It’s not every day that a food / music festival comes your way, especially once you’ve moved to the windier side of London. So, when we heard about Alex James off of The Blur presenting Harvest festival on his Oxfordshire pile, we ummed and aahed about the £45 it would require to get into said shindig and, eventually, we decided to go for it. Very much of the ‘hung for a sheep’ school of thought, we also decided to book ourselves onto a Daylesford Farm cookery class as Kate, from the very excellent blog GirlEatsOxford, had heard great things, and I always like the opportunity to acquire new culinary skills.
After quite a wait, the fateful day arrived, bringing with it the usual September predicaments of sun vs rain vs wind vs my wardrobe, and I ended up loading the car with no less than seven outfits and we set off on what seemed to be a sunny, albeit slightly windy thanks to hurricane Katia, day. Getting there was pain free, and I managed to have my first experience of the Swinford Toll Bridge so I’m now £0.05 poorer, but culturally a million pound richer!
It’s AJ’s first year hosting the event, which has been running at Jimmy’s in Suffolk for the last two years. Given Jimmy’s has been an all-round, sell-out success every year, and the fact that Oxfordshire is a county full of the ‘right’ sort of people, I imagine AJ thought it’d be a doddle to fill his fields with festival foodies. On arrival, Kate and I quickly scouted around and decided that there wasn’t really that much to do and that we were awfully glad we weren’t camping, but more on that later. Either way, we both agreed that we were definitely hungry so our first stop was the Paxton & Whitfield stand where we managed to grab a Cotswolds Rarebit which was simply delicious. Tangy, sweet and slightly ‘socky’, it hit every spot and meant that the fact we couldn’t hear a word Valentine Warner was saying about cockles was by the by.
As far as other foodie offerings went, Harvest was a wee bit disappointing. We wandered around and found a few stalls selling their wares, but nothing that original or local. Clipper were there peddling teas (until their stand blew away) and London-Mexico haunt Wahaca provided shelter, and tacos, for us when we really needed it. But other than that, there was nothing which grabbed our attention away from the stages where you had the choice of food or music to help you while away the hours.
On the main stage, we watched a few chefs doing their thing but most were inaudible and inaccessible, including AJ himself who narrowly avoided Best Supporting Chef with Mark Hix by way of being mute in the show kitchen. The clear exception of the afternoon must be Rachel Allen who, after maybe one too many pre-show flirtinis, was fun and engaging to watch while she created ‘easy’ food. (I say ‘easy’ but I did try to recreate the ‘fake-accia’ last night … to no success at all. Kate agrees that it’s clearly my lack of flirtini / aide Leonie that failed me.) We also managed to sit in the sunshine for all of, ooh, an hour, and enjoy the reggae-ska sounds of Will and the People who I’m now a massive fan of, all washed down with a pint of (shamefully non-local) Aspells cider who were a sponsor of the event.
To balance the day out, we found our way to the Daylesford Farm cookery school portakabin, which had been decked out with beautiful AEG kitchens with halogen hob workstations. During the next hour, we learnt how to hold a knife properly, how to dissect an onion and how to chop many, many vegetables into many, many equally sized chunks.
We’d signed up for the Market Garden Soup with Pistou as Kate’s a veggie and we didn’t really fancy risotto which was the other offering. After much chopping, simmering, pounding, stirring, waiting, we were finally released into the fleeting sunshine with big bowls of soup to dig our way through with a giant crouton which had been artfully plonked on top at the last minute. It was an excellent mini-lesson and provided a healthy lunch which, given the lack of interesting vendors, was welcome.
We finished off the day with a quick watch of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (quick because he was a bit irritating, actually). Hugh’s recently seen an as-yet-by-him untapped market in vegetarians so he’s ‘become’ veggie for a few months, and the cynic in me can’t help but think that it’s just to shift a new book and get a new set of followers. Unable to shake this thought, Kate and I hotfooted it over to The Feeling to have a little singalong before going home.
All in all, it was a fun day, not least because of the company, but it seemed a little … sparse. The lack of things to do, the lack of local people selling local things, and the odd mix of chefs and music from a few years ago meant that we had a lovely time, but it didn’t quite manage to live up to it’s £45 price tag. ‘Will it run next year?’ was the question on our lips as we sang along to our new Will and the People CD in the car on the way home. Well, my assessment is that yes, it probably will run next year, but they really need to pull their fingers out and have a word with the organisers of the Foodie Festival which ran in South Parks the other week. At that there were lots of local suppliers, trying to tempt you into buying their produce and offering to actually tell you about their industries. We expected more of that from AJ’s Harvest, and it was a shame not to find it. Maybe next year, eh?