Witney’s hungry for local food & drink

With so many local producers on its doorstep it seems only right Witney should have its own festival of food and drink. St Mary’s church provided the perfect venue for this smorgasbord of local delights. I rocked up to the festival at about 9.15, thinking I would be one of the first to arrive. I however, was not alone; there were many more like minded people keen to check out the produce on offer.

After buying a sourdough loaf and some lardy cake on the way in, we happily paid our pound entry fees. With about fifty stalls to choose from I didn’t know where to start. Producers I really wanted to check out included The Cotswold Curer, Compass Brewery and Hook Norton Honey to name a few.

Prior to getting stuck in to the stalls Alexander Armstrong and St Mary’s Revd Toby Wright opened the proceedings. The rector welcomed everybody to the church and highlighted how great it was to see the church being used for such a coming together.

I was really interested with how historically the relationship between food and church would have been; hopefully in the future I will write a post on this subject. I asked the Ravenous Reverend how he felt about using the church as a venue for the Food and Drink Festival.

“When the church was dedicated in 1243 it would have been at the heart of the community and the space in which people gathered for all sorts of occasions and celebrations. And high up the list would have been sharing food and drink together. As a church community in the parish we are committed to living out a hospitable Christianity which welcomes and gives space for community and encounter. We see the Food and Drink festival as being totally at one with our heritage and at one with our desire to be open and welcoming.”

Speaking to Alexander Armstrong, I asked him about his favourite food experiences in the Cotswolds. He definitely knows his stuff and suggested the Swan at Swinbrook, the Kingham Plough and the Five Alls at Filkins as all good places to eat.

Back to the local produce, after buying some asparagus grown in Long Hanborough, I made a bee line for Hook Norton Honey (sorry about the pun). I tasted a variety of their honeys including a dark sweet chestnut honey sourced from Southern Spain. I was however, keen to keep it local so bought some honey coming from Oxfordshire resident bees - I’ve already used it to sweeten and enhance the flavour of a strawberry and rhubarb crumble and can fully endorse it.

Pottering about I bumped into some friends who directed me over to Witney Lakes Resorts stall as they were serving braised pigs head. As I expected it was a tasty treat that people really shouldn’t be scared of and was a great example of how good head to toe eating can be.

The next stall on my list was the continuously busy Cotswold Curer. Unfortunately by the time I got to stopping at his stall, he had ran out of his pancetta. He said he wasn’t sure how much to bring and was surprised how quickly it had been snapped up. So, instead of the pancetta I went for a couple of his excellent saucissons and a sweet chilli chorizo.

Sticking on the meat thing I also purchased some excellent Gloucester Old Spot bacon from the Meat Joint. I’m hoping to visit their farm in the summer to find out more about the bacon making process, as all but the abattoir bit is done on site.

Enticed by the opportunity to taste some English wine, Bridewell Organic Gardens was next on the rounds. What makes this wine special; aside from the delicious wine is the fact Bridewell’s is actually a charity. The charity provides land based therapy for adults who are experiencing mental health issues. Their wine, Phoenix, is a dry white with bundles of fragrant notes. I’m now looking forward to getting stuck into the bottle I purchased. For now though, I’m going to be patient and wait to have it as a treat for English wine week (25th May to 2 June). You can visit Bridewell’s gardens during the year when they open to the public on specific days; I’ve added their open days to richinflavour’s event listings.

I could go on writing about the stalls, but I’m going to finish off with Compass Brewery who quenched our thirst with their brew ‘West’ throughout the day. To mix it up a bit I also tasted, for the first time, their Wheat beer called Symposium. It was such a hit amongst our little group that a few of us, myself included purchased a three pack of these in anticipation for a sunny day and a barbecue – we can but hope!!

From where I was standing the Witney Festival of Food and Drink was a huge success, a sentiment echoed by WFOFAD organiser, Elpie Lewis, who said the event went “amazingly well”. She estimated that around a staggering 4000 people came through St Mary’s doors, which is fantastic for a debut festival in a Cotswold town the size of Witney. Elpie also highlighted that a number of the suppliers had completely sold out of their stock, and those fortunate to be local enough went back to their stores in order to replenish.

I also asked Elpie whether she had any memorable flavour experiences from the day. She said amongst all the running around she didn’t get much time to taste too much, but she did see loads of fantastic produce on offer. She did note, however, that she had an excellent slow roast lamb shoulder with salsa verde by the Ross and Ross Food team (I can also vouch how for how good they tasted).

All in all it was a fantastic day with passionate flavour creators in abundance. We had a great day, fingers crossed the Witney Festival of Food and Drink organising team make this a yearly event…