A Marriage made in Heaven? by Martin Orbach

FIRST ENCOUNTER

A marriage made in heaven? The Abergavenny Food Festival and Divingusto take their first tentative steps towards a long term relationship.

There’s no doubt we both fancy each other. Giovanni Marangi came to Abergavenny for last September’s festival. According to Christine Smallwood aka ‘the matchmaker’ it was love at first sight.

Giovanni runs IdeaShow, the event production company behind La Ghironda Southern Italy’s largest festival of music and cabaret that tours nine towns in Puglia and plays to an audience of 800,000. In summer 2009 IdeaShow ran their first edizione of Divingusto, the Puglian Festival of Food and Wine. Drawing on his experience of music festivals, the idea was to create a new kind of Italian food festival. Still firmly rooted in the fertile territorio of Puglian food and drink, it would be outward looking, inclusive, spectacular, glamorous.

Christine Smallwood is the author of An Appetite for Puglia, the essential starting-point for any English-language gastro-traveller to the region. Christine had come to Abergavenny in 2008, bringing with her Domenico ‘Mino’ Maggi, one of the region’s most celebrated chefs, for a demonstration of Apulian food and drink. It had taken place at St Michael’s and run at least half an hour over time as Mino produced more and more dishes to the delight of the audience and the mounting consternation of the St Michael’s crew who had to turn the room round for the next event.

Now Christine was involved with Divingusto and when Giovanni asked her to take him to the most interesting food festival in the UK, naturally she brought him to Abergavenny. By Sunday afternoon, across a picnic-table outside the King’s Head, the first overtures towards the ‘lasting relationship’ were being made.

Language was a problem. Giovanni’s English and my Italian were sufficient to enable us to order a beer and maybe find a train-station, but were totally inadequate to the task of forging a lasting relationship of mutual gastronomic discovery. Christine became the go-between.

What was the proposal? I’m not quite sure. Passions ran ahead of words. Words overflowed like champagne bubbles. Christine translated valiantly only to find a new channel of communication had opened up behind her back in mongrel French. Definitely we spoke of partnerships, relationships, a ‘twinning’ of the two festivals. As is often the case in the first flush of attraction, the path ahead seemed straightforward, clear, inevitable even…

GETTING CLOSER

So it was that Julia and I found ourselves at Stansted Airport on a hot July afternoon embarking for the second date… Travelling to Bari to witness the second Divingusto festival in action. Meeting the family, as it were…

The place was rammed. The holiday season had just begun. Ryanair, the only carrier operating directly between the UK and Puglia as usual were offering no frills. Queuing for embarkation we came across a slightly disorientated-looking Antonio Carluccio. He perked up when he discovered we were also travelling to the festival and became our companion over the next two or three days.

As the plane stood idly on the runway for an hour we had our first glance of what would come to be known as hallmark Antonio style – surrounded by a bevvy of attractive ladies charm-pedal to the floor.

The delayed flight meant that we missed the first item on the schedule, an 8-course meal served outside to around 100 guests with each course cooked in situ by a different chef and matched with Puglian wines. Damn. However we enjoyed a light supper at the Hotel Incanta. Antonio soon persuaded the kitchen to reopen and produce a delicious cold meal at his direction including our first taste of burrata, a round fresh stretchy cheese made into a case, and stuffed with strands of the cheese and rich cream; a kind of mozzarella bomb.

Whilst Giovanni was perhaps the deus ex machina, Christine was the mastermind of our Puglian schedule. With the festival taking place at night – to avoid the sweltering daytime temperatures – we had a two day whistle-stop tour of Puglian producers and restaurants under the expert tutelage of Christine herself and the assembled chefs, food and wine writers who made up our disparate but high-spirited party.

MEAL OF A LIFETIME

We eat one of the most extraordinary meals of my life on a terrace overlooking the sea at Restaurant Da Tuccino in Polignano. The meal consisted almost entirely of raw fish , a house speciality. They arrived in waves on little plates and although there probably were some accompaniments all I remember is good wine and sweet juicy lemons. We eat at least two varieties of oysters, plump creamy mussels, squid and octopus, prawns and langoustine, rock lobster, sea urchins, tuna, red mullet and red scorpion fish. All raw. All beautifully presented. The sea urchins were cut in half to reveal little stars of orange flesh to be coaxed out with the tongue from inside the prickly spines. Antonio, bless him, demonstrated the technique. The larger fish were trimmed back leaving only the head and the belly-skin on which was piled ribbons of translucent raw flesh.

