Northumbria Food & Wine 2012 – The Festival

The 2nd Northumbria Food and Wine Festival raised its Marquees at the Corbridge Rugby Club last month, fortuitously on the only truly dry weekend of summer up until that point (a welcome change from last year when the late planning meant a grey weekend in October). As expected from such a young event the format had changed a little, possibly in response to feedback on the obvious shortcomings experienced in 2011. This time round there was no Sunday schedule, instead a 2pm start on Friday 10th and a 12pm start on Saturday 11th August – although with the timing of the hourly train services along the Tyne Valley line from Newcastle they probably would have been just as well starting on the half hour instead.

Once again I took advantage of the ticket price allowing full access and took the Friday afternoon off work. On both days in I met fellow NEWTS when I joined the train at Prudhoe, Chairman Geoff on the Friday and (partner in wine adventurism) Elaine on the Saturday, although it was a little disappointing not to see more of the Society joining in the fun, especially as the weather was kind. The mix of local wine retailers pouring their choice wines, some of the best pop-up kitchen food in the region and a selection of wine experts talking about what they know best is such a good way to while away the hours!

The 3 marquees had been set up in at 90 degree angles to each other with an open seating area in the middle, a much larger and better spread arrangement than last year. External fencing directed you to the entrance where you picked up your tasting glass and 12 tokens to get you started (I managed to get through a lot more than that over the weekend!). This year round the ISCN tasting glasses arrived with the requisite 50ml indicator (the absence of which caused a great deal of confusion last year!) and token prices had been re-jigged to 50p each, allowing the stalls to offer 50ml tastings at 2, 3, 4 or 5 tokens depending on the value of the wine (although some stalls also offered 125ml pours as well).

The Food part of the festival was covered by 3 kitchens offering different styles of food to tempt the crowds. At the entrance was Bouchon Bistrot from Hexham and I was looking forward to trying something from their French menu, but sadly timing conspired against them as owner & Chef Greg Bureau was in hospital and staff problems at the Bistrot meant the kitchen was staffed by a crew from The Feathers. My late lunch came from here with a lovely Greek Mezze complemented by a Tasmanian Riesling (2006 Lalla Gulley).
A little further in was The Eclectic Picnic, a pop-up caterer run by Newcastle based Chefs Sally Walker and John Connell, a truly eclectic combination of Doonhamer and Kiwi with CVs that read like a culinary who’s who. Their Eastern inspired menu was a big hit on both days, with the Beef Rendang my Friday dinner – complemented superbly by a Portuguese red (Falcoaria 2006) – and the Teriyaki Salmon an excellent choice for Saturday dinner. I also meant to try their Truffle Brie cheese which looked inspired, but sadly got distracted and forgot to come back! Still, I hope to see them again (menu pic?).
Finally at the other end of the marquee (and really needing no introduction) was The Feathers Inn from Hedley on the Hill with chef Rhian Craddock and Festival co-organiser Helen Greer. Unsurprisingly it was also busy throughout, with the split roasted lamb selling out so fast I didn’t get a chance to try it for Saturday dinner! Instead a welcome Saturday lunch was the slow-cooked Ravensworth Grange pork with braised chickpeas and chorizo…mmmmm….!

Another aspect of the last two Corbridge Festivals have been the free wine talks given by various wine professionals and enthusiasts, including myself. This year the organisers did a superb job of bringing Internationally renowned experts Sarah Abbott MW and Karen Hardwick of York’s Wine Academy alongside festival regulars Helen Savage (journalist and educator), Marta Mateus (Portuguese Importer) and Massimo de Nardo (Prosecco producer). With such a prestigious line-up there was no need for me to take to the stage again, so I was happy to enjoy the wine and the talks from the other side!

Sarah Abbotts’s informative and humorous talks on Friday were a comparative look at “Getting what you pay for” and “New Frontiers”; Marta covered the Portuguese Wine regions; Helen had 4 topics (she was a real trooper over the weekend) on “Wine Faults”, “French Country Wines”, “Bordeaux” and “What a Summer”; Massimo discussed Prosecco, the region and the wine; Karen’s technical and detailed talks on Saturday were on “Alcohol and why it gives winemakers headaches” and “Why is New Zealand special”. As well as raising the stakes with the quality of presenters Sarah, Karen and Helen also increased the example wines used to complement their talks, meaning that they approached Masterclass status but for free. For me the 2 talks from Sarah, 4 by Helen and 2 by Karen were worth the ticket price alone and you can read why in my next post.

