Sunday, June 13, 2010

Taste of Dublin Festival

As any or most Dublin foodies will know, the talk of the past four days will have been dominated by one thing and one thing only: the Taste of Dublin Festival. For the last five years it has landed itself in the Iveagh Gardens, playing host to some of the biggest names in the British and Irish celebrity chef circles, many of Dublin’s finest restaurants and innumerable food related companies from Dubliner cheese to Lindt chocolates and Aga cooking stoves. If that wasn’t enough, free entertainment in the form of fashion competitions, barber shop quartets and live music are all thrown in as part of the package. It’s a literal day at the races, minus any horses! Which – given it’s supposed to be all about food - I’m glad is the case.


This year’s festival was particularly significant given that it was my first outright Taste of Dublin experience. Yup, shameful for somebody who calls themselves a Dublin foodie! The truth is that I’ve only started to properly stick my head into the city’s food scene since starting up Consumed, so whatever happened afterwards was always going to be a series of adventures into unexplored territory. What a difference a blog makes, eh?

I’d bought two Taste of Dublin tickets each for myself and Rebecca; one set for the early opening on Friday and the second for Saturday evening (each ticket cost roughly forty euro, but this included twenty Euro worth of ‘florins’ to spend at the festival). I figured that this would be the best way to see what difference the weekend made to it all, as well as just varying the overall experience. A visit on Sunday had been part of the original plan since my old classmate and fellow blogger Donal Skehan was doing a demonstration at the event, but a few whispers about the food petering out by then and - more importantly – my holidays ending on Saturday meant that this idea quickly flew out the window.

So it was that by half twelve on Friday, give or take a small bank balance disaster, Rebecca and I strolled past a handful of bouncers and into the almost unrecognisable Iveagh Gardens. Knowing little to nothing about the layout I’d expected it to be centred mostly around the middle of the park but you literally could not walk anywhere without coming face to face with a pavilion of some kind.




Not that I was complaining, we immediately launched toward the first row we saw and grabbed every last morsel of complimentary food we could beg for, borrow or steal! There was plenty to choose from; Tropicana, Green & Blacks chocolate, spiced hams, Dubliner cheese, Prosecco, smoked salmon and many, many more. The best part was, of course, that given the volume of people passing by, it was easy enough to do a lap and shamelessly gobble up a second helping of each one! Rebecca summed it up perfectly in pointing out on our seventh time around that having a cup of Tropicana was like collecting out €200 on passing ‘Go’.




There was also plenty of food available to buy. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that the majority of bites on offer would have cost you! Nearly every second stall represented one of Dublin’s restaurants or cafés, amongst which you could find Roly’s Bistro, Jaipur, the comparatively new Salon de Saveurs and Town Bar and Grill.



All in all, nearly twenty restaurants were represented with backup from several food companies and associations also producing their own dishes. Over the course of two days Rebecca and I had a chance to sample a wide range of what was being catered, the highlights of which for me were Jaipur’s Tawa Gosht (slow cooked lamb with aniseed and curry leaved griddled in a light onion and tomato masala) and Bramble’s beer battered fish and chips with a minted mushy peas. I even got a photo of my dish from Salon de Saveurs with Conrad Gallagher himself!






Whilst the food itself was delicious, the prices being charged for each individual helping were just appalling. One florin equates to one Euro, and many of the signature main dishes hit the seven or eight florin mark, despite information about the festival claiming that the average price of the dishes on offer would be just five. Many that you did actually pay five for turned out to be little more than a small plastic cupful of strawberries and cream. In a nutshell, genuine bargains were practically nonexistent. Given, many of the restaurants are well reputed in and about the Dublin food scene but rational thinking would dictate that to promote the food you cook and entice diners into your restaurant proper, you would offer a proportionately better or discounted price. This is particularly relevant to a festival environment where you would expect the emphasis to be on creating a more inclusive experience. I don’t even need to begin talking about how the ‘R’ word should also be playing on the minds of whoever deems such ludicrous prices suitable. To put it another, simpler way, it felt like paying to get into a music festival but then being made to pay five euro every time a band played a song.


Thankfully and as you’d expect, the cooking presentations were, for the most part, free. We were lucky enough to squeeze into a presentation by the notorious Gino D’Acampo who spent as much time flirting with his army of female fans as he did cooking!


The end result was a pesto tagliatelle, tiramisu and plenty of culinary innuendo. For both lack of time and the difference in the number of people attending on Saturday we didn’t stay around long enough to watch a second presentation. It was however truly remarkable to witness not even the slightest let up in how quickly the food was being served, despite the park being about three times busier by my estimation!



Ultimately, I learned three things from my two-day visit to the Taste of Dublin Festival. The first two were very simple lessons: only buy tickets for one day and don’t make assumptions about how holiday pay is dispersed! The third, unfortunately, is far more serious and in all honesty, upsetting to think about. Taste of Dublin is advertised not only as the definitive food festival of this fair city, but also as ‘the world’s greatest restaurant festival’, or so claims the official website. The latter is a bit dubious and you all no doubt will agree but regardless, it’s puts out there as the gathering that should define interest in Irish food both as a pleasure and business. Indeed, food is something that unifies everybody in a fundamental way given that it’s something that everybody must and will experience throughout their entire lives. Despite all of this, the only feeling I got in walking around the grounds of Iveagh Gardens for those two days was one of threatening exclusivity. The stocky bouncers siphoning you into lines at the gateway; the well dressed socialites proudly displaying their ‘VIP’ tags; the shockingly overpriced cups of strawberries and cream; all of this drags the implied idea behind the festival kicking and screaming into the background where it becomes little more than an accessory to a fashionable outing.


Think for a moment of any decent food market or street festival you’ve been to. What defined them? For me, it’s low prices, fresh and good food, great smells, lively atmosphere and a generally all inclusive feel. Taste of Dublin features only one of those qualities, which itself is mired in the issue of cost. The atmosphere is stiff and the smells of any actual cooking are sealed in by screens and tarps, lest the festival-goers be exposed to the visual horror of somebody working a stove. What summed it all up in spectacular irony was that the guys manning the Donnybrook Fair stall handed us a Eton mess cup (five florins) on the sly which, had you bought the ingredients in their shop, would probably have set you back less than a euro. They understood, and looked to be trying to make as much of a laugh of it they could.

To summarise, the food on offer at Taste of Dublin was everything it ought to be and delicious. The presentations were fun and the weather played ball which made walking around during the quieter hours a pleasant experience. On a whole, the festival itself felt more like a celebration of food elitism, with less attention given to the former. It typified the refusal of certain castes within Dublin city to acknowledge how things have changed since the early noughties, and that the exclusivity associated with eating out has been somewhat broken down over the past twenty years. I’d definitely attend again based on the fact that I try to keep up with Dublin’s dining scene and write about it, but my advice to anybody with a just a casual interest in food would be to stay well away and visit one of Dublin’s weekend marketplaces instead. They’re cheaper, friendlier, and unequivocally aimed at food lovers.

Taste of Dublin Festival
June 10th - 13th,
Iveagh Gardens,
Clonmel Street,
Dublin 2

http://www.tastefestivals.ie

2 comments:

  1. Very informative post Robert - Thanks.

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  2. fully agree with you, have been 3 times but gave it a miss this weekend after trying to get tickets for saturday evening and realising when I couldnt that I could go for a really nice meal instead of feeling quite ripped off.

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