What makes for a great food festival? No points for guessing ‘great food’ – that’s a given. But what else do you need to elevate a festival; to give it more flavour than the feast of festivals now dished up every year?
‘Variety,’ says Michael Hjort, artistic director of York Food & Drink Festival and chef/owner at Melton’s and Chopping Block. ‘A good food festival has a market and a demonstration tent – those are your basics – but a great one has so much more; evening events and dinners and trails. It’s about making a day into a weekend or, in our case, 10 days.’
Retail is still a key element of any food festival – York is telling people ‘don’t forget your carrier bags’ in all its pre-publicity this year – but that doesn’t mean that any old food will do. A great food festival is a shop window for local producers, providing a platform for sustaining their business throughout the year.
‘A food festival should celebrate the town or city’s assets – it’s bars, cafés, restaurants and producers,’ says Michael, who trained with Roux Restaurants before returning to his hometown in the early 1990s to open Melton’s in Scarcroft Road with his wife, Lucy. ‘If you are going to run a food festival, it has to be about your particular location in some sense. There’s no point in being generic or trying to be the BBC Good Food Show. People want local flavour. It has to be new and exciting, and can’t just feature all the big-name chefs they see on their TV every day.
‘York festival is about York. It’s different to a book festival or an arts festival, which get kudos from bringing in the current big names. That doesn’t make sense for a food festival. It has to be about what the French refer to as the “terroir”. You need to retain your local identity and build on what makes your town or city special.’
As ‘a loyal son of York’, Michael was invited to take part in the first York Food & Drink Festival in 1997, taking over as creative director in 2004. The city’s food scene was very different in the early years of the event, with far fewer cafés, restaurants and bars, a smaller market and no street food to speak of (barring the odd burger van).
‘The transformation has been astonishing,’ says Michael. ‘The food festival has played an important role in changing York’s food culture for the better. Yes, there have been economic and cultural changes on a national level, but it’s true to say that York has more listed places in the Good Food Guide than a city of its size would ordinarily warrant. People now recognise that York is a great place for food, and a large part of that is down to having a successful food festival.’
Our food culture and shopping habits are continually evolving, with more people opting to have their groceries delivered rather than picking them up themselves. But, according to Michael, retail will remain a key component of city and town life – it will just be a different kind of retail; a sort of ‘shopping 2.0’.
‘People are not going to be coming into the city centre for their weekly essentials because they can get a kilo of carrots delivered – why bother carrying it yourself?’ he says. ‘In the future, I think we’ll see more and more people choosing instead to pick up a few speciality items after work or when they’re in town. As people’s habits change, we need to be ready for it, by making our cities more diverse and vibrant.’
As our round-up of Yorkshire’s key summer food and drink festivals shows, our interest in what we eat shows no sign of waning. But could we be heading towards a tipping point, when we’ve gorged on one too many festivals and are too full to indulge in any more?
‘We may well have already reached “peak festival”,’ says Michael. ‘You can’t just put on a food festival on a whim or to fill a hole in the calendar. You have to have a vision, a way of relating it to the existing food culture of a town or city. It has to be a celebration of place.’
Huddersfield Food & Drink Festival
When it was launched in 2000, Huddersfield Food & Drink Festival was little more than a modest collection of stalls. It has since become the town’s premier festival, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors with a host of stalls selling everything from traditional pies and sausages to spicy, complex African and Asian food and artisan gin (no festival is now complete without artisan gin).
This four-day celebration of food, organised by a not-for-profit group of local businesses under the Huddersfield Live banner, regularly attracts crowds of more than 100,000 to St George’s Square. It hit a record-breaking 125,000 in 2017, making it one of the largest events of its kind in the UK.
This year’sx festival – the 19th – will include more than 100 stalls and a fun zone with buskers, circus performers and face-painting. It will also be open later – until 9pm on Thursday, 10pm on Friday and Saturday, and 5.30pm on Sunday – so visitors can cram even more in (don’t forget to chew).
Filey Food Festival
10th–11th August; 12th–13th October
With extra helpings of chutzpah and ambition, Filey doesn’t just have a food festival – it has an international food festival that runs across three weekends in June, August and October. Filey International Food Festival takes over the Evron Centre and Crescent Gardens, offering everything from artisan pâté and fresh seafood to Yorkshire vodka and a prosecco bar (handy for leaning on).
