Festival food: what are the dishes worth queuing up for?
Festival veteran Aoife McElwain has the lowdown on all the healthy, delicious food available to help you survive this year’s festival season
Virginia O’Gara, the Texan chef behind many of the innovative ingredients at My Goodness
Whether you’re a festival-goer or a performer, stamina is the name of the game when it comes to surviving festival season. Apart from the music, the emphasis should be on freedom, friendship and fun. But many of us will find ourselves out of our comfort zone as we embrace the festival lifestyle of sleeping in sweaty tents in adverse weather conditions and over-indulging in, well, everything, for up to three days at a time.
If you approach a festival as a marathon and think of yourself as a glittery athlete, what is the smartest way to fuel your fun? Does food have a part in being able to play the long game at a music festival?
As host of the Sing Along Social, a zero-commitment choir specialising in singing parties for people who can’t sing, my team of craic mechanics and I will be popping up at Body & Soul, Love Sensation, All Together Now, Electric Picnic, Lollapalooza Berlin, and quite a few more, this summer.
This is a demonstration of how big a part festivals play in the fabric of my working life. Over the years, I’ve learned that the food and drink I choose at music festivals has a direct impact on my ability to manage my energy throughout the festival season.
When you’re performing at a festival, the whole experience can take on a slightly different tone. The logistical experience of performer vs reveller is basically the same, albeit with slightly shorter queues – getting on site, finding the wristband Portakabin, figuring out where you’ll be sleeping – but there can be an added cloud of nerves and anxiety that follows a performer around until their show. Do I have everything I need? Am I fully prepared for the show? Will anybody show up to the show?
According to a piece on Harvard Medical School’s blog called Eating well to help manage anxiety, contributor Dr Uma Naidoo points out that “low blood sugar, poor hydration, use of alcohol, caffeine and smoking can precipitate or mimic symptoms of anxiety”. Hmm . . . that basically sounds like the three-day diet of an average festival-goer – no wonder we’re all in a heap by Sunday.
Dr Naidoo goes on to say that “working toward a well-balanced diet with adequate fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats remains a good recommendation for those who struggle with anxiety. Avoiding processed foods and foods high in sugar means the body experiences fewer highs and lows of blood sugar, which helps to further reduce feelings of anxiety.”
Luckily for those of us who battle against the jitters, the food offering at festivals has evolved, almost beyond recognition, in the last decade. The idea of consciously seeking out a well-balanced diet at a music festival isn’t the futile exercise it once was.
Chef Katie Sanderson, who you may know as the creator of White Mausu peanut rayu sauce, has noted a change in people’s approach to their diets. “I believe many people are making a conscious decision to eat less meat and eat more plant-based food,” says Sanderson, who runs White Mausu with her partner Jasper O’Connor. “We are selling more and more vegan dishes at the White Mausu stall.”
The food stall My Goodness pops up during the year at markets in Co Cork, with a permanent home at the English Market in Cork city, and has become a lifeline for gut health-conscious festival goers. All their food is vegan, gluten-free and refined sugar-free, and they try to have at least one raw, living enzyme dish on the menu. Think hand-pressed and deep-fried tacos, award-winning nachos with vegan cheese, black bean tempeh chipotle chilli and kimchi pico de gallo salsa, and delicious rainwater kefir and kombucha on tap at their drinks cart.
“We try to have a balance in our food,” says Virginia O’Gara, the Texan chef/wizard behind many of the innovative ingredients at My Goodness, which she runs alongside her partner Donal and their team. “We pay attention to a formula of a good diet, and we create our food around that,” she explains.
O’Gara recreated the disconcertingly neon cheese found on nachos to develop her delicious Notchzo Cheese, made from a mix of carrots, potatoes, Irish jalapenos, nutritional yeast and turmeric, alongside a few other good-time ingredients. “Our dishes are based around what tastes good but also what you can digest easily, which will give you energy you need to perform or be at festivals. It’s nice to have food that can serve your body and help you to get through those exciting, and sometimes stressful, times.”
If ferments and probiotics are not the buzz you’re looking for – sometimes you just need sustenance and soakage, after all – the quality and flavours of good old-fashioned comfort food at festivals has been elevated, too. “Over the years we have pulled people back from the brink,” says Ferdia MagLochlainn of Home Fries . “If you imagine a drained battery coming up to you, then a minute later they’re recharged and they’re ready to go back out there. It’s a transformation.”
