Music thumps from a large blue tented stage on Clapham Common as up-and-coming singer Saint Saviour entertains an audience sprawling in afternoon sunshine. It’s a music festival, and I’m here with my daughters of five and two.
They’ve been enjoying the kids’ tent and rides but are now hungry. We head off in search of food. Rabbit with field mushrooms and sage? Moules marinières? They pull horrified faces. I feel the rising panic of a dad caught on the hop after 5pm without snacks. Then salvation comes in the form of a stall run by Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen. Whiting fried in breadcrumbs with chips and tomato sauce? My miniature companions are delighted.
Festival veterans will sense something wrong here. What’s with the fancy food? In the old days festivals were infamous for their stodgy-verging-on-filthy diet of greasy doughnuts, rubbery noodles and dubious burgers. But times are changing. A gastronomic revolution is taking place, led by a new generation of festivals where the food shares top billing with the music and celebrity chefs mingle with rock stars.
The event I visited was the inaugural Big Feastival, a Jamie Oliver-organised three-day bash in south London that was held in July. While acts such as Soul II Soul and Athlete played on the main stage, celebrity chefs did cooking demonstrations in a marquee. Stalls run by London’s leading restaurants, such as Locanda Locatelli and Benares, sold food. The biggest draw while I was there was Oliver himself, demonstrating how to smoke a trout in a perforated cake tin. “Now, stab a hole in that big boy,” he said. Hopefully the crowd, spilling out of the marquee, realised he meant the cake tin, not the trout.
With 23,000 people attending this first year, the Big Feastival aims to establish itself on the festival calendar. But it isn’t the first of its type. Over in Suffolk, Oliver’s friend Jimmy Doherty began a similar food-and-music festival in 2009 on his farm. “I wonder where Jamie got that idea from!” he laughs.
Doherty is a livestock farmer. He was the star of a BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary Jimmy’s Farm, which followed his efforts to set up a rare breeds piggery in 2002. He has been dubbed “Britain’s first celebrity pig farmer”, a subset of fame that to the best of my knowledge remains a field of one.
Doherty’s festival, Harvest at Jimmy’s, returns this September. There will be space for 20,000 festival-goers, including campers, and the music line-up will include Eliza Doolittle and The Feeling. Among others the Michelin-starred chef Richard Corrigan and the “queen of the Aga”, Mary Berry, will be showing off their chops in the food tent (possibly literally).
“I think that two things we do really well as a country are music and food,” Doherty says. “If you put the two together it’s the perfect match.” This year there’s also a Harvest offshoot at the Oxfordshire farm run by rock star-turned-farmer Alex James, who has gone from swilling legendary quantities of champagne as bass player with Blur to a tweedy new life on the land making cheese. The two Harvest festivals will take place simultaneously with bands and chefs shuttling between them.
The rise of the food-and-music festival seems to be the logical outcome of the “food is the new rock ‘n’ roll” mantra that has been heard since British gastronomy was transformed in the late-1990s with the cult of the celebrity chef and the glamorisation of restaurant-going. But Doherty sees it differently: “I think more important than that, creeping in the background, is farming. None of that can exist without organised food production. You come along to Harvest at Jimmy’s and it’s all about the food, the chefs are here – but we’ve also got a rare-breed pig show, and Monty Don talking about growing your own vegetables. It’s a cross between a rock festival, a village fête and an agricultural show.”
Going back to nature was one of the main impulses behind rock festivals in their 1960s-70s golden age. Woodstock was hosted on a dairy farm; so is Glastonbury, whose cows, munching grass fertilised by ordure generated by more than 170,000 festival goers, are the most productive in Somerset. But there’s no sign of the cattle during the festival: they’re bussed away to make space for the campers.
The new breed of food-and-music festivals shifts the focus from nature to agriculture. Farms are ceasing to be simply a bucolic site for the music, and are instead becoming a core part of the experience. Kent’s Lounge on the Farm Festival is another example. Now in its sixth year, it doubled its capacity to 10,000 people this July, with The Streets and Ellie Goulding among the acts appearing while festival-goers roamed the working farm and sampled local produce.
Mainstream festivals inhabit a crowded market. There are signs that high ticket prices and punter fatigue are having an effect on sales: at the time of writing neither leg of the Reading-Leeds festivals later this month had sold out. Glastonbury’s organiser Michael Eavis recently said he thought festivals were “on the way out”. “We’ve probably got another three or four years,” he reckoned. Next year Glastonbury is taking a break in order to let Eavis’s land lie fallow.
Better food at festivals, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen popping up at Bestival in September, marks a move towards providing a more rounded, luxurious experience. The likes of Lounge on the Farm play on a modern desire to feel connected to the land through what we eat.
“Our food culture has not only changed the way we eat, but also the way we embrace food as a society. It’s not just a fuel, it’s becoming a culture, a way of spending our free time,” says Doherty. He strikes an evangelical note. “We can’t look at the farming industry like any other industry. It gives us our sustenance, our daily bread. Organised agriculture is the cornerstone of civilisation. We can’t have all these other elements of our society if someone else isn’t there producing food.”
Sounding in his words is a distant echo of the idealism that lay behind the original hippy music festivals. The age of flower power is being reborn in the age of the organic vegetable.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
Harvest at Jimmy’s
More foodie festivals
Isle of White Garlic Festival, August 20-21, Totland Bay. All things garlic – and more. Bands include Dodgy and Matchbox. www.garlic-festival.co.uk
Newlyn Fish Festival, August 29, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall. Samba bands, jazz, Celtic tunes and top seafood-chef action. www.newlynfishfestival.org.uk
Brighton & Hove Food and Drink Festival, September 1-October 4, Jubilee Square. The highlight will be The Big Sussex Market, Sept 10-11. Music ranges from jazz to flamenco. www.brightonfoodfestival.com