March 20, 2014

An Introduction to Food Festivals in France

In a culture where food is part of countless idioms, pet names, political aspirations, and media coverage, food fairs, festivals, and competitions naturally occur. Sometimes, they are seemingly ubiquitous. (A recent weekend saw four prominent food festivals within an hour’s drive of each other.)

So how is the traveler to decide which one to visit? What should he expect? How much will she pay? And, most importantly, what will the traveler eat?

Music and Meat, together at last
First, embrace regionality. Festivals tend to focus on the specialties of the host region. If you tell a French person that you are traveling to a part of France, the odds are excellent that his first reaction will be, “You will eat well there.” He then ticks off several regional specialties you should be sure not to miss. The more pious among them may direct you to the cathedral. The amateur art historian may steer you towards the tapestry. But food recommendations are always part of the discussion. Because this is so ingrained in the French soul, it would be awkward indeed to find a food festival that didn’t brag about its own delicacies. So, in Burgundy, expect snails, cheese, wine, hams, and honey, among other victuals.

Second, prepare for some surprises from outside the host region. As proud as the French are of their own local grub, they are, above all else, insatiably curious when it comes to food. They crave new tastes, whether the briny zing of a Brittany oyster, the delicate flavor of Basque ham, or the odeur prononcée of Munster cheese from the eastern part of the country. Because food is a marvelous way to travel without a suitcase, food festivals will invariably showcase products from other areas of the country (and sometimes beyond). Vendors from elsewhere provide new tastes, different accents, and a range of personality traits too numerous to count.

Third, know the price of admission before going. One vendor recently complained that the entry fee of 3 euros was leading to fewer visitors. Imagine a group of four, she said. Already, they are at 12 euros before tasting a thing! Generally, expect a 2-3 euro entry. Sometimes, this includes a glass for tasting wine, sometimes that is a supplement. There are many festivals that are free, so do a little homework.

Fourth, a festival and a market differ in one critical way. At the latter, one can basically grocery shop. At the former, there is a paucity of fresh produce and meats. Rightfully or not, organizers have decided that processed meats, canned goods, vacuum-sealed products, and the like should fill the festival space. If the objective is to stock a picnic basket, one has no worries. If one wants to buy fruit and vegetables for that evening’s dinner, go elsewhere.

Fifth, booze flows everywhere. Taste the winemaker’s own nectars in dainty sips from a special glass and work on different ways to say, “Damn, that’s good.” Or just chug beer at the bar. Every festival has one. Don’t be shy.

Sixth, where there is food, there will be politics. The mayor will speak at one point, guaranteed. Media will be present. It has no effect on the consumer’s enjoyment of the festival, but it is worth knowing.

Seventh, salty or sweet, one can satisfy every craving at any reasonable festival. One without the other is a bit of a national tragedy in France.

Eighth, there will be cured meats: hams, sausages, even horsemeat.

Ninth, one can easily find a meal on the premises…provided one is dining at the nationally mandated (at least is seems that way) hours of 12:00-2:00 or 7:00-10:00pm. Maybe it will be seared foie gras. Perhaps it will be frog legs. Could that be tête de veau with the famous aligot potatoes? It could be and it is.

Tenth, and finally, go with gusto. Sample everything on offer. Engage the producers directly. This is their life’s work, and they are happy to discuss their methods and their philosophy. If one tries to upsell you, go on to the next stall without giving it another thought. Life is too short for petty crooks and pressuring salesmen.

Overall, food festivals allow the traveler to explore and experience new flavors in a convivial ambiance. (Yes, that is a direct translation from the brochure…)

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