“ Bristol / South West England „
The Bristol Wine and Food Fair is a new annual event, to be held each July in the Bristol quays, with the aim of showcasing good food and food producers, predominantly from the South West of England. After having thoroughly enjoyed the Cheltenham Food Festival (www.garden-events.com/) in June, I decided that a trip into Bristol to enjoy this (hopefully bigger and even better) event would be an excellent use of a summer's weekend. The event was held over three days, opening at noon on Friday 11th July and continuing until 6pm the following Sunday; as I had the day of work on the Friday I decided to go for the opening afternoon when I hoped it would be less busy than over the weekend.
It was easy enough to find the venue; having arrived at the quays about 15 minutes before the gates were due to open, we just followed the flow of middle-class crowds down to a fenced off area near @Bristol where a promising cluster of tents and marquees awaited us. A short queue was established by this time, eagerly anticipating the opening of the fair, and another was building up to one side of the gates at the ticket booth. I knew from checking the website that I had to pay for entry; what I didn't realise what that we had to pay £5.50 each*, and that my ticket would only allow me entry to the afternoon session between 12 and 4pm. If I wanted to attend the evening session (which started at 5.30pm), I would therefore need to shell out again (not that I was intending to be is Bristol for that long, it was just the principal of not being permitted all day access when the entrance price was so high that bugged me). I will add at this point that this wasn't the only purpose of our trip into the city that day, so we could have walked away - but in a funny way the cost of the entrance tickets raised our expectations of the fair, and we were still keen to go in. The gates were some 15 minutes late in opening (thanks to health and safety checks, we were told), which did draw some grumbling from the (by now quite long) queue. In all fairness to the event staff, they did come out to apologise for the delay and to keep us informed of what was happening while we waited, so we at least didn't mind too much about the wait.
Once finally inside the fair, we first headed to the food producers market. The organisers of the fair, Bristol Event Management, have plenty of experience in organising food markets, and given the wealth of foodie options that abound in this region, we expected something large and quite special. What we found was only around 30 stalls, most of which were quite small, some of which were empty, and others of which were still unpacking their goods. This was very disappointing; I have seen larger and better food markets before, many of which had free entry to them. We spent some time having a look around and did buy a couple of little things (some sweets from one stall and bread from another), but there wasn't anything hugely exciting on display that we could see. The market certainly lacked the buzz and atmosphere of the Cheltenham festival we had so recently been to.
Moving on further down the fair, there were two large marquees, one each dedicated to cheese and wine. As much as we liked wine, we found the marquee held further disappointment for us. The wine tent required you to fork out for your own tasting glass (around £3 to £4 as I recall), then pay again to taste, and pay again if you wanted "tutored tasting" (around £8) - and pay again for wine, of course. This tent was firmly aimed at an upper middle class market, and while there in nothing wrong in that, it would have been nice if there were options to include those of us who aren't so rich. Plastic disposable glasses and more affordable wines, maybe? Or inexpensive tutoring sessions for beginners? This clearly wasn't meant for the likes of us, and after the cost of getting in we felt we didn't really want to blow all our money on a tasting session that had a slightly snobby feel to it. Moving on to the cheese marquee, we found things more to our liking: there was a warm, friendly atmosphere with knowledgeable sellers keen to give you samples (hooray!) and so I don't think it was any coincidence that this tent was far busier than the wine tent. We ended up going away with three lovely cheeses (including some absolutely divine Somerset brie) which were more expensive than you would pay for the mass produced stuff in supermarkets, but what I would assess as good value; I won't quote you prices given as exhibitors could well have entirely changed by next summer!
Cheered up somewhat, we went in search of lunch. This was provided exclusively by a group of tents run by what appeared to be some of the poshest restaurants in the city; the names now escape me, but the menus were pricey and the tables almost entirely empty, despite this being lunch time. We looked for alternatives, but it seemed anyone wanting lunch in the fair was buying individual sized pies, pastries, bread rolls, etc from stalls and eating them standing up. And then looking bemused that they couldn't get a drink anywhere. Then leaving. This was really a missed opportunity. The organisers may have found it beneath them, but I bet a stall serving good, fairly priced, hot food and cups of tea would have made a small fortune in this setting. It's not like there wasn't enough room, either. A surprising amount of space that had been fenced off for the event went unused. There were also chef's demonstrations on offer, but the one that was on while I was there wasn't well advertised and I only found out about it when it was too late to join in; I believe there was a charge for this too, but I cannot recall the cost.
Less than half an hour after the event opened, people were pouring out of the gates (us included). Bemused looking staff (students, I would guess) were asking if anyone wanted their ticket stamped so they could come back in that afternoon - but I saw no-one take them up on their offer. I am prepared to accept that there would be teething troubles in a new event, but this was very disappointing. The organisers seemed more concerned with making as much money as possible rather than putting on something worth going to. Around 11,000 people apparently visited over the course of the weekend, so the organisers must have made a nice profit from the event, I just felt they could have offered more without gouging visitors at every turn. I have been to many other events of this nature and been given much more without such extortionate charges. Considering how much we paid, the event was poor value for money - and that cheese will probably be the most expensive piece of brie that I ever end up buying! I hope that the organisers put on a better event next year as this does have potential to develop into something really good - if people learn from these mistakes. However, I for one am unlikely to be tempted back based on this experience.
*Under 16s had free entry, but there were no other concessions.
The fair is host to wine exhibitors, cheese producers, restaurant sampling and live entertainment.