A pervasive motif in Medieval and Renaissance art and literature is the memento mori, the 'reminder of death'. Whether a skeleton haunting the periphery of an oil painting or illuminated letter, or a dramatic literary death scene during which the hero nearly meets his end, readers and viewers were frequently presented with images and events designed to remind them of their mortality.
Times have moved on a little since then, and whilst we are still often reminded of the finite nature of our existence on this mortal plane, I would venture to suggest that where the medieval period had the memento mori, reminder of death, the 21st and 22nd century equivalent is the memento middle-class. This occurred to me as I stood in line at Earls Court a couple of weeks ago, surrounded by affluent Londoners avidly discussing the virtues of gluten-free granola and the undoubted superiority of loose-leaf white tea over teabags, waiting for the doors to open and allow me to rush forth into what is, unashamedly, a paradise for the middle-class food snob.
I don't mean this in a bad way. My memento of middle-classity frequently takes the form of my friends, family and boyfriend. "I cut my finger on a lobster claw :(" I once texted to the latter, who replied with the extremely apt observation, "that could only be a problem in your world". I pride myself on knowing the difference between vanilla extract and vanilla essence; I revel in the arrival of Alphonso mangoes from India, knowing no other variety can compare; I read the Guardian food section; I shun supermarkets where I can, favouring farmers' markets and local butchers/greengrocers; I prefer rapeseed oil to olive; the appearance of fresh samphire in the fishmongers last week set my heart racing...and I have never been to a kebab van or eaten fast food since I was fifteen.
I sound disgusting, the very epitome of food snobbishness that makes a lot of people rather irritated. Yet my only consolation comes from the aforementioned Guardian food section. My enjoyment of it is twofold: yes, I appreciate its often exciting and innovative recipes by chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Yotam Ottolenghi and Dan Lepard (who I am plotting to marry - just give me time). However, the real pleasure comes from scrolling down the online version to read the comments underneath the articles. I take deep solace from the fact that I bear little resemblance to some of these real middle-class food snobs, getting on their high horse about all sorts of things, from the provenance of pomegranate molasses to why anyone who buys farmed salmon is a demon in human form and should be swiftly despatched with a fish knife after being forced to ingest their own weight in salmon heads.
Anyway, the point is, going to a food festival may be perceived as the epitome of middle-class food snobbery. But once you set foot inside, you realise that pretension has nothing to do with it. Perhaps it doesn't need stating, but the Real Food Festival is about just that: food. Real food. None of that artificial processed rubbish that is so prevalent these days. Wandering around, I am always struck by the sheer amount of love and energy that goes into the hundreds of stalls lining the aisles. It's food at its best; not the kind of fancy, over-prodded stuff you find churned out of Michelin-starred kitchens, that often relies on fancy technique and too much faff to make it edible, but basic products made the best they can possibly be. Yes, you might have to pay a bit more, but for an annual treat it's definitely worth it, and a lot of the things I've bought from the last two festivals I am still using today.
This might sound obvious, but every year I am struck by how good everything tastes. I think I've become accustomed to the monotonous, bland produce churned out by supermarkets, or giant food corporations, because I always find at the festival that it's as if it's taken what I normally expect from an ingredient or a recipe, and improved upon it immeasurably. Maybe it's the small-scale production methods, maybe it's the fact that a lot of the businesses are family run, maybe it's just because more care goes into the food, but there's no denying that everything just seems to taste so much better. Of course, this could also be down to the fact that this is the one day of the year when I will eat everything in sight, including things I would normally abstain from (flapjacks, brownies, cupcakes, cheesecake, cookies, chocolate, cheese...) due to the fact that I am not blessed with the fastest of metabolisms. Of course a gooey chocolate brownie is going to taste damn good, when it's something I only allow myself to eat about three times a year (or three times a day, when I was doing my Finals, but that's a definite exception to ALL rules).
So, for some of the highlights. There was the beautiful stall of southern Italian produce, with its dried chillies and tomatoes hanging in huge abundant bunches, its great wheels of pecorino and fat logs of salami. It was here that I purchased a small piece of bottarga, at great expense. This is dried fish roe that is compressed into a block, and it's most commonly used grated over pasta. It's the marine version of truffles, and its taste is incredibly hard to describe; fishy, but not in an unpleasant way, it somehow manages to capture the essence of the sea in taste form. It tastes like the smell of standing where the waves meet the shore and breathing in the spray. I can't wait to try it on pasta.
I also paid a visit to Revolution Tea, a company I love and whose tea I only ever seem to buy at the festival on an annual basis, largely because it lasts so long. Each of their teabags makes four cups of tea - you can just keep reusing them. I asked why this is, and was told because the loose tea is of such good quality, rather than the powdery stuff you find in normal teabags. The teabags are also plastic rather than paper so can be reused. Apparently the Chinese have a saying: you give the first cup of tea to your enemy, the second to your friend, and the third you keep for yourself. I tend to keep them all for myself, but I do like the way the flavour mellows by the third cup. I was hooked when I tried the White Pear tea back in 2009, and have since fallen rather in love with Peach and Ginger, and also Citrus Spice. They sell a beautiful box of individual tea bag testers, which unfortunately was rather out of my price range. They have a website, though, and I'd encourage you to try their tea if you're a lover of the stuff. The White Pear is probably my favourite, in that it's so unusual. Who'd have thought you could get pear flavour into tea?
