Richard heads to Standon Calling in Hertfordshire where he tries to answer the question ‘has festival food become as important as festival acts when deciding where to spend your time and money each Summer?’
There is a scene in legendary British football hooligan film ID. As his case is taken apart in front of his eyes, an undercover policeman claims to have spent the night in a room with Britain’s most wanted men having finally worked his way up to the top of the criminal tree. There was a moment during Standon Calling, a family festival in Hertfordshire, where I reached similar heights. Lounging on a camping chair behind a black and white food truck, I sat a listened to the owners of brisket pioneers Ghetto Grillz (@ghetto_grillz), hot dog aficionados Oh My Dog! (@OMDhotdogs), and chicken connoisseurs, Wingmans (@wingmanschicken), evangelise about the changing nature of culinary decisions in the day of a modern festival reveller. These three are people in high demand. Whilst the big music acts will always sell tickets for the top tier festivals, for those at a slightly smaller level, it’s the food in the fields that attracts punters as much as the artists on the main stage. Look at the website of any regional or specialist summer festival in Britain and you’ll be offered plenty of information about who could be serving you your dinner so you can plan your eating as much as your partying.
It seems odd then that the reviews of modern outdoor events rarely pay due credit to the purveyors of festival street cuisine. Each one of these eateries is a real miniature restaurant, pushing out well over 1000 portions of food across a weekend, run with military precision, and injecting a level of innovation into the process at every turn. They never get any limelight yet they power everyone on site – the artists, the security, the support crews, the visitors.
At Tasting Britain we like to disrupt the flow a little so we visited Standon Calling this year, not to take note of the stage performances, but to conduct a food review of the festival eateries. Treating each vendor as a unique proposition; a fresh new take; an individual eatery worthy of its own appraisal. What we found was a world of passion, pride, innovation, perfectionism, and sheer hard graft. Here we go…
BBQ Dreamz was started by Lee and his girlfriend Sinead. They began cooking up Lee’s family Filipino recipes with a BBQ twist. Although augmented with classic BBQ elements from the US, their dishes still focus on traditional Filipino characteristics – lots of grilled pork dishes; big hits of sour balanced with sweet flavours; classic chicken adobo. For the past four years they have plying their trade in the street markets of London where they will regularly dish up over 1000 portions in a week of trading. But this year they are trying their luck with the festival scene as well – trading from one of the most vibrant food wagons on site – a 1980s Mercedes van, sprayed in pink and blue metallic flip paint. It’s a fitting partner to the bright, vivacious, and intense food that’s coming out of it.
Lee builds me a mega box – a heady combination of pulled pork, satay chicken, homemade pickled cucumbers, sticky price, fresh coriander, pineapple and peanuts. It’s overflowing with colours and flavours. If I’m honest, I’m concerned there might be too much going on for this to actually work. Then I tuck in and it all comes together. Sweet, salty, sour – in every mouthful. The crunch of the nuts, the softness of the meat, and the juice from the lime and the hone-pickled cucumbers blend into explosions of everything you want from a single serving. The mega box is indeed mega. Sure, it’s not cheap but my god you get what you pay for.
The Mac Factory
It’s just pasta and cheese right? Wrong. It’s much more than that. The level of dedication and detail that has gone into creating this recipe is phenomenal. And whilst they won’t tell us exactly what it is here is what we know following our brief visit.
1) They selected their cheese nearly ten years ago and they have never changed it
2) They cook every portion fresh and they taste it before it heads to a customer’s hands
3) They’ve tried every topping imaginable and settles on a small number that they know work well
We tried pancetta and garlic mushrooms and a portion of plain Mac and cheese with a herb crumb. Both were outstanding but it was the plain and simple Mac and cheese that stole the show. Thick, creamy, rich and salty it was the very definition of comfort food. You’ve got to eat it quick or it turns into cement, such is the volume of cheese and cream that goes into this dish. And it’s not light. Drunk revellers on the late night shift were complaining the portions were too small. The guys on the stall made them an offer – if you finish the first lot, and want some more, the next portion is free. Not a single person claimed their prize.
Julian – a member of the team for the last three years says the secret is the avoid compromising on quality to boost the profit in each pot. He says there is lots of competition out there but eventually they get greedy and they change their recipes to make more money. “We put quality first and have never made that mistake. So we make less per pot but people want what we have to offer.” On the basis of what I tasted they seem to have got their priorities right.
I wasn’t planning to stop by this stall but out of the corner of my Eye I read the sign – ‘London’s Best Waffles’ – Evening Standard. Now I know the Standard’s food crew. And most of them are no mugs. So this sounded intriguing. Now, I’m not a waffle fan but even I can tell you this is one of the most accurate claims of the year. My word these are good. We order from two ends of an extensive menu. A simple waffle with maple syrup, and a more complex sweet and savoury offering topped with goats cheese, figs, honey, and blueberry sauce.
