From Dirty Baps to Gourmet Wraps

Beyond the mud and the mosh pit, today’s festival food has become an elevated, escapist encounter in its own right

But this wasn’t always the case. Recent years have seen big leaps in quality and variety on the foodie front, from the greasy to the gourmet – just ask any hungry festival fan with half a stomach. Not so long ago, festival eating meant fuel, not flavour. Chowing down on questionable meat, overpriced big-label cider, or chips, chips and more chips, for yesterday’s veggie or vegan.

Not so long ago, festival eating meant fuel, not flavour

Now music-lovers rocking up everywhere from Glastonbury to Glasgow Green are welcomed by myriad mouth-watering delights for all tastes and tongues. It’s fair to say we’ve come to eagerly expect this rich flavourscape as another facet of every festival experience.

I spoke to three of our favourite fest-food producers – Anna Mae’s Mac ‘N’ Cheese, Thali and Eat Like A Greek – for their take on how festival gastronomy has changed since they started out; how the desire for indulgence, ideology and authenticity is shaping the scene; and what they see on this hedonistic horizon.

Mac not Crack: Anna Mae’s

For many of us, festivals are like Christmas in the summer. When it comes to what, how much and at what time you eat, anything goes. They’re a liberating carte blanche to indulge, splash out, and get stuck in to anything and everything.

For fans of Anna Mae’s Mac ‘N’ Cheese, regulars in the (literal) field, that might mean revelling in rich vats of creamy macaroni cheese, up to three times a day.

Anna Mae

Back in 2012 when Anna Mae’s began saving hungover hearts with that favourite American mainstay, they were the only ones specialising in macaroni cheese. Familiar and homely, yet even more delectable and indulgent with options to upgrade including basil oil or crispy onions, Anna Mae’s holds obvious appeal.

Founder and namesake Anna Clark explains: ‘People really love it; it’s pure comfort in a bowl. It’s an incredibly versatile dish and we love playing around with flavours and combinations. It’s super rewarding when we see festival goers who come back to us year on year, and we’ve become part of their experience.’

But there’s a whole other demand dimension at play beyond the quest for comfort. It seems that if we are going to fork out for gourmet food – and can be choosy about it – we want to buy into gastro-brands that appeal to our particular personas.

Whether our food is fun or fantastical; socially-conscious or organic, and/or ethically-sourced; hyper-healthy or infinitely indulgent, we want it, and with proven quality and personality.

Ethical festival food

It’s a clear trend Anna, and her fellow producers, have undoubtedly witnessed. ‘The standard of what people expect has really changed and festival goers are demanding better quality’ she says. ‘Food has become part of the overall experience of the festival, not just something to keep you going, and organisers have definitely recognised this. When we started we saw that food could be part of the experience of being at a festival, and part of the fabric of the event. We always look for ways of making things better, bringing the best quality food to events we possibly can. We work incredibly hard to incorporate this idea into what we do, and the image we put out there is very important to us.

food has become essential to the ethos of the festival and the message they are trying to convey

‘At Shambala, for instance, which has banned all meat products as part of its green initiatives, food has become essential to the ethos of the festival and the message they are trying to convey. They’re really innovating through their food offering.’

Straight Outta Mumbai: Thali

Thali Café is now known by many Bristolians and Oxford dwellers as the cosy, compact city restaurant chain offering great value, delicious food straight of out Mumbai’s backstreets.

But it was in fact at Glastonbury Festival in 1999 that Thali first landed, when founder Jim Piza returned from India ‘after eating my way through too many thalis’. Jim wanted to bring everyday Indian food to the UK festival scene.

Back then, the business championed the traditional vegetarian thali – a meal made up of various dishes served on a single platter – which it still rustles up for the hungry thousands nearly 20 years on. ‘We offered simple Indian home cooking served as a thali, so that customers could try a little of everything at the same time. Authenticity is key; people want to escape the daily grind and share new experiences.’

Thali

Thali also taps into that other hankered-after festival escape: nostalgia. Jim reflects. ‘When we started Thali back in 1999 the festival food scene was split into two camps: the fast food, with burgers and hotdog stalls, and large festival cafés offering organic, vegetarian food, cooked from scratch. Hanging out at a festival café was a big part of the laidback counter culture festival experience.’

Jim has observed this onsite café culture phasing out in favour of speedier, on-your-feet options. ‘Festival-goers have so much to experience, they want quicker, more convenient food they can eat on the go … our mushroom and walnut samosas with coriander chutney are one of our bestsellers now.’ However, that ethos of authentic, carefully-prepared home cooking remains at the heart of Thali.

‘Eating is an expensive part of the festival weekend, so you want to know you’re eating food that’s nutritious, healthy, and prepared with love, when you’re parting with your hard- earned cash,’ says Jim.

My big, fat souvlaki: Eat Like A Greek

Eat Like A Greek’s gastronomy also taps into the sequinned, muddy hoards’ hollers for home-cooked and home-grown, and has been delivering the cuisine of the Greek island of Samos to UK markets and festivals since 2013.

Devon-born cocreator Ruth Petralifis says their combination of local, organic and homegrown herbs, meats and veg, and timeless Greek flavours, from hearty halloumi and Aegean spices to their handmade fluffy pita breads is endlessly appealing to the modern music market.

‘Greek food is still really under catered, and people love the fresh flavours we offer, she says. ‘I think we offer something different to some of the heavy food you find in festivals. It’s also a great food to eat on the go, with your hands.’

Significantly, with the visible consumer upsurge in demand for gluten, dairy and meat-free food or vegan alternatives, Ruth and her Grecian husband Michalis have stepped up to the plate to ensure these growing masses are catered for.

Ruth explains: ‘We offer gluten-free wraps and a vegan option with hummus. I think it’s good to be able to offer something for everyone and at all times of day, otherwise you’re leaving money on the table. Also people are more aware of food intolerances now, so it’s great to be able to offer them the chance to eat with us.’

Festival food

What next?

As Britain’s famously inclement weather starts taking a turn toward outdoor music mecca season, what new trends do our fest-food producers see emerging for the coming months and years?

Anna says: ‘Vegan food is getting more and more popular in the food scene in general. People are way more aware of what they are eating and where it has come from, whether it be 100% plant-based or meat-based, and this can only be a good thing. At Anna Mae’s we try and source all of our dairy products, for instance, locally to the festival we’re trading at to support local farming, and so we know exactly where our ingredients are coming from.’

huge pressure is coming from festival organisers to reduce the waste generated over a single weekend

Thali’s Jim also sees a more mainstream conscious-consumer approach bedding in. ‘I think one of the big trends will be around disposables, with huge pressure coming from festival organisers to reduce the waste generated over a single weekend,’ he says. ‘Customers will continue to want artisan products, but with pitch fees continuing to rise, I feel that this will only be feasible if we return to simplistic offerings based around cheaper seasonal ingredients.’

And for Ruth, the heat for high-end on-site offerings is here for the long haul. She says: ‘No longer will people eat the greasy burgers of the past. People will keep striving to eat restaurant quality food from a food truck. There are many events now that focus on this, and I think pop-up restaurants will also start to feature more at events. Gourmet street food is here to stay.

‘Food has become an important fixture of the festival now, and long may that last.’

Words by Daisy Blacklock.