September 16, 2011 10:03 pm

The chefs’ guide to food festivals

The end of summer in Europe heralds the season of harvest celebrations. Five celebrated chefs select the best events

 UK

By Jason Atherton

British apple orchards have been grubbed up and built over for decades, so we need to celebrate those that remain. In Herefordshire, the harvest is marked with a terrific rural festival on October 8 and 9, which takes place in the seven parishes around the Marcle Ridge. It’s in a glorious area, is great fun, and only costs £2 to get in. The event is run by the Big Apple Association (www.bigapple.org.uk), along the lines of a big village fête, but with a lot more drinking. You’ll find heritage apples and pears plus their juices to buy, cider presses to try and cooking demos showing you what to do with apples, pears and quinces. You leave here with a car full of delicious British fruit, but the best bit is flooring unwise quantities of cider and perry.

I won’t get away from the restaurant kitchens much this autumn, but I’m very much hoping to make it down to Devon for the Exmoor Food Festival (www.exmoorfoodfestival.co.uk; September 30 to October 9). There are events all over the area that champion local, seasonal produce. Dulverton hosts a carnival market, where you really get a flavour of small-town Somerset, and there will be a proper village food festival at Porlock that’s always well worth visiting. Those home-bakers and jam-makers can put us professionals to shame. I always look out for berry jams and tarts because they really taste of the countryside they came from.

Another big favourite is the Autumn Speyside Whisky Festival (www.dufftown.co.uk; September 29 to October 3) in Dufftown, in the Scottish Highlands. Dufftown is a cracking place to be – the autumn colours are beautiful, especially when seen through the bottom of a whisky glass. There are tastings, music and hearty food plus some amazing golf courses nearby.

Finally, I’ll be making a serious effort to get down to Cornwall for the Falmouth Oyster Festival (www.falmouthoysterfestival.co.uk; October 13 to 16). I adore oysters and love to serve them hot or cold, in their shells, even as an ice cream. The start of the Cornish oyster dredging season is an ideal excuse to eat the briny darlings to excess, and Falmouth is a great place to visit at any time of year.

Jason Atherton won his first Michelin star as chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and now runs Pollen Street Social (www.pollenstreetsocial.com) in London’s Mayfair

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Girls in costume at the Sagra del Tortellino

The Sagra del Tortellino in Castelfranco Emilia, Italy

ITALY

By Massimo Bottura

My restaurant is in the old town of Modena, slap in the middle of Emilia-Romagna, the gloriously fertile region that to Italians is synoymous with gluttony: it is home to mortadella, Parma ham, Parmesan, Bolognese ragù, and rich egg-yellow pasta. In the autumn, Emilio-Romagna is alive with festivals – we call them sagre.

If I tell you that my “desert island dish” is tortellini, you’ll understand why I’m looking forward to Sunday (September 18) and the Sagra del Tortellino (www.sagreinemilia.it) in Castelfranco Emilia. It’s a classic sagra in the village that claims to have invented tortellini. The local villagers – we call them rezdora, and they’re our very own Emilia-Romagnan celebrities – spend the weeks before the sagra preparing thousands of hand-folded tortellini, which get served in rich capon broth. The sagra is organised by the ancient guild of San Nicola (www.lasannicola.it) so it has something of the air of a medieval pageant about it.

In Spilamberto, near Modena, the Fiera del San Giovanni Battista (www.fierasangiovanni.it; October 1 and 2) is dedicated to the boiling of the musto used to make balsamic vinegar. After the local Trebbiano grapes are harvested, they are crushed, then boiled in many family houses. As Italians are keen traditionalists, everyone is welcome to this great celebration.

Up in the mountains near the regional park of Sassi di Roccamalatina, there is a fortnight-long sagra in the mountain village of Zocca, during which the entire place celebrates the revered chestnut (www.marronedizocca.it; October 9 to 16 and 23). Chestnuts are sold fresh, roasted and glacéed. Chestnut flour is used to make many desserts and dishes including ciacci, a chestnut crêpe filled with fresh ricotta, and castagnaccio, a sometimes sweet, sometimes savoury focaccia. During all of the sagra, many local producers and farmers bring out their goods for sale, which adds to the atmosphere of abundance and celebration.

Massimo Bottura runs Osteria Francescana in Modena (www.osteriafrancescana.it) and has just been voted the world’s best chef by his peers at l’Académie Internationale de la Gastronomie

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SWITZERLAND

By Andreas Caminada

Graubünden, where I am based, is a very traditional part of Switzerland, and very beautiful. We are famous for our Hock wines here, with all the vineyards being family-run affairs that often produce only tiny volumes. Rather than village or regional celebrations, each vineyard hosts its own harvest festival some time between September 10 and October 2 (www.graubuendenwein.ch, www.wein-flaesch.ch). You’ll be invited to the cellar, where simple tables and chairs are set up. You never know who you’ll be squeezed in next to, or how long you’ll be there. As well as more mature wines, you are usually offered Sturm. This is semi-fermented newly made wine. It looks like cloudy grape juice, but beware – it hits you hard!

