Glastonbury may have been and gone, but it’s really only the start of the festival season. With the lad rock of Kasabian and Noel Gallagher coming to Perthshire’s Strathallan Castle for T in the Park this week before the artier, more esoteric likes of Alt-J and Portishead appear at Latitude the following weekend, there’s barely a point in the summer where there isn’t a big music festival going on – right up until Underworld and Chemical Brothers bring an autumnal rave to the Isle of Wight for Bestival in mid-September. (And that’s not even including the increasing number of exciting music events on the continent).
As festivals have become more and more of a fixture in the summer calendar, festival food has really improved (along, blessedly, with festival toilets). Now no longer about dodgy burger vans and greasy chips, a festival can provide an extremely pleasant culinary experience. As long as you follow these key tips!
1. If you’re going to bring food, bring simple breakfast
There is always a temptation to bring as much stuff as you can to a festival, from snacks to kegs of alcohol, making sure you’re basically self sufficient. Food and drink can be pretty expensive after all (see below). All that stuff is going to prove pretty heavy, though, especially in a lengthy queue to get in and a long walk from the bus/car. It’s worth travelling light, if only to feel smug as those people who’ve brought an over-laden wheelbarrow or one of those cheap carts struggle to haul it through thick mud. Ultimately, once you see the tempting quality of stuff on offer on site, those warm tins of lager and pot noodles are likely to remain untouched anyway.
If you are thinking of bringing food, then think breakfast not booze. The morning after a festival night of heavy drinking, dancing, and a brief uncomfortable sleep can leave you feeling unprepared to tackle the following morning. Having some simple, hearty fare to set you up for the day right there at your tent is always a wise move. Coffee is a sensible thing to bring and some simple food. Fruit cake is a popular festival option in the Mustard family, but something like porridge oats would also be the right level of not too heavy to carry and easy to deal with first thing in the morning.
2. Be prepared to spend. A lot
Having counselled against bringing lots of food with you, I will admit to understanding one reason why people do it: food at festivals can get pretty expensive, pretty fast if you’re paying for three decent meals a day, especially after you may have spent the best part of £200 on a ticket. Visitors to Glastonbury can get free food from the Hare Krishna tent and that can be a popular option for those looking to scrimp and save. But really, is some pretty grim food and religious indoctrination worth saving a few quid?
Ultimately, you have to look at the main ticket price you paid to get in as actually being a substantial saving over paying to see these bands individually. (When The Rolling Stones headlined Glastonbury 2013, you’d have paid about the same amount to see just them on a normal tour date as you would for the whole festival). That way you can justify spending almost as much again on food and drink. Glastonbury has tried to make sure that there are adequate amounts of food available for less than £5, but really you have to pay £7 or 8 for something good (and when it comes to drink at least £4 a pint, more if you don’t drink pints). So, if you want to make sure you enjoy your festival eats, bring a lot of cash.
8. Steer away from the main stages
Food stalls are dotted around pretty much everywhere at festivals, from campsites to the fringes of the main stages. You’re never far from being able to get fed at your convenience. That’s not to say all festival food districts are equal. Safe in the knowledge that punters will want to stay in earshot of the major acts, the stalls closest to the biggest stages tend to feel the least pressure to produce quality eats. That doesn’t mean that there’s no decent food to be had near to the main stages, just that it’s much more hit and miss. On top of that, the bigger crowds can mean longer waits and much less space.
So, what’s the solution? Simply put, the best food is further from the best (or at least the biggest) music. At Glastonbury a lot of the best food is around the Green Fields and, in recent years, William’s Green, which has become something of a sort of food court. There is never going to be a whole day of stuff that you want to see on the main stage, so just go a bit further afield for food in between the bands that you want to see. (Even if it means eating at slightly weird times!)
4. Don’t mistrust meat
One of the first pieces of advice that I was given about eating at festivals around a decade ago, before I started going regularly to them, was to eat vegetarian. The theory was that meat cooked in a field was both a bit suspect and the sort of thing that you could never be sure was properly cooked through. If there’s one place you really wouldn’t want to get food poisoning, then it’s at a festival. That last point may be true, but it’s still a bad piece of advice.
