Jerry Bartlett is an award-winning beer writer, whisky judge and foodie. He writes on technical matters by day and on food & drink (by night?) at maltjerry.com. Here he shares his thoughts on why there isn’t more beer at Food & Drink festivals.
“The best thing about Woking is that it is easy to get out of.” I was often heard to trot out after I first came to Woking in 1999. Predictably glib, you might think, from an ex-Islington-via-Stockholm-ite. But pre-millennium shift, Woking was well-placed for access to all other areas, but not particularly attractive in itself. That’s all changing – and part of the change is the Woking Food and Drink Festival, which took place last month.
Woking wasn’t the sort of place many people would associate a food festival with. A CAMRA beer festival, certainly, it’s had a fine – and sizeable – cask beer festival for 20-odd years. The Food and Drink Festival (no relation) now in its fourth year, has become quite a draw. Three days of street food, travelling farmers’ market-style stalls, local produce counters and cookery demos.
And not just any old cookery demos. No parade of local WI showing off jams, cakes and pickles, but real live TV chefs, this year, including Antonio Carluccio and The Fabulous Baker Brothers, Tom and Henry Herbert. (Great British Bake Off champ Nadiya Hussain was booked for the Sunday, but a family illness prevented her attendance).
I got a bit of a tour as part of the meeja, with local press and food bloggers of Surrey and environs. We were taken to see some festival highlights and got front row seats for the Baker Bros (hugely entertaining) demo.
I’ve been to three of the four festivals, and 2016 shows another improvement from some shaky beginnings. Now I think I understand why this has come about.
As part of the tour, we were given an insider’s view of the Tante Marie Cookery School. It’s an established catering college in Woking, but has recently moved to smart, town-centre premises with its own restaurant. Our guide was MD Andrew Maxwell. We learnt that Tante Marie is one of the main sponsors of the festival, so it’s used its clout, contacts and not-inconsiderable organisational skills to grow the festival from a set of disparate market stalls into something that Antonio Carluccio and winners of the Great British Bake Off would want to associate their names with.
This correspondent is mainly drinks and food orientated, rather than the other way around, so I was keen to see if the improving local beer scene had managed to up its presence from the 2015 festival. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. Hogsback of Tongham, and Horsell microbrewery Thurston’s still had their own stalls, but I couldn’t see any presence of the likes of Surrey Hills, Tillingbourne, Guildford’s Little Beer Company, or the excellent Pilgrim Brewery of Reigate.
Surrey isn’t perhaps at the leading edge of the craft beer scene in the UK, but I think a trick is being missed when it comes to the Drink part of Woking Food and Drink. Is this a beer reputation problem? I’d love to see Tante Marie offer beer and food pairings from local producers, prepared in conjunction with name chefs or their own kitchens. It already runs public wine tastings at the school. If they were to promote beer with food, their association with culinary excellence would go a long way to addressing the erroneous perceptions of beer being an inferior partner to good food – and instead show it as deserving of its place among the ‘undiscovered’ Champagnes, French country wines, and local artisanal gin (Silent Pool distillery take a bow).
The main stage, which is perhaps a bit of grand designation for a tent in Jubilee Square, was home to the cookery demos. Tom and Henry Herbert were engaging and with their demo of make-your-own bagels with DIY hot-smoked-salmon not merely entertaining. They also inspire and demystify, which is what I want from my TV food personalities.
Not unsurprisingly, Champagne was suggested to accompany this take on a classic Sunday brunch item, but the pungency of the hot smoking would likely overpower Champagne. A spicy, bready and effervescent Belgian-style witbier, or, to bring in a local brew, Little Beer’s Imperial Pilsner, would be a much better match.
So could we have some beer names at Woking Food & Drink next year? Sarah Warman, fast becoming a Sunday Brunch classic item herself for the Channel 4 show of the same name. Or editor of this site – the UK’s first female beer sommelier – Sophie Atherton? (Aw, shucks. I’ll slip you that fiver later. Ed) Both doing wonders for enhancing beer’s reputation in the mainstream.
The flipside of being ‘easy to get out of’ means Woking is easy to get to. Its huge improvement since my first experience 17 years ago has a lot to do with recent investment in the town centre. The Woking Food and Drink Festival enhances the town as a destination – but I’d like it to up its beer game.