We are in Heidi country here. Maienfeld, which is our region’s main town, is where author Johanna Spyri wrote the book 130 years ago. You get a flavour of this at the Aelperchilbi (Alpine autumn festivals) which happen all around us. The best-known is at Stans, in the canton of Nidwalden (www.aelper.ch; October 16). You go for alpenhorn recitals, and the young people dress up as butzi, Alpine sprites that wear cloaks of skins and moss to run about the town. They make trouble, chase children with long sticks, and bless the harvest. The church is filled with offerings of fruit, vegetables and huge wheels of cheese. The mayor offers everyone an aperitif after the service, then you eat and drink all day long. There is also a procession where the floats are decorated with flowers and mountain herbs. It feels like you might see Heidi at any moment.

Andreas Caminada runs the three Michelin-starred Schloss Schauenstein (www.schauenstein.ch), in Fürstenau, Graubünden

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Jury members at the Latxa sheep’s cheese contest

Jury members at the Latxa sheep’s cheese contest in Ordizia, Spain

SPAIN

By Elena Arzak

We do not have “harvest festivals” as such – to us they are specialised fairs that celebrate our Basque traditions, and give us a chance to eat and discover the best foods of the season. Every year, the first fair of the season is Artzain Eguna en Legazpi (www.gipuzkoaturismo.net). It is held in the first week of September, and is a shepherd’s fair that brings thousands of people together for sheep shearing and gourmet lamb cooking contests, a sheep cheese competition, a Gipuzkoan sheepdog contest, and a multitudinous lunch of local ingredients.

The Basque festivities in Ordizia (www.ordiziakoeuskaljaiak.com) ran this year from September 3-11. The most important day was the 7th, when an extraordinary market was held. People take Ordizia very seriously. There are competitions for cheese, livestock, fruit, vegetables, Basque hens and perretxikos, which is our local term for wild mushrooms. The highlight of the day is the Latxa sheep’s cheese contest, for which my father is president of the jury. This year, the winning cheese was auctioned for nearly €7,000!

I’m now looking forward to the fair in Gernika-Lumo (www.turismo.euskadi.net) on October 31. Peasant farmers from all over the region will be there: you can expect more than 900 of them to take over the town. This is where my father and I find new suppliers for bread, cheese, honey, wine and other organic produce. You eat rosquillas – our local doughnuts – and everyone drinks lots of cider and txakoli wine.

There is a fountain in the middle of town where prizes are given out by the grand jury in the afternoon. All produce, whether it’s a prizewinner or not, are for sale from late morning. You can buy cider, bread, sweets, vegetables, pâté and salamis. There are also Basque handicrafts for sale, some made before your eyes, and exhibitions of agricultural equipment. The farmers take part in pelota and jai alai matches, and Bertsolaris wander the streets, singing their rhyming musical Bertso verses.

Elena Arzak is the chef at the three Michelin-starred Restaurante Arzak (www.arzak.es) in San Sebastián, which was ranked eighth best in the world in the 2011 Restaurant magazine awards

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The crowd at the chestnut festival

The chestnut festival at Aysennes, France

FRANCE

By Michel Bras

In the autumn, we enjoy very small, very local village festivals that give humble thanks for the riches of our region, Aveyron. My favourites include the Fête du Village Mandailles (www.haut-rouergue-tourisme.fr) on September 18. It is all about community, and the entire village, plus friends, neighbours from adjoining valleys and visitors sit down to a lunch of tripe. We like our tripe in this area.

Those who feel at all energetic afterwards join in the pétanque competition. Later, there is an evening dinner dance when we are entertained by the local accordian band. The main dish at dinner is cheese soup, because the Aubrac and Aveyron regions produce many excellent cheeses. Roquefort is only about 50km away, but my favourite cheese is Laguiole, from the town where I live.

In October, we try not to miss the chestnut festivals at Aysennes (

www.tourisme-aveyron.com; October 16) and at Sauveterre de Rouergue (www.aveyron-segala-tourisme.com; October 30). The big speciality here – after chestnuts of course – is Aligot. This is a silky, stretchy dish of puréed potatoes with Tome cheese. It is very good for steadying you when you’ve been drinking our strong wines.

I honestly believe that our local wines are the best things to drink with our local foods. In our restaurant, many of our wines are produced locally, often from forgotten or unfashionable grape varieties. Our local AOC is Marcillac, which should be made with Fer Servadou or Mansois grapes. That’s why a harvest festival with wine -tasting is such a fine idea.

The Fête des Vendanges à Marcillac-Vallon (www.tourisme-aveyron.com; October 15 and 16) is a traditional old-fashioned fête where ox-drawn carts heavy with grapes are led to the village press. The oxen are decorated with flowers and ribbons for the occasion and all the visitors are invited to the communal wine tasting. There are usually grilled chestnuts and grilled Aubrac beef to keep you going, and this year we’ve heard there may be a polka band.

Michel Bras runs the three Michelin starred restaurant Bras (www.bras.fr) in Laguiole, Aveyron

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