MagLochlainn has been serving up fried spuds doused in delicious sauces from a petite 1970s classic caravan as Home Fries since 2015, but he’s worked on the festival circuit as a food supplier since about 2010. He’s seen some major changes in festival food in that time.
“Over the years, people have become more aware of dietary requirements, either for health or lifestyle,” he says. “We have adapted to that by having gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options. In general, festivals are putting more space aside for food for the sake of enjoyment.”
The Market Kitchen, run by Sarah McNally and Liadain Kaminska, has been a huge hit since it launched on to the market and festival scene in 2015. McNally is the daughter of Patrick and Jenny McNally of McNally Family Farm, an outstanding organic farm in north Co Dublin.
McNally and Kaminska have an innate understanding and respect for ingredients, and it shows in their hangover-busting breakfasts and insanely good toasties. “A few kind and ever-so-slightly delicate festival folks have come back to us to say we have saved their sanity of a Sunday morning with a simple sandwich,” say Kaminska and McNally.
When it comes to food trends at this year’s festivals, there seems to be an unanimous pull towards awareness and action against the environmental impact of food at festivals. One of the biggest changes MagLochlainn of Home Fries has noticed in the decade of working at food festivals is not just the food being served, but what that food is being served on.
“Since the beginning, we’ve always used compostable service wares, such as our forks and trays, but when we started so many other people were using polystyrene, plastic forks and aluminium,” says MagLochlainn. “I think we’re starting to see the end of single-use plastic at festivals.”
The Market Kitchen has been a part of Body & Soul’s Food on Board area, where food sustainability at festivals was a key issue. “We hope to see no plastic, less packaging, more compostables, more compost loos, more seasonality, more Irish ingredients, and overall a less-damaging impact on our environment,” say McNally and Kaminska. “We would like to see every stage of the festival food chain become as eco friendly as possible.”
Cooking at festivals can be extremely challenging; there are weather conditions to consider, the potential of power cuts, and even the temptation to get carried away with the craic. “Sundays at festivals are the most challenging,” says Sanderson. “It’s hard not to get carried away by the prospect of one more dance or one more drink . . .”
“Festivals are fun and we have a great team, so we like to have fun,” says O’Gara. “But sometimes festivals are too much fun so sometimes we might forget to turn up for a shift – myself included!” Like most of life’s challenges, festival cooking fosters creativity, too. “There are a lot of challenges but there is always a way,” says O’Gara. “I love doing festivals because it forces you to be incredibly creative and innovative at every corner.”
“I learned early on that you can’t be intimidated by the queue,” says MagLochlainn. “You don’t look beyond the first couple of people because they’re the people you’re interacting with. You have to work at your pace – you can’t work yourself up into a ball of worry looking at all these people waiting for their food. Everybody gets their home fries in the end.”
DISHES WORTH QUEUING FOR
1. Hand-pressed deep-fried puffy tacos and Notchzo Cheese nachos at My Goodness.
2. Chef Matteo Griscti and barista Dee Kelly of Grálinn will be serving up seasonal small plates such as their McNally’s heritage tomatoes with toasted rye breadcrumbs, herb oil, picked Thai basil, Macroom Buffalo mozzarella and black olive caramel.
3. White Mausu’s rice bowl of miso aubergines, peanut rayu, sticky rice, tofu or a crispy free-range egg.
4. The Market Kitchen’s veggie toastie is seasonal vegetables paired with Corleggy Drumlin cow’s cheese, Gubbeen oak-smoked cheese and Knockanore cheddar topped off with their spectacular mustard béchamel sauce.
5. Go for broke with the divine lobster rolls from Julia’s Lobster Truck.
6. Kimchi fans will love the bulgogi at Jaru Korean Food, served up by Gunmoo Kim and his team.
7. Home Fries’ garlic and cheese fries for the ultimate comfort food.
8. La Poutine serves up the Canadian delicacy that is poutine. Essentially chips, gravy and cheese curds, this dish shouldn’t really work but it really, really does.
9. Natasha’s Living Food, usually found at the Body & Soul arena at Electric Picnic was a pioneer of healthier options at festivals. Try her raw cacao desserts or her savoury raw and living snacks.
10. For something sweet, try Diva Boutique Cakes.