Why? Simply because you’d be missing out on a whole lot of really good eating if you avoided meat for the whole week. Festivals have varying amounts to offer a genuine vegetarian, but there’s no need for a carnivore to become one for the week. The boom in both global “street food” style eateries and American style barbecue in recent years means that the kind of people who run festival stalls are well equipped to cook meat right through even for a mass market on an outdoor grill. It would be a shame to miss it.
5. Get greens wherever you can find them
Yes, you shouldn’t struggle for good meat when eating at a festival. Getting your five a day, however, is another matter. A lot of meals are, as I said in my reviews last week, essentially variants on chicken and rice. Even when they promise some kind of vegetable or herb component, it can take a bit of effort to find it. As a result, the sensible thing to do is to take whatever greenery you can get whenever you can get it.
If you’re offered salad with a burger? Take it. And if, like the Tibetan Kitchen at End of the Road (although not, I think, the equivalent stall at Glastonbury) there’s a massive box of coriander that you can help yourself to? Definitely take it.
6. Follow your nose
It’s probably fair to say that you’re spoiled for choice at festivals, There’s endless instances of clashes between two of the bands that you most want to see that weekend and, when it comes to food, there’s plenty more interesting looking places than you could ever hope to eat at. How can you possibly choose?
Well, just as there are times when you’re not necessarily sure what music to see, so you simply wander round the stages, listening out for what sounds good and appreciating that, so can you do the same with food. If you’re really not sure about how to choose between myriad dining options, simply take a wander round the food areas and see which smells catch your attention. It’s a pretty good bet that that’ll be what you want.
7. Don’t waste your time queuing
For all that there are so many food options at festivals that it may be difficult to choose between them, there will always be a handful that have a long queue waiting to be served. Of course, this does somewhat imply that people are waiting for something pretty good. (Or, you know, that the people serving the food have kind of lost track of what they’re supposed to be doing). But joining the queue on the basis that it’ll probably be good if everybody else in line thinks so could leave you waiting for much longer than is really worth bothering with.
There is simply too much choice to bother with waiting to get something that you can probably get virtually identically from a different stall. So, unless you’re looking for something very specific, don’t waste time that you could be spending enjoying all else that a festival has to offer waiting in line. (There’s too much of that before you get in anyway).
8. You don’t need to eat there to appreciate a good pun
Everybody enjoys a good pun. And food stalls provide plenty. From the quirky names on the banners above them to menus themed around the bands performing, it’s easy to be amused by these silly little gags and, especially after a few drinks, easy to be swayed into thinking that that amusement is good reason to eat there. The thing is, though, that once you’ve enjoyed seeing the pun on the sign, that’s the full amount of benefit that you’re going to get from it.
The likes of Pie Minister, Sausage Fest or Kebabylon all do decent food, but they’re not the best food stalls of their type, just the best named ones. If you want a good pie, go for Barnaby Sykes and then enjoy the name of Pie Minister while you eat at the superior competitor.
9. Don’t underestimate the appeal of a good sit down
Just as in the real world, eating out at festivals is about more than just the taste of the food, you should consider the venue as well. Specifically, you should consider whether it has a decent spot to sit down – chairs, benches etc., anything that doesn’t involve sitting in the mud – and whether it has any area under cover.
Sooner or later, if you’re spending the best part of a week outside in Britain, it’s going to rain and the ground, your usual sitting spot for most of your festival, will very rapidly turn to a quagmire. It will also make walking everywhere and standing up watching things become a much more tiring business. At that point your food venue priorities change and it’s worth being on the look out for places that look large enough to accommodate a lot of people sitting under shelter, almost regardless of what food they serve.
10. Don’t eat anything too sticky
Finally, it’s always important to remember that festivals are never going to be the easiest environments to keep clean in, regardless of all the wet wipes and alcoholic hand sanitizer you bring with you. I mean, you’re unlikely to have a proper shower for five or six days. In that context, it’s probably worth going with food that isn’t going to make things any messier.
That pulled pork bun covered in barbecue sauce may seem like an appetising idea when you see it, but it will become less so once your hands and face are covered in that same sauce and it’s not so easy to clean it off. I’m not saying to just eat dry food, but at the very least steer clear of anything actively sticky.
Follow these ten steps and you should be well on your way to festival dining success. Your taste buds taken care of, then you can focus on the real important stuff, the music.