel and celery, some tiny cherry tomatoes thrown into the mix at the last minute. The pistou added punch, and the accompanying cheddar on sourdough toast added a naughty but nice element to such a healthy dish. We took the fruits of our labours out into the sunshine to enjoy, feeling justifiably proud of our tasty creations.

With Daylesford chef Vladimir

Pistou soup: the finished article

Although satsfied by our soups (and yet more cheese on toast), during the course of the day we managed to much our way through a Dutch triple chocolate pancake (S), summer vegetable tacos from Wahaca (me) and cake from local bookshop Jaffe and Neale, all washed down with cup after cup of tea given the cold wind whipping over Mr James's land.

Vegetable tacos

 Although our hunger was appeased and we enjoyed some good food, I would have liked to see more local and independent stallholders, rather than a dominance of London-based restaurants. Oh, and some more budget-friendly options wouldn't go amiss either, given the ticket price. Take note for next year, Harvest.

The chefs

Cooking up a storm on stage and whipping the crowd into a similar frenzy requires some skill. Talking an audience through the food preparation process doesn't sound riveting in theory, but the popularity of TV chefs testifies to the fact that they manage to make it watchable. Seeing chefs live on stage at Harvest made me realise that personality is key to engaging with a festival crowd: most of them can't see what's being prepared close enough to find it enthralling, even on the big screen projection, and unless you're one of the lucky folks with a prime stage-side position, you won't be tasting any of it either.

TV chef Valentine Warner's menu of venison and something or other featuring whelks and razor clams was so inaccessible as to be dull; we wandered off half-way through. Mark Hix and Alex James suffered a similar fate: they appeared to be having microphone trouble, as they were barely audible. Surprise of the day was Rachel Allen: although I own one of her books, I've never seen any of her shows, so pitched up with minimal expectations. Relaxed and chatty (no doubt helped by the booze she confessed to have consumed during the day), Rachel was warm and engaging as she cooked her way through a soda foccacia with olives and red onions (so tempting that S is attempting to recreate it tonight), mackerel with panzanella and a strawberry and white chocolate tiramisu. Down to earth and skilled at describing the cooking process with a touch of humour, Rachel was a joy to watch - and the only chef whose slot we sat the whole way through.

On-stage cheffing

To my surprise, 'headline act' Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall came across as slightly arrogant and on a mission to plug his new vegetarian cookery book. In what seemed like an elaborate marketing ploy, he's been cutting out meat and aiming to discover the joys of a vegetable-based diet for the past few months. Plenty of people do this, but most don't take Hugh's sanctimonious approach and hector others; nor do they act so smugly self-satisfied about it. Before we exited to watch The Feeling, he prepared a hearty bean soup and a blood orange and cabbage salad with a tahini dressing.

And as for the big cheese himself, when we came face to face Alex James turned out not to be a man of many words. He happily posed for a photo with S: fortunately she refrained from telling him that his cheese blankets didn't taste any different from other supermarket offerings. And most supermarkets don't make salad cream flavour cheese, either. Rock and roll, AJ.

Alex James presents... his new friend Sarah

The music

Sunday was a bit lacking in big names, and most of the local bands we could hear sounded a bit screechy for our liking. We chose to sit down in the sun with a cider just as Will and the People sat down, and we were very glad we did: playing perfect feel-good festival music, we were soon grooving to their ska-influenced Lion in the Morning Sun and singing along to Salamander. Their groupies certainly shifted a fair few CDs that afternoon. The Futureheads seemingly cancelled, as Sara Cox was pulled out of nowhere to DJ, followed by Jo Whiley. The Feeling got everyone up and dancing, but we were too cold and tired out by all that country air to stick around for headline act KT Tunstall.

The Feeling

 All in all, Harvest was a fun day out, but didn't have enough on offer to justify the price tag - particularly where music was concerned. Perhaps we picked the wrong day, but even so, I think there's room for improvement for next year. Add in a few more big name acts and keep a constant presence on the main stage, find some more chefs with Rachel Allen's warmth, mix in a few more local producers selling their wares and drop the ticket price, and I may consider returning to my mate AJ's abode.

1 comment:

  1. I thought about going to this too, but was put off by the ticket prices.
    Nice piece though.


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