The former is a strong start. There is a real richness of flavour to this waffle. The mix is clearly more than just basic batter. It has depth and layers. It’s creamy in texture but complex in flavour. In my experience waffles are bland, but you never notice because the syrup takes over. In the case of Waffle On the syrup is most definitely playing second fiddle.
The latter may well be the star of the show. It’s the full monty – salty, sweet, fresh, juicy and creamy all at once. The goats cheese is heavy but the blueberry sauce cuts through it like a knife, the honey adding a flourish and the figs finishing it with a zing like a crisp white wine. It’s incredible, and when added to a waffle of this quality, it’s about as good as food gets. The best waffle in London is a bold claim, but in this case it is definitely not hyperbole. This is the real deal.
This was going to be a tough test. Don’t let the name fool you, Ghetto Grillz is all about the brisket. And brisket (or salt beef actually) has been a staple in my family for generations and I’ve been cooking it myself for about five years. I know good brisket. I also know bad brisket. Phil from Ghetto Grillz makes some risky claims – not least of all that he delivers the best Reuben sandwich in the UK. Blimey that’s bold. But as he explains his method, I begin to believe him. There is so much detail in his approach that it simply cannot be far wrong. The brining process, the pulling not slicing, the addition of pickle juice to the reheat process, the use of Brick Lane bagels; the retention of fat in the meat rather than discarding it. I’m ticking things off my mental list of salt beef excellence one by one.
He makes me one himself. Delicate it is not. Oozing with Russian dressing, dripping with grilled cheese, it’s hard to work out where the meat actually is. This isn’t a sandwich you eat, you have to attack it. And when you do the meat makes its presence known pretty quickly. It’s a Rueben of real quality. Each component part at the top of its game but it’s the beef that kicks hardest. Juicy and succulent without feeling too soft like pulled pork. I believe brisket needs a stringy solid feel to it – a bit of chew, a bit of bounce. This has it in spades. It’s my kind of meat. The other elements make it a Reuben but don’t make it incredible. For me just the meat and the Brick Lane bagel would be enough to win my heart.
Born & Raised
I wasn’t expecting Tom to look like, well, Tom. Born and Raised is about oblong sourdough pizzas, wood fired and built the traditional way – with a small number of very high quality ingredients. It feels Italian in spirit but there are some signs it’s very, very British. Firstly, the woodfired pizza oven is also a Land Rover Defender. Literally – it’s right there in the back of the wagon. Secondly, the pizza flavours are a tad unusual for a typical Italian eatery. Alongside the obligatory margherita and pepperoni, Born and Raised offers a beetroot sourdough and a brisket and watercress pizza with horseradish cream – traditional British flavours that seem almost out of place given the core product. And then there’s Tom – the brains behind the whole thing. He’s more British than roast beef but he’s successfully crafting out a niche in British/Italian fusion festival food and it’s going down a storm. A trained chef, he was looking for a way into the street food scene and this looked like the best route. Five years in he’s at many of the major festivals in the UK this summer including British Summer Time and All Points East.
He throws a pizza dough ball into a pristine oblong base – the bubbles in the dough forming in front of my eyes as testament to the quality of the proving process. He adds a ladle of secret-recipe marinara sauce and then cubes of mozzarella are sprayed across the dough in a single flick of the wrist.
Then it’s into the 500 degree oven for less than five minutes until it comes out steaming and fragrant. We carve it up and get stuck in. Sauce and cheese are a solid tick in the box but it’s the base that elevates this to another level. Salty, a hint of sour, chewy with crisp bubbles to make the texture of the whole thing more complex. It’s a great pizza, but a superb base. That’s the secret says Tom – it may just be flour, water, yeast and salt, but when this guy mixes it, it becomes something else entirely. It becomes one of the best festival pizzas money can buy.
Standon Calling is not a big festival. It’s quaint and fun; close and compact. But it’s a sign of things to come. As a music and arts festival – it’s successful. As a hub of great modern street food its punching way above its weight. Approximately half of the total area of the site is given over to the food stalls. And whilst we’ve picked our favourties above, there were more than 20 others that were doing a roaring trade. Everything here is a massive leap ahead of the burger-filth vans of the 80s and 90s. Nothing on site was anything less than excellent. Patty & Bun; Wingmans; Oh My Dog!; Barney Sykes; and SpiceBox – they all shone a light on where festival food is heading. There were crowds at the main stage but there were queues at the food vans. The time of the feastival is upon us.