With its castle ruins, historic market and nearby hike-worthy mountains, Abergavenny attracts locals and in-the-know tourists year-round. But come September the pretty Welsh town totally transforms, welcoming thousands of visitors as it hosts one of the UK’s biggest and best food festivals.
Ready for an epicurean adventure? Here’s a taste of what you can expect at Abergavenny Food Festival.
A festival 20+ years in the making
Abergavenny Food Festival was launched by two local farmers in 1999, whose livelihoods were threatened by the BSE crisis (mad cow disease) and the subsequent foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. What started as a means of boosting the reputation of the UK farming industry and discussing the challenges that face it soon grew into today’s rip-roaring, weekend-long celebration of local, national and global food culture; the festival feeds, educates and entertains over 30,000 visitors each year and even has its own fringe events.
What to eat
Naturally, it’s wise to arrive with an empty stomach; food trucks and pop-up kitchens line the high street, spilling into adjacent squares and taking over the castle grounds – the perfect spot for a picnic. The copious culinary offerings here are diverse and you’re as likely to find bao buns and biltong as you are a Welsh beef burger.
Stalls selling produce from Wales are highlighted with a dragon symbol; there are Welsh cakes and bara brith (traditional fruit loaf) of course, but also an abundance of homegrown honey, cheese, smoked meats, baked treats and other delights which you can taste and take home.
Sweet tooth? Make room in your bag for a jar of salted caramel, flavoured with Anglesey sea salt from Halen Môn (a condiment favoured by Obama and the Royals). The distillery and craft brewery scene is booming here too, with beer, gin and whiskey makers out in force, representing both the north (such as Aber Falls) and the south (thanks to Penderyn and Tiny Rebel). It’s probably worth learning the Welsh for ‘cheers’: iechyd da!
Alongside local produce you’ll find international flavours – think poutine and maple syrup from Canada, Asian street food, sushi, churros and Sicilian cannoli – as well as innovative products such as plastic-free, 100% compostable crisp packets and liquid nitrogen ice cream.
Feed your mind
Always thinking about your next meal? There’s plenty of food for thought here in the form of panel discussions and debates on all things edible. Restaurateurs, farmers and food experts cover everything from the future of agriculture to foods of the Islamic world. There are on-trend chef demonstrations too: from vegan meals with Elly Pear to zero waste eating with Tom Hunt.
Climate change, mental health and even the #MeToo movement were prominent topics in 2019. Curious, I watched a panel of female entrepreneurs – including Asma Khan (Darjeeling Express), Fozia Ismail (Arawelo Eats) and Sam and Shauna, co-founders of the Grace Dent-approved South Wales sensation, Hangfire Southern Kitchen – discuss workplace harassment, female support networks and the glass ceiling, topics which resonate far beyond the restaurant kitchen.
You’ve wandered the stalls, hoovering up free tasters along the way (perhaps, like me, losing a game of padrón pepper roulette) and hearing about food trends from those in the know. Now it’s time to get your hands dirty.
Opportunities to expand your skills abound: you could join a pasta making lesson, learn the art of fermentation or kickstart a gastronomic side hustle at a food photography or blogging masterclass. Off-site excursions might inspire you to read up on local plantlife as you forage for botanical cocktail ingredients, or elevate your BBQ game with your newfound campfire cooking skills.
When the sun goes down, the feast continues at the night market and the castle party on Saturday and Sunday, where live music should help you dance off some of the day’s indulgences.
How to make the most of Abergavenny Food Festival
- Plan ahead: the festival programme is extensive, as is the venue – check out the timetable and site map online before you arrive to work out a plan of action.
- Book in advance: While many elements of the festival are free, certain areas require a wristband which you can buy online in advance or on the day. Special ticketed events cost extra and often sell out fast – you’ll need to be quick to get your hands on these.
- Look, then nibble: don’t chow down at the first food stand you see – scour the town for the tastiest looking dishes before joining the inevitable queue (it’ll be worth the wait).
- Accept the food envy: however big your appetite, there’s simply too much food here to taste in one weekend – you will definitely see a dish you wish you still had room for. Ask for recipes, buy edible souvenirs if you can and keep note for next year.
- Don’t forget: a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated – there are free refill stations throughout the festival and a tote bag for all the irresistible goodies you’ll buy. A lightweight raincoat is a good idea too – Welsh weather can be extremely changeable.
Make it happen
Abergavenny is roughly an hour’s drive or a 40-minute train from Cardiff. Kids are welcome and get in for free, but you’ll need to leave four-legged friends at home. Accommodation in Abergavenny over the festival weekend books up fast – book ahead or be prepared to stay further afield.
Emma Sparks travelled with support from the Visit Wales and Adventure Tours UK. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.