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Gourmet Festival Food Comes of Age in Ireland

It is nearly the end of the summer, the season of festivals, but one notable trend with these events this year is the stronger emphasis on gourmet food, with high quality stalls and food trucks proving to be a major attraction.

Perhaps, evocative of the recent move locally towards small gourmet food trucks and stalls popping up all over the country, there has definitely been a move towards traceable meals for a variety of palates. Consumers have certainly developed more of an interest in where their food has come from, its preparation and nutritional benefits, and particularly this year it appears that event organisers have not only noticed this - but also catered towards it.

For example, All Together Now, which ran on the August Bank Holiday weekend in Waterford, boasted a substantial culinary offering with cooking demonstrations by chefs such as Michelin starred Richard Corrigan, as well as farmers markets and stalls. The ‘Grub Circus’ event was also a two day feature of the festival with food writer Joe McNamee from the Irish Examiner and Sunday Business Post hosting and curating a series of activities including a children’s cooking competition, a chef’s obstacle course and a food quiz. The complexities of food were not ignored either with debates taking place at the chef’s table on topics such as Meat vs Vegan, examining current consumption trends, and various drink talks and tastings. Featured high profile guests at the event included wine writer for the Irish Examiner, Leslie Williams, and Irish Times writer John Wilson, indicating the level of public interest in food.

Electric Picnic, at the end of August, has also seriously improved its food contribution, with their Theatre of Food, featuring food demonstrations, cocktail masterclasses and food discussions. This year sees the festival's addition of a new drinks theatre to accompany the workshop theatre. Food talks include speakers Professor Ted Dinan, author of The Psychobiotic Revolution, with talks from Dr. Susan Steele and Galway fishmonger Stefan Grisebach on the ethical consumption of fish, as well as contributions from chefs and writers such as Grainne O’Keefe and JP McMahon. Interestingly, from an industry point of view, the festival also has a fashion show geared towards women chefs, with ethically made chef wear making its way onto the catwalk, designed by lingerie designer Ali Wheeler.

Ireland has seen a massive push towards higher quality food in a very competitive market and the festivals, even the newer and more culturally niche ones, have all incorporated this into their offerings. Traders are also a massively important factor in this, when considering what ethos the festival wishes to project. However, many of these traders operate all-year round, as well as at festivals, so with this in mind we spoke to successful portable food providers Fred Peretti of Lala Poutine and Milly Murphy and Alex Gurnee of Vietnom, about the challenges involved in running these quirky businesses.

Lala Poutine is a French Canadian food truck that has catered for events and festivals for over six years, including Vantastival, All Together Now, Knockanstockan and Electric Picnic. The vintage van contains everything required to produce the Canadian comfort food from fryers to fridges, with everything optimised inside to cook on site. "To be honest, it used to be a lot of insomnia, stress, but it became, with the years, excitement!" Fred explained when asked about how difficult the business was to run at festivals.

"There is a lot to prepare; certifications, find the right suppliers, make sure equipment is working fine, have the right staff. We've learned from our mistakes over the years but we really enjoy what we do!" In fact, this has become Fred’s full time job – which happened quicker than he had anticipated - and he left behind his career in financial services in 2012.

The basic recipe of poutine is chips, cheese curds and gravy. "We use the three of them but do a few more different ones, pulled pork, taco," said Fred. The van also offers a few different chips options as the chips have an excellent reputation - always fresh, cooked twice to be soft inside and crispy outside. Lala Poutine sources most of its produce from smaller Irish suppliers who Fred not only believes to be more flexible, but more conducive to creating a support network. However, "Our chips are cut in Ireland, but despite being the spud country it's very hard to find good quality chipping potatoes in Ireland. They come from the UK and Spain depending of the season," he explained.

Securing finance to open the restaurant was one of the most challenging part of the business to date for Fred, who mostly runs the business on his own, bar during festival season when he takes on staff. "You need 200% motivation," Fred said. "When it comes down it a few things help, like speaking to a random person who tried and loved our Poutine, or receiving an award at EP from the Irish Times, or Canadian people thanking us to have brought Poutine to Ireland."

Currently plans for the future for Lala Poutine include looking for pub owners to partner with the business, and the search for an investor and location to open the first restaurant dedicated to Poutine in Dublin.

Another food truck – well technically horse box – doing the rounds at festivals such as Another Love Story and Electric Picnic is Vietnom. Run by Milly Murphy and Alex Gurnee, the Vietnamese inspired food has found a somewhat stable residence in the beer garden of Stoneybatter’s Glimmerman pub. "We love the Glimmerman pub, the owners and its regulars are very kind and welcoming," stated Milly. "As well as this it is also a great beer garden, especially when the sun shines!"

Alex and Milly travelled extensively throughout south east Asia and fell in love with the light and refreshing nature of the food in Vietnam, which they decided needed to be brought back to Ireland. The business ethos is, as Alex described, "To bring the flavours of Vietnam to Dublin using local and sustainably sourced ingredients".

The menu is definitely not traditional Vietnamese cuisine, which would be logistically difficult to execute without importing vegetables from across the globe. The source whatever they can from local organic suppliers such as McNally family farm and sometimes even Milly’s parents’ organic farm in west Cork, as well as growing a bit of their own vegetable and herbs.

"What we are trying to do is use Vietnamese flavours using Irish ingredients. Some of our recipes are tweaked versions of classic Vietnamese ones, such a nuoc cham," Milly explained. Initially being a wholly vegetarian menu, which has since changed to include some meaty dishes, Milly had "The near impossible task of eliminating the fish sauce from our dishes".

Despite only being in its early days, the response to Vietnom has been extremely positive; however the couple, as the only employees, have been working six days a week to keep the business ticking over. The most challenging aspect for them to date has been keeping a concise menu, without removing favourite dishes.

"We have so many ideas but we have to be patient and let our menu rotate slowly and in accordance with what’s seasonally available," Milly explained. The main future plan for the business, apart from festivals, include the acquisition of another horsebox for a separate location, for which Alex’s engineering background was essential in the first place.

"It’s really fun to see more food stalls bucking the trend and doing what they love. I hope this trend takes over Dublin!" said Milly when speaking specifically about the Stoneybatter area - and this definitely has been reflected in the quality and variety of traders incorporated into festivals throughout Ireland this year.

Not only that, but the position of food at these festivals has also clearly reached more prominence, as Ireland seems to have embraced a larger multicultural palate, and this development of taste clearly has more opportunities to come for the sector as a whole.

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