National Geographic Traveller Food Festival 2019: World food, chef shows and Raymond Blanc’s call for loving local produce
When it comes to exploring the wider world and getting to know new cultures, there’s no chaperone more accommodating than the local cuisine. It’s fortunate, then, that London now has a new tour guide in town. The National Geographic Traveller Food Festival – a mouthful in all senses of the word – brings a buffet of global delicacies to the capital, providing a whistle-stop service for those city-dwelling sufferers of perennial wanderlust who don’t have the time (or money) to jet off this season.
From intense, locally sourced flavours courtesy of British Herb kitchen (the lemon verbena shortbread is a must-try) to delightfully tangy cured ham from Montenegro, the menu provides a truly diverse culinary journey. A real highlight are the summer rolls served up by Rosa’s Thai Café: a fresh parcel of crisp salad and crunchy peanut sauce wrapped up in rice paper and offset by a zingy sweet chilli sauce. It’s just as well the dishes are impressive, as so too is the length of the queues. Given that this is the event’s inaugural year, the organisers can perhaps be forgiven for the somewhat sluggish service. This has nothing to do with the speed or skill of the staff, but rather the concentration of hungry customers swarming each stand in the hunt for free samples, the scent of which wafts enticingly throughout Islington’s Business Design Centre. At £22 a head, it’s no surprise really.
Among the international isles, there is space also for national produce. Bringing to the table the lean, well-seasoned meat of the north, the Cumbrian Sausage Company is present to make succulent hot dogs on the spot with their renowned product. Yorkshire-born twins Charlotte and Jennifer Davison are also not that difficult to be found with their display of colourful bakes: from the attractive brownies – which immediately disappear soon after the opening of the festival door’s – to less common recipes like the chocolate and orange cupcake. It’s easy to detect one of the longest queues under the pavilion: ham-loaded trays and a wheel of Grana Padano signal the stall of Spaghetti House. The Italian restaurant chain, established over 60 years ago, provide simple, fresh ingredients, such as mortadella, as well as delicious spoonfuls of risotto.
If these international treats aren’t tempting enough for your tastebuds, there are also live demonstrations to give you a tantalising glimpse into the global kitchen. Among those on display are Greek chefs George Chzopoulos and Ioannis Rodokanakis, who cook up a tasty vegetarian starter of fragrant stuffed courgette flowers complemented with cool creamy yoghurt, a recipe hailing from the island of Crete. Or you can stop by Hungary’s stand where you can sit and sample their wines with a selection of snacks.
When it comes to coffee, Illy is on hand to curb your caffeine cravings with a shot of intense espresso. There are also alcoholic options, with a series of wine tasting experiences on offer for a select few. These span across the continents, but be warned: you need to get there early and be prepared to wait. Luckily, the London Wine Society are also in attendance, offering a selection of bottles to try for all of those who are denied a seat at the sparkling wine session. We try a mix ranging from crisp whites to smooth reds – before being tragically torn away by a fire alarm.
What really justifies a visit, though, are the guest speakers. The true highlight of the day is a talk from the legendary Raymond Blanc OBE, who vibrates with energy and an unrivalled passion for his craft. The chef speaks animatedly of his “love of everything asymmetrical”, his accidental journey into cooking and the importance of travel in the creation of new, truly authentic plates. But it’s the idea of local produce that causes the chef to jump from his seat. He all but explodes when talking about fresh figs and brings up a picture of his beloved apricot tree on his smartphone.
Indeed, the principal of sourcing ingredients close to home is central to his revered Oxford restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – now in its 35th year – which has 12 gardens (“soon to be 14”, he beams). Blanc bemoans the high rate of imports but seems hopeful about the new generation, who are more concerned with “provenance” than ever.
On the main stage, other big names of the culinary world alternate for one-to-one interviews, with questions fired whilst the chefs are in action, preparing one or more of their signature dishes. At around lunchtime of the first day, Romy Gill MBE has the opportunity to emphasise once more how interconnected relationships and food are: her main inspiration for taking on her career – in spite of how hard it appeared at the beginning as a woman of colour – was her mother. The light sparked in particular when her mum went through the initial stages of a serious illness. In between seasoning the ingredients and mixing them all together with the cauliflower live on stage, Gill shares her first reaction on receiving the letter for the MBE in 2016, and comments on how much the media have been a solid help in climbing the ladder of success.
Later in the day, homegrown hero Adam Handling graces the same platform. He picks three dishes from the tasting menu of his flagship restaurant in Covent Garden, the first being a lobster – one of the chef’s favourite types of seafood to work with (especially the Scottish one, just like him) – cooked with wagyu beef fat. “You need to prep in the kitchen, just like in life,” says Handling while showing how quickly he can put together the ingredients on the table, smoothly stirring the pan and then clearing up what is left to be reused for decorations.
Despite the common idea some people have, very little should be left in the kitchen to be done on the moment: the key is thorough preparation beforehand, before the restaurant’s doors open, before the service time, “which is the easiest part of a cook’s day,” adds Handling. The chef talks about his unconventional beginning in the food industry – an apprenticeship taken mostly to avoid university – and the many sacrifices he makes daily in the name of his enduring passion for food. Asked about the connecting thread and influences that stem between travelling and eating, Handling agrees that a lot of his original recipes and mixing of ingredients come from meeting the cultures around the world, but he also states how much pride there is for him in the British identity that shines through in his creations and even more at his newly opened restaurant in Chelsea.
Indeed, today seems to be all about making the most of local produce, and fittingly, when it comes to the environment, the Nat Geo Traveller Food Fest is the most eco-friendly tour company around. It’s a chance to equip yourself with recyclable cutlery and take your palette around the globe without the carbon footprint. If only this new event can learn to better accommodate the human traffic, they’ll be onto a sure-fire winner.
Rosamund Kelby and Cristiana Ferrauti
Photos: Cristiana Ferrauti, Filippo L’Astorina and Alessia Caramello
The National Geographic Traveller Food Festival is at the Business Design Centre from 20th until 21st July 2019. For further information or to book visit their website here.