Alton Food Festival is an annual event held each summer to celebrate local food and produce. The first was held four years ago in the middle of the World Cup on the day England were kicked out. Four years on, another World Cup, England again kicked out. Some things never change.
Two weekends ago I was at the Farnham Carnival at nearby Farnham on a very hot day. Even hotter at Celebrating Surrey Festival the following day. For the Alton Food Festival it was another sunny and very hot weekend.
The train journey from Farnham on towards Alton is through pleasant rolling countryside. At Bentley a footpath leads off through the fields to Alice Holt Forest.
The line, or at least the train, only goes as far as far as Alton. It used to run to Winchester, but sadly no more. Volunteers have restored what is known as the Watercress Line as far as Alresford, with steam trains running along the route.
Greening Alton (transition town in all but name) had a spin off stall, Alton Local Food Initiative, with the aims of highlighting food miles, encouraging the use and production of local food and encouraging local people to grow their own. One of their initiatives has been to exploit unused land. On my way home I saw a little garden they had developed at Alton Station. They also have flower beds in the town in which herbs are grown, and yes, you can pick them. On their stall they had some excellent tortilla made with produce from their gardens.
On my way down I had an idea which they and others may wish to take up. Some people have no garden or a garden which is too small for their growing needs, others a garden which is underused. Bring the two together and share the produce.
I have mixed feelings about transition towns. A force for good or a distraction to make the middle classes feel good? Far too prescriptive. An implicit assumption, naive in the extreme, that local councils are a force for good when in reality they are likely to be in the pocket of developers and big business. Aldershot and Farnborough have been trashed by the Rotten Borough of Rushmoor at the behest of big business and developers, but then it could be argued nether towns are transition towns.
A great idea was local chefs giving cooking demonstrations. You see how it is done, see how they perform, and get to taste what they produce.
Apart from the cooking demonstrations and a few craft stalls, I could not see how the festival differed from a farmers market.
Highlight of the day was a cooking demonstration by Peter O’Connor of O’Connor’s Secret Garden Bistro. An enthusiast in his work and he made it all look so easy. And it tasted good too. Bantry Bay Beef to be served with colcannon potatoes, followed by Dingle Bay Bananas for desert. Ice cream from Farmer Gosden’s Dairy was used to accompany the banana desert. Lovely creamy ice cream from a local herd of Jersey Cows. Earlier in the day Peter demonstrated Limerick Pork Medallions and Bantry Bay Mussels.
I had chat with Peter O’Connor afterwards. He said he walked through the market earlier and that decided what he would cook, using local produce from the stalls. I asked if I could have the recipes for what he had cooked, he said yes, come along to the Secret Garden, which I said I would do later.
Talking to Farmer Gosden’s Dairy (whose excellent ice cream Peter O’Connor used to accompany his banana desert) I learnt that Loseley ice cream comes from Wales, not, as most people including myself are led to believe, from Loseley Park. This would explain why having visited Loseley Park two weeks ago for the Celebrating Surrey Festival I had no recollection of either cows or dairy!
It was a very hot day, so I had a wander to the water meadows. Then along to the Secret Garden. My timing could not have been better. I arrived just as Peter and his staff arrived. I had often walked past the Secret Garden, so it was a pleasure to be invited in, and what a pleasure it was.
A lovely restaurant, lovely atmosphere, lovely staff. Peter then showed me his garden out the back, all laid out with table and chairs. I only wished I could have stayed as it was a lovely balmy night, could not have been better for sitting out. But I was very tired and would have ended up under the table had I stayed.
I suggested for his garden he grew plants and varieties that were endangered and suggested Real Seeds as a source of seeds. Or go down to Seedy Sunday Brighton in the spring for their annual seed swap.
As luck would have it, I arrived at the station, just as a steam train was pulling out.
There was a free concert in the town’s gardens that evening, but I did not stay. I could though hear their rehearsals whilst I was in the water meadows.