Another brilliant find was Zayti, selling arabesque street food. I was drawn in by the sight of baklava, and found myself purchasing lunch, which comprised Iranian walnut chicken (a dish which inspired my roast teal a while ago), aubergine-wrapped lamb rolls, bulghur wheat with pine nuts and caramelised onions, hummous, yoghurt, pomegranate seeds, and a colourful multi-vegetable salad. Although this came piled into one little box, all the flavours were beautifully defined and brought together by the hummous and yoghurt. It was one of the most delicious things I have eaten in a long time, and probably the most delicious (savoury) thing I tried at the festival. I believe it's a family-run company who are bringing modern and innovative takes of Middle Eastern street food to London. This is especially evident in their desserts: custard and apricot baklava, Turkish delight brownies, and pistachio and rosewater cheesecake. All utterly delicious. This is my favourite kind of food, and I could happily have gone back for seconds and thirds. I only wish they'd bring it all to Oxford; we need more Middle Eastern cuisine.
Also of note was Vanilla Bazaar, selling Madagascan vanilla products. I bought ten lovely vanilla pods, at a fraction of the usual supermarket price (for once, the food festival was actually cheaper), and also tried their amazing vanilla extract. Unlike the alcohol-based stuff I'm used to, this featured real vanilla seeds in a sugar syrup. It looked rather like tiny frogspawn, but don't let that put you off. It was delicious, ideal for making ice-cream or any dessert involving vanilla cream. Also good were Adlington, giving out tasters of smoked chicken and duck breast. I absolutely love smoked anything (incidentally, I also found smoked garlic at another stall, which I used in this aubergine dish last week), and the chicken was incredibly tender and moist.
I quickly found Bocaddon Farm Veal, who I've been a fan of since my first food festival for their delicious ethical veal. Last year I bought some veal and wild garlic burgers which I can confidently say are the best burgers I've ever tasted, and also some delicious Sicilian-style veal sausages. This year I went a bit mad and ended up with burgers, two different types of sausage, veal rump steak, and a little veal roasting joint. The burgers I ate last weekend, on the barbecue (wonderful), and I'm very excited by the rest. I also had to stop at Laverstoke Park Farm's stall for some of their buffalo products (like the ricotta I waxed lyrical about here). Once again they'd brought real live buffalo to the festival, but this time they were babies. Gorgeous.
I also marvelled at some truly beautiful feats of baking, including some rather gorgeous sparkly cupcakes that people were swarming around like flies with their camera phones. There were macarons everywhere, and elaborately-decorated chocolate truffles, and huge towers of snowy meringues, and beautiful centrepiece cakes, and brownies, and flapjacks...I bought a delicious blueberry crumble tart, and sampled most of the other baked goods on offer. I do always think, though, when I see this vast array of baking talent on display, that it must be so incredibly difficult to make a career as a small artisan baker. Everyone loves to bake, many people want to do it for a living; I can't imagine how hard it must be to set up a baking business and succeed, particularly as the standard of everything on offer at the festival was so high. How to set your own baked goods apart from the competition? I suppose glitter is one way.
Another product in abundance is the humble preserve. Jams, jellies and chutneys are absolutely everywhere. If it weren't for the fact that I possess enough chutney after the last two Christmas periods to be able to drown myself in it, I would easily have been won over by the gorgeous backlit display below. It was such an unusual and effective way of presenting a product that usually looks identical once put in a jar. The star anise pieces in the jelly second from the right remind me of flies preserved in amber. There were all sorts of wonderful and unusual flavours, incorporating things like rosemary and lavender, and also my favourite - quince jelly.
I also enjoyed Sloe Motion, producers of all things sloe. Gin, whisky, vodka, plus chutney, jam and truffles made from sloe berries. Their spirits come in beautiful purple bottles and taste absolutely incredible; a perfect fruity summer alternative to regular gin. Nearby I found Gower Cottage Brownies, which I've written about before. They genuinely are the best brownies I've ever tasted, managing that perfect balance between a crispy exterior and a gooey centre. The best part is they do mail order, so you can send someone a beautiful box of homemade brownies as a present. It's what my mum always does when she forgets birthdays and the like, apparently. She sent some to me when I was doing my Finals, and I'm sure they boosted my morale sufficiently to result in a First.
To top it all off, I bought my ticket early enough to get a free copy of the Real Food Festival Cookbook, which is fantastic. It features recipes from all sorts of chefs, from the big and famous to the lesser known, all of which emphasise high quality produce. I can't wait to try some of its recipes, particularly as I'm now equipped with some wonderful ingredients. I look forward to 2012's festival, and another opportunity to revel gluttonously in my gastronomic middle-classity.