The Wild Thyme Food Festival is now a firm fixture in the Oxfordshire foodie diary. Held annually in May, in the central Chipping Norton Town Hall, it is the brainchild of Sally Daniels and Nick Pullen of the Wild Thymes Restaurant, in New Street, and it brings together the very best artisanal food producers, growers and makers in the surrounding area. Think of it as a joyful jamboree of the most delicious seasonal flavours, on two floors, under one roof, with cookery demonstrations, children’s activity areas, wine tastings, beer sampling, coffee drinking, cake eating and speech making to boot. All we can advise you to do is the following: bring a big bag or wicker basket to carry away the booty, as much cash as possible to take advantage of all the wonderful offers and, above all, arrive early. This is a very popular event, and with reason.
Prue Leith formally opens the show at 11.00 a.m. and she is always very keen to show support and patronage to local food initiatives in her own neck of the woods, the Cotswolds.
Sally will probably greet you at or near the door, beaming from cheek to cheek as you take in the sheer scale of the whole organisation, the beauty of the Town Hall’s architecture and paintings, and the volume of people on both sides of the stalls.
On the ground floor, we saw Sally’s partner, Nick Pullen and his assistant, Charlotte Turner, doing a cookery demonstration in front of a packed audience. We stopped to buy beers from Compass Ales (www.shop.compassbrewery.com) an Oxford based business that makes Baltic Night Stout, The King’s Shipment IPA and Isis Pale Ale, as well as brewing bespoke bears to taste. Fieldbar wines (www.fieldbarwine.co.uk) showed us fruit wines from Stroud, and we tasted Stevens Garnier’s wines from their Botley shop (www.stevensgarnier.co.uk). We bought chocolate honeycomb, sable biscuits and red onion marmalade from the Wild Thyme Restaurant stall (www.wildthymerestaurant.co.uk).
The best bookshop in Oxfordshire definitely has to be Jaffe and Neale (www.jaffeandneale.co.uk) and they also have a café and home wares section within their shop, so against the back wall of the hall they set up shelves of books, notebooks, bright melamine picnic ware, bowls, cups and Tupperware containers. You could also eat their homemade cakes, drink a cappuccino and relax, whilst the throng of foodies made their way around you.
At the very front of the upstairs hall, the Slow Food Cotswold Convivium had a table overflowing with local, fresh asparagus (www.slowfood.org.uk). The Cotswold Brewing Company, from Foscot, were selling their renowned local drinks which you could have there or take home (www.cotswoldbrewingcompany.com). The Meat Joint, a famous Deddington butchery, at Iron Down Farm were in good form, their beautiful corner stand showcasing traditional cuts of local pork, beef and lamb. We stocked up at the Upton Smokery stall, having to think carefully what to buy, as we wanted it all. They smoke their fish and meats just outside Burford, literally a quarter of an hour away (www.uptonsmokery.co.uk).
Sandfields Farm of Over Norton had really beautiful free range eggs for sale, and they also sell Aylesbury ducks and geese for Christmas, being all-round poultry specialists. (www.sandsfieldfarm.com).
We could quite literally have bought the entire stall at New Wave Seafood. We frequently shop at their flagship establishments in Fairford and Cirencester, and today they had laid out fresh oysters, shrimps and dressed crab on a bed of crushed ice and decorated everything beautifully. They are, quite simply, the very finest fishmongers for miles around (www.new-wave.co.uk).
We saw Roger and Karen Crudge of Crudges artisanal cheeses, made in Kingham. They make Aveton cheese with milk from a farm just outside Aveton, and Titcombe cheese from sheep’s milk from nearby Stratford-Upon-Avon. They do not have a website, but you could contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org, Haddon House, Chapel Lane, Kingham, Oxon, OX7 6YD.
Everyone’s favourite chocolatiers, Miette from Stow on the Wold were there (www.miette.co.uk), and one look at the Blue Basil Brownies stall left us speechless with desire (www.bluebasilbrownies.co.uk). Rupert Parsons from Womersley Foods (www.womersleyfoods.co.uk) was greeting his fan base in one of the middle aisles, and who could resist buying some of his multi-award winning herbal infused vinegars and jellies? They are excellent as dressings and accompaniments, on salads, fish, meat and cooked vegetables. They have now reached such a high level of renown that Womersley Foods is going to be on Radio 4's Food Programme, presented by Sheila Dillon, on 15th and 16th May 2011, at 12.30 p.m. and 4 p.m. respectively.
Very nearby we bought rapeseed oil, grown by the 4th generation Sanderson family farm on the Oxfordshire / Wiltshire border (www.stainswickfarm.co.uk).
Beeswax candles and local honeys were purchased from Oak Tree Cottage Apiary (www.oaktreecottageapiary.co.uk). The prizes for the two most beautiful stalls must surely go to Whichford Pottery (www.whichfordpottery.com), artfully displayed with terracotta pots, fruit, flowers, vegetables and hand painted bowls, and Daylesford Farm (www.daylesfordorganic.com), with a table that looked like a spring kitchen garden straight out of The Chelsea Flower Show.
One of the foodie highlights of the day was the skill and talent on show at the stall of the bakers at The Natural Bread Company (www.naturalbreadcompany.co.uk). There were huge, round sourdough loaves, saffron buns, cinnamon wheels, spelt breads and baguettes, to name a few. They have shops in Eynsham and Woodstock, and absolutely everything is made by hand, and they also run bakery courses. We could not tear ourselves away.
By about 1.00 p.m. we had a huge wicker basket full of groceries to take home for lunch, an information folder full of cards and leaflets and a head buzzing with new ideas, recipes, tasting notes, contacts made, friends seen and gossip shared. You could not move in parts of that hall, the sheer volume of support and loyalty shown to these artisans was really very moving, and augurs well for their future prosperity. Upstairs, Lucas Hollweg, the food writer of The Times Style Magazine was preparing to start his cookery demonstration, using English strawberries, and he would be followed by a beer and cheese matching demonstration by Mattias Sjoberg, the head brewer of the Compass Brewery, and a wine tasting with Ben Smith, of Stevens Garnier Wines, talking about New World Syrah.
Every year the exhibitors, the lectures, the demonstrations and the produce just get better and better, so if you want to get involved with next year’s food festival then buy an even bigger shopping basket, save up more pocket money and let the organisers know all about your specialist food skill. We can't wait to try it, taste it, buy it.
Sally Daniels and Nick Pullen
Wild Thyme Restaurant with Rooms,
10 New Street,
Oxfordshire, OX7 5LJ
Telephone: 01608 645060.