My mouth is dry and my brain is foggy. I can barely move my legs as I struggle to catch my breath making my way up the most gentle of inclines. I desperately need food. No – I’m not at the end of a long walk, nor am I in the final stages of a marathon. I’m hungover, and I’m at Wilderness festival, desperately searching for sustenance to quiet my roiling stomach and ease my pounding head.
Nourishment ends up coming in the form of the Don Macaroni from Annie Mae’s Mac and Cheese – a saucy, seemingly bottomless pile of cheesy and nose-tinglingly mustardy macaroni topped with crispy bacon, basil oil, rocket and parmesan. It’s life-giving and life-affirming. It raises me from my stupor. It tops up the calorie deficit from the many kilometres walked and hours danced yesterday. But most importantly, it lines my stomach to allow me to do it all again in a few hours’ time.
Festival food is a funny thing. Much like festivals themselves, it exists in its own microclimate, free from the rules and regulations that surround everyday life. This insulated culinary world serves two distinct purposes – to line one’s stomach and to ease one’s evils from the night before. And while this once may have manifested itself in a pile of soggy carbohydrates, festivals in recent years have been turning it up and expanding their offerings, giving guests significantly more than just a sad burger and a gobstopper of a bacon sandwich to choose from.
Wilderness is the obvious place to start, having based its primary offerings not just around the glorious musicians gracing the stages, but also the chefs popping up in its various dining spaces. This year’s line-up included Jeremy Lee of grand dame Quo Vadis, Bubala’s Helen Graham, Social Pantry’s Alex Head and Sarah Turner and Tom Barnes, among many others. These meals were spread over tents filled with enormous, communal-style tables packed full of increasingly raucous festival goers wearing more glitter than you can shake a stick at, as well as smaller, more intimate set-ups like the Chef’s Table.
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Extravagant meals are as central to the Wilderness experience as wild swimming in the lake and a dance at the main stage. But when you’re not fine dining, the options for fuelling up are still remarkably strong. There are some of the best burgers you’ll ever have from the Burger & Beyond truck, heaping bowls of paella, slow-cooked ragu and gnocchi (which makes for a great breakfast), crispy skinned, pulled duck wraps from The Duck Truck and enough fluffy gyros to rival a Greek village.
A few weekends before Wilderness I was at Secret Garden Party, a festival that made Wilderness look like a military operation in comparison, so scarce were the facilities and organisation. And yet, even there, the food options took centre stage. The queues may have been nauseatingly long, and the options limited by who was able to get signal to run their card machines (many gave up and opted for a cash-only offering instead), but what came out in the cardboard serving plates was often a joy.
Festival season isn’t over yet and there are a few still to come that promise to feed your taste buds as well as your ears
Annie Mae and her enlivening mac and cheese made an appearance again. There was pad thai, and bowls of warming vegetarian curries that were accompanied by a serve-your-own chutney station which descended into something of a warzone by sundown. Paella featured, as did heaping burgers and stacked breakfast sandwiches, piles of bacon tottering on top of enormous hashbrowns.
Festival season isn’t over yet and there are a few still to come that promise to feed your taste buds as well as they will your ears. Just look at Lost Village, which, much like Wilderness, will have a series of long table banquets from chefs like Tim Siadatan from Trullo and Padella and Hawksmoor, alongside a chef’s table offering from some of the country’s best – Santiago Lastra and Roberta Hall McCarron among them – and a weekend-long offering from Kricket.
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I would argue that it is partly the adrenaline rush of a festival that throws all food norms out the window. When you strip away the basic requirements of modern life (running water, bathrooms, roofs, walls) and lump a bunch of strangers in the middle of a field with simply their wits, a few portaloos and a general desire for a good time, you inevitably enter survival mode. Food is, at its base level, always simply a means for survival, but this is dialled up at a music festival where you’ll probably only eat two meals a day, subsidised by whatever you can scavenge while making your way back to your temporary canvas home.
This rise in UK festivals taking food seriously can be traced back to the early 2010s, almost exactly coinciding with the stratospheric rise in the street food scene. It seems intuitive really – food trucks being portable and therefore easily being able to pack up and set up anywhere with an electrical plug and parking space around the country.
Leaving Wilderness felt like being hurtled through a portal back into the real world. Festivals serve as momentary escapes into another realm where almost everyone is indulging their most unique self. People who wear suits for eight hours a day are suddenly wandering around half-naked, covered in glitter. Full-frontal nudity that would have you calling British Transport Police if it happened on the Tube is fully embraced when jumping into a weed-filled lake within a festival site. Penises and boobs run free, eccentricity is embraced, and this sense of the surreal extends to the food. Just because it’s not the primary reason you’re there, doesn’t mean it can’t have a defining impact on your experience.
Looking back at my weekend, the Jeremy Lee lunch I attended – where I feasted on mini versions of his infamous eel sandwich and succulent slices of pork leg soundtracked by a free-roaming brass band and impromptu sing-alongs – feels as central to my few days at Cornbury Park as Years & Years on Saturday evening. I feel as grateful to the DJs who soundtracked memorable hours with wonderful friends as I do to Annie Mae for resurrecting me with her pasta. Food provided enduring moments of joy and necessary sustenance when I needed it most – and that, to me, is what festival dining is all about. It’s the ultimate supporting act, a helping hand through the craziness, and a firm contributor to the idiosyncrasy of it all.