Text and photos ©2009
With more than 40 food festivals annually, 50 Farmers’ Markets operating weekly, and inviting restaurants around every corner, Wales is foodie heaven. If you find yourself in Cardiff in late September, you must visit The Great British Cheese Festival, which brings together almost 100
artisan cheesemakers, presenting over 450 British and Irish cheeses for you to taste and buy. You’ll find sheep, cow, goat and buffalo cheese. Besides cheese tasting, there are demonstrations in cheesemaking, pairing cheese with wine, beer, cider, perry (a fermented beverage from pears), and whisky, and seminars on specific types of cheese. In addition, participants enjoy musical entertainment, artisan beer, cider, and Welsh wine (both berry and grape).
The festival takes place on the last weekend in September on the grounds of Cardiff Castle, an important historical site that contains Roman and Norman ruins, and a magnificent Victorian palace. Access to the Norman castle is included with your pass to the festival, but it will be well worth your while to procure a tour of the palace before you leave.
Containing richly detailed rooms, the Victorian wing of Cardiff Castle is well worth a special visit
The best part of the festival has to be the 44 seminars/master classes, which are both informative and amusing. I sat in on a cheesemaking demonstration, as well as the seminar on Butlers farmhouse cheeses, a Lancashire family that has been making cheese since 1932. We tasted fresh and aged cheeses, as well as blue cheeses from sheep, cow and goat’s milk. These seminars are instructive and fun — I learned, for instance, that it takes 7 goats to make as much cheese as one cow!
There are, however, some organizational problems that need to be addressed before next year’s festival. Having attended as a member of the press, I was able to get in early enough to enjoy myself, although to a limited extent, given that it was necessary to elbow oneself to the front of the throng to get a tiny morsel of cheese. This obviously makes it difficult to assess or appreciate the fine cheeses being served, or to chat with the cheesemakers. By midday the queue just to get into the tasting tent was ridiculously long, necessitating a wait of more than 40 minutes. The festival is a great concept, and it’s held at a fabulous venue, but to handle the size of the crowds it needs to expand to cover all of the grounds within the castle walls, and to stay open longer to allow more people access to the master classes. Furthermore, the food stands were serving rather dull fare, none of it cheese based. Here we were in Wales at a cheese festival, and could not even find Welsh Rarebit, let alone a cheese plate.
These criticisms notwithstanding, any epicurean would be foolish to pass up the chance to taste so many fine cheeses in one place, to instantly find award winning cheeses, to learn about new producers, new products and rising stars, and compare them side-by-side with your old favorites. It does, however, require some patience. Be sure to reserve your place in the master classes before the event, to ensure you’ll find a spot.
The castle is well situated near Cardiff’s shopping district and museums, for those who have the stamina to keep shopping and sightseeing after the festival. Cardiff Market, opened in 1891, is one of several Victorian arcades in this district. The market connects St. Mary/High Street and Trinity Street, consisting of three rows of booths on the lower floor, and two on the upper. Most, but not all, are food related. For the hotel guest, this is a passing curiosity, but for one who has rented an apartment it would be of more interest, as here you can procure the most amazing larder from a vast array of seafood, to such exotic meats as Zebra, Kudu and crocodile, as well as fruit, vegetables, bread, pastries and Welsh Cakes.
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