Saturday also saw a new addition to the format with “A Question of Taste” panel Q&A session hosted by local BBC Newcastle radio host Jonathan Miles. That was a good laugh, with Karen & Helen offering wine words of wisdom (including fielding a choice question on “minerality in wine”!) and Rhian and Sally for food queries – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as initially uncomfortable as Rhian when Jonathan was “playing” with him!

Of course the focus of the festival was on the wine retailers, and there was a diverse mix of tables across the 3 tents. Most of the regulars were there representing the North East;

Missing locals were Proteas Wines and Michael Jobling, although they had presented at the Newcastle Wine Fair in July (as an aside it would be nice to see Richard Granger and The Wine Chambers at these sort of events once in a while as well) but Dillies of Hexham was making their first appearance at the festival with Andrew Foster showing a large range including several of Marta Vines Portuguese offerings.

Also at the show were two companies showcasing eastern European countries. Austrian Wines Direct, a family business with John and Marion McEvoy from Renfrewshire in Scotland, had a good selection of wines from a country whose average quality is unquestionable and Helen Savage was already out with her notebook resulting in a recent Journal piece.  Nearby were Croatian specialist Pacta Connect from Brighton, with Judith Burns & Trevor Long showing a selection of Istrian wines that most people, including myself, wouldn’t have experienced before.

Finally was Romanet, although to be perfectly honest I didn’t feel comfortable with their overtly commercial sit-down “free” tasting presentations as opposed to the token based pours which everyone else was doing – a couple of people I watched go through their tastings ended up opening their wallets or signing forms (I accept they may have done so because they really enjoyed the wines, but I got the impression of a hard-sell effect taking hold).

However, like last year there was still a great deal of difference between token charges and measures. Austrian Wines, Bin21 and Carruthers & Kent were the very reasonable on number of tokens per taste (with Tyne Wines, Dillies and The Hop, The Vine not far behind) averaging 2 tokens for wines in the £7-£14 a bottle range. Dennhöfer looked to be within this group, with their £6-8 wines at 2 tokens, but they were pouring extremely generously (enough to share with a friend and come back and try a different one!). At the other end of the scale Pacta Connect were doing their bottles for £15, a 125ml glass for a £3.50 but a 50ml pour for an inflated 4 tokens (£2) – this hit “grazers” like me hard so, sadly, I only spent a little time on their range and tasted less than I’d have liked – still, there was plenty others to choose from.
Rather than pad out this post with my impressions of the wines themselves I’ll post a separate piece shortly. All I’ll say about my top 5 just now is that they were from Austria, Lebanon, Alsace, Washington and Spain.

One thing I was curious about was the presence (or absence) of some of the other tables. Unlike 2011 there was only one “larder” stall, the delicious Kenspeckle Confectionary (whose Walnut & Amaretto Fudge went perfectly with Dalva Tawny Port), but no cupcake/oil/deli/seasoning companies (but Dillies did have some of their delightful chocolates as well). Wylam Brewery looked to be doing a steady trade (picking up as the evenings progressed) but RSPB and the Wildlife trust tables were rarely visited and I felt sorry for their staff who must have been frustrated, as must have been the Costco ladies as well, stuck at the end of the last tent opposite the Feathers. I said hello as I passed, but as I’m already a Costco card holder I wasn’t able to send any extra business their way! The ironic thing is Costco is an excellent source of quality wine – I regularly buy good bottles at reasonable prices and their Kirkland own label range has some of the best value U.S. wines available in the North East – but apparently their presence at shows is purely to try and drum up membership instead of being a full tasting presenter as they could have been.

So, that about covers the review of the festival. There were plenty of people there (probably at least as much as over the 3 days last year) and everyone seemed to be having a good time. There didn’t appear to be any disasters and I thoroughly enjoyed the wines, the food and the expert talks.

Here’s raising a glass to bigger and better for 2013!

Slainte!

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