The meal lasted about four hours. Plates of raw fish appeared and disappeared. Members of the party nipped out for cigarettes and dips in the ocean and returned to find a new course on the table and glasses topped up. After we had finished with the raw fish , all our leftovers were brought back lightly fried. This was followed by a ‘peasant dish’ – onions and tomatoes, combined with rice and thinly sliced potatoe baked in fish-stock with mussels added towards the end to open in the dish. At Antonio’s suggestion an extra dessert of fresh peach served in red wine with a little bit of sugar followed alongside Da Tuccino’s baked peach.

Whilst the meal, the circumstances and the setting for this meal made it exceptional, the pride and passion with which this restaurant presented its food was absolutely typical of the region. We encountered it time and again and not only when we visited as a scheduled ‘press visit’ but also when Christine’s schedule finally ran out on the Monday night after the festival. We took pot-luck in an unknown trattoria in the stunning fortified harbour at Monopoli and were rewarded with plates and plates of antipasti featuring fish, vegetables and cheese which followed only by a small plate of pasta and sea-food left us once again rooted to our chairs.

THE MAIN EVENT

If rootling around in our prospective partners back-yard threw up nothing to dislike, what about the main event? Divingusto takes place in the spectacular setting of Ceglie Messapica’s old town. The fortified hill town is dominated by its castle from which fan out narrow streets, alleyways and steps, many paved in white marble, broken up with grand piazzas, and tucked away terraces and softened by the ubiquitous oleanders.

It is essentially a ‘tasting’ rather than a ‘shopping’ festival. The main point of entry is a carnet of 15 one euro tickets which are exchanged for tasters of the local products: cold meats, cheeses, vegetables, wines, oils, preserves etc. In addition there is a spectacular open-air demonstration stage in one square, a music stage in another and a children’s bread-making workshop in another.

The festival starts around 8 at night. Crowds throng the narrow streets and collect around the bars, shops and cafes. It is a highly social and, at this stage, mainly local affair. But the main stage belies Giovanni’s music festival background and his ambition for Divingusto. It is huge and built like the platform for a rock concert. We spend quitec a lot of time here. Not least to watch Jane Baxter and Mino Maggi perform their Anglo-Italian cookery double-act.

On the first night things are a bit shaky. Mino, strongly aware of his role as continuity provider, rattles away in Italian, occasionally asking Jane a question in English and barely pausing for the answer. He soon has his own mic tucked down his shirt front and Jane’s in his hand. Jane has become the sous-chef making orechiette in the background while Mino rattles around the stove. By the second night Jane has got his measure. She has got her own radio mic – which he can’t steal – and has got round the problem of the non-existent oven shelves by having the foresight to prepare a version of her plum crumble ahead of time. Mino is well-behaved and the dem is a triumph.

My own personal highlight was the bi-lingual conference held in the castle keep to launch the new partnership. The panel consisted of Giovanni, the Mayor, the tourism Director, another local politician, and myself, moderated by Christine. Running on Puglian-time it was the best part of an hour overdue before all the participants were assembled. By then a most un-Puglian storm was gathering and a gusting wind was scattering the leaflets put out on the audience chairs. Julia found some drawing pins and attached the Welsh flag to the front of the conference table, Christine rattled through the introductions in Italian and English. The heavens opened and everyone scattered.

Lurking under the shelter of a 17th century ducal staircase, pressed together with the leaders of Ceglie’s local government was a strange place to be. But I soon discovered that Cesare Fiorio, Head of Marketing, spoke good English and fondly remembered Wales from many visits in the 1980’s to the Lombard RAC Rally where he had been manager of the Lancia team. I brushed up his pronunciation of Machynlleth and Gallo-Italian relations appeared to go swimmingly. Eventually the storm passed. A new collection of slightly bemused locals had taken the plastic seats and we set off again. I got the opening question – why did we start the Abergavenny Food Festival’. Given the lost time I kept my answer to the bare minimum. Unbeknownst to me Christine as moderator had been given a new brief. Let everyone speak once and then end it.

ATTRACTION OF OPPOSITES

So will we be seeing each other again. Absolutely! There are many differences. Divingusto is a young festival in its second year. Its audience is mainly local. Its focus is on celebrating local food traditions and culture. But that culture goes back a long way and the food traditions are diverse and well-established. Abergavenny is a mature festival in its twelfth year with an already established profile in the UK. It is cosmopolitan and inclusive. Wales has been historically unfancied for its food and drink but has made huge strides in recent years . Wales excels in red meat and dairy; Puglia in wine and olive oil, vegetables and fish.

Vive la difference. We are more in love than ever and can’t wait till our next rendezvous. In September, we will welcome the representatives of Ceglie Mesalpica and the products of Puglia to the Abergavenny Festival. We will be doing our best to impress. And I suspect they will too.

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