Visit in August and you’ll find a licensed sea-view bar by the bandstand in Crescent Gardens surrounded by hot and cold street food stalls selling roast pork, Caribbean jerk chicken, curried goat, free range sausages and venison burgers, among many other foodie treats.
Bridlington Vegan Festival
Bridlington Vegan Group was launched in 2016 and, in 2017, became part of the Free Vegan Cookout, a national outreach group dedicated to spreading the vegan message with free food, holding a stall in town on the last Sunday of every month. Its members then took a leap of faith by creating their own Vegan Festival at The Spa in 2018. Luckily, they landed their leap with aplomb, scoring a hit with vegan food stalls, inspirational speakers, live music, yoga, pilates and meditation.
This year’s event promises to be even bigger with more cookery demonstrations, fun nature-themed activities for children, and stalls from companies like The Green Pepper (vegan pizza), Lottie’s Vegan Cakes and The Vegan Brownie Co.
Cannon Hall Farm Food Festival
If you’re looking for something to do over the August Bank Holiday weekend (of course you are – if you stay at home, you’ll only end up mowing the lawn again), you could head to Cannon Hall Farm, where you’ll find more than 100 exhibitors showcasing their wares.
There will be plenty of opportunities for tasting and sampling, a packed programme of cookery demonstrations, live music, funfair rides and a pop-up beach. And when you’ve exhausted the festival, you can nip over to the farm to say hello to the animals. There’s always a very good chance that you’ll see some newborn piglets as the farm averages two or three litters every week.
Harrogate Food & Drink Festival
A new event from the team behind North Leeds Food Festival and Ilkley Food Festival, Harrogate Food & Drink Festival aims to showcase and celebrate the most exciting local talent in food, drink, music and performing arts.
Held at Ripley Castle, there will be more than 30 cuisines represented in two artisan markets, a full programme of chefs’ demos, more than 100 exhibitors and performers, eight independent bars, 26 live performers, a traditional fun fair, exclusive art displays, dessert stations and free deckchairs (which could come in very handy if you spend too much time at the dessert stations).
Marathon du Malton
Malton Harvest Food Festival
The Marathon du Malton claims to be ‘Britain’s tastiest 10k’, with runners starting and finishing in the Market Place of ‘Yorkshire’s food capital’ and travelling through eight food and drink stops along the way. This new gourmet food and wineathon, inspired by the Marathon du Medoc in France, travels through a part of North Yorkshire famous for its award-winning local produce and glorious (and, hopefully, relatively flat) countryside.
While the Marathon du Malton is not strictly a food festival, Malton Harvest Food Festival very much is. With a firm emphasis on autumn and late summer produce, you can expect a bountiful harvest of game, seafood, wild and foraged food, soft fruit and baking.
York Food & Drink Festival
More than 400,000 people are expected at this year’s 10-day festival, so prepare to do a bit of queuing at the myriad markets, cookery demonstrations, tastings, talks and dining events that make up this ever-popular event.
The festival, which was launched in 1997, aims to highlight the work of small farmers, producers and retailers alongside an educative social programme that reaches out to more than 1,000 local primary school pupils every year, teaching them how to cook simple, healthy meals. This initiative is backed up by a young chefs competition, which gives junior cooks the chance to show off their skills in a bid to win the prestigious Young Chef of the Year accolade.
Sheffield Vegan Festival
This multi-award winning, family-run festival offers a huge selection of cruelty-free foods, drinks and clothing alongside informative displays and talks on veganism and ethical living.
You can pick up everything from hot dogs and burgers to cupcakes and pies from some of the best vegan food companies in the UK.
Cottingham Food & Drink Festival
The seventh annual Cottingham festival looks set to be the biggest one yet, with more than 100 stands showcasing the very best the region has to offer in terms of artisan breads, cured meats, cheeses, locally produced beers and wines.
Since its launch in 2013, this event has grown year-on-year to become a key date on the East Yorkshire calendar, attracting 30,000 people keen to try and buy food and drink from a growing range of producers and street food vendors.
Holmfirth Food & Drink Festival
Around 40,000 visitors will descend on more than 75 stalls at this year’s 12th annual Holmfirth Food & Drink Festival, knocking back somewhere in the region of 10,000 beers in the process.
There will be stands lining the streets throughout the town catering for everyone from serious foodies to casual foragers, and the festival team is teaming up with the online Fairtrade shop, fairandfunky, to transform the Market Hall into a shop window for ethical businesses.
Once you’ve had your fill of food, there will also be entertainment from buskers, circus performers and face-painters.