Can the food at a festival rival the music line up? Last summer, struck by Britain’s ever-growing focus on the art of eating well, I wrote a piece for The Guardian arguing the case. True to form, I spent much of this year’s RockNess festival feasting on food and snacking on music, confirming my suspicion that festival food is on the up.
I and many others flocked to last year’s inaugural Wilderness with as much enthusiasm for the Petersham Nurseries banquets as sets by Laura Marling and Anthony and the Johnsons. Certainly, my memories of devouring courgette flowers and goats curd are even more potent than knockout sets by either artist. It wasn’t that the music was less important, but that Food had become an act in its own right. The same is set to apply this year, as Oxfordshire’s Wilderness once again beckons with gastronomy superstars like Fergus Henderson and Ottolenghi, cicchetti (Venetian tapas) demonstrations by Polpo’s Russell Norman at Port Eliot and Ms Marmite Lover’s The Underground Restaurant at Bestival for a second year on the trot. And that’s more than the number of bands I can name playing at each!
Admittedly, this trend for chi-chi sit-down meals and food talks is still fairly limited to the more artsy festivals visited by a home counties crowd, but it has nevertheless impacted on the calibre of festival food across the board. In other words, festival food is being forced to improve. It has dawned on organisers that, especially amongst the Great British anorak clad, people want good hearty fare to see them through the rain-drenched, muddy misery that only live music on home turf can justify. More feeding and meading than wining and dining, it nevertheless draws attention to the reciprocal relationship between food and music, to which Shantaram author Gregory David Roberts once alluded: “Food is music to the body, music is food to the heart.”
Food is definitely music to my body, as evidenced by my recent visit to the Highlands for 2012’s RockNess festival. With a main stage directly in front of Loch Ness, on the edge of the village of Dores (reputedly the one time vantage point for a sighting of love-making Nessies), it is a staggering location for a festival. With June’s night time temperatures plummeting to 3 degrees, however, our bursts of hunger were as regular as the gusts of wind. An excellent array of slap-up food stalls came up trumps, from the truly Scottish Stovies (porridge with lashings of cream and brown sugar by morning, or organic lamb and vegetable stews with beetroot and oatcakes later on) and a nearby haggis and neaps outlet, to more international, with good representation from the West Indies (Ska-B-Q) and Spain (Paelleria and Churros con Chocolate), burgers galore, I Heart Sausage and festival favourite Chunky Chips, Wicked Dips. The VIP area even boasted a double decker bus belonging to Soho’s The Breakfast Club, into which we huddled for burritos before gathering on the hill to watch Mumford and Sons with Highland valley acoustics.
Shivering as we ran between tents, regular meals facilitated the music’s effects. Music is food to the heart only once food has serenaded the body – or something. Whatever the case, food was my headline act and paved the way for the music, which also included Deadmau5, the Mystery Jets, and Justice (our highpoint, after a jacket potato with dahl and posh coleslaw). And the drinks? With only watery Tuborg and sickly sweet Kopparberg to choose from on the beer front, we stole away to the nearby Dores Inn for Orkney ale on two occasions. We also spent many an hour with mixologist Bruce Hamilton in Drambuie whisky liquor’s RV, sipping cocktails both spicy and strong. A spirit that’s skipped a generation, Drambuie is more comparable to Amaretto or Cointreau than to other whiskies, with honey and saffron notes that make for great mixed drinks. We sipped it neat, tried it with ginger ale and even in whisky caipirinhias and piña coladas, warming our weathered bodies to kick start a night of dancing.
And dance we did, rolling from the cheery folk of Noah and the Whale (there’s nothing like “Five Years Time” to make you overlook cloud cover) and into a blow-up church, where seventies disco pumped from the altar and a vicar in face paint stole my beer. We returned to the Drambuie bar several times, occasionally to buy cocktails, but more often to grind to the RnB of our youth – Sunshine Anderson et al. On the Saturday night, French electro duo Justice were as electric as ever, playing heady remixes of their classics like D.A.N.C.E while a giant crucifix lit up onstage. Then, as the last traces of light faded from the long Highland day, Deadmau5’s set stepped into the breach and glowed. The crowd flocked to the main stage like moths to a flame and we danced huddled and giddy until dark.
I come from a camp that thinks anything – work, play, love, dance, the lot – is impossible on an empty stomach. Food sustains us for the night, but its social nature also brings us together. It complements music’s work brilliantly. So while Shakespeare’s Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night had a point (“If music be the food of love, play on”), Gregory David Roberts’ embellishment of the quote (that food is music to the body) is apt. Music and food have a harmonising relationship ideally suited to a festival setting. We returned to London nourished in body and heart, thanks to a stellar line-up of food and music at RockNess.
For more information about the RockNess Festival, visit the website.