By our Isle of Wight Festival reporter, Wendy Varley
Saturday 23rd June
Heading in to see Jessie J on Saturday afternoon, Ian's first food stop was the Wagamama Lounge for a late lunch. He's a Wagamama fan, and we don't have a branch on the Island, so he wanted to see how their festival Yaki Soba noodles (with chicken, shrimps, egg, beansprouts, peppers, white and spring onions, £7) compared to the restaurant version. The noodles were dispensed from individual portion-size bags on to hot griddles, and stir-fried with the other ingredients, so everything is freshly cooked to order, and very consistent. (Any doubts I'd had about that the previous day were assuaged.)
He proclaimed the noodles "very tasty, and nicely presented" and as good as you'd get in the restaurant. They're similarly priced to other noodles at the festival, too. The only drawback is the messy ordering system. Names are taken, but hearing them shouted out when there's loud rap music playing on the dance floor is a challenge.
Later we met up at the Solace tent (between the Garden Stage and the camping exit), for a cup of Earl Grey and a scone, and marvelled again at the way this little sanctuary perks up weary music-lovers who need a sit-down with a cup of tea (or coffee, chai or hot chocolate), plus cake. No charge, thanks to the volunteers on site, and an army of obliging home-bakers around the island.
Nearby was the tantalisingly-named Grab a Hot Box, which we both did, as they'd slashed their evening prices from £7 to £5. Ian had Moroccan Style Meatballs with rice, while I chose Thai Green Curry with rice. We were both impressed: very good flavours and ingredients, fluffy rice and generous portions that set us up for the evening. Ian was also lured by their "What, no bread?" sign, as he gets fed up of huge baps being used as the cheap accompanying "filler" to meat.
Looking around the main arena on Saturday evening, where huge crowds had gathered for Biffy Clyro and Pearl Jam, most stalls looked to be doing a great trade, including the Safari Grill, which serves burgers with exotic ingredients, such as "kangeroo" (note to vendors: use spell-check before getting your enormous banners made up). But locals I spoke to commented on how quiet Newport – just a ten-minute walk away – has been during this festival weekend, compared to previous years. It seems the mud and the cooler weather have put campers off exploring shops, cafés and restaurants beyond Seaclose Park. That's a real shame.
Friday 22nd June
As you might have gathered from the national news coverage, the 2012 Isle of Wight Festival began in apocalyptic style. Wet weather turned the main car park into slurry as the first vehicles arrived on Thursday morning. Queues reached back out of Newport to the Fishbourne ferry port, and beyond. At one point three Wightlink ferries were stacked up in the Solent waiting to berth, so the delays extended to Portsmouth. It took some festival-goers more than a day, instead of hours, to reach the site.
People slept in their cars, some without food. As one friend quipped on twitter: "Why didn't they go to a shop? After all, you are never more than 10 minutes' walk from a fudge shop on the Isle of Wight." Fair point, though not many of them stay open after 5.30pm.
I fielded phone calls from relatives, who'd seen the chaos on the news, and were concerned for my welfare, even though I was cosy at home and didn't go near the site until the main arena opened on Friday.
Islanders were affected by the jams, too. There were funerals missed at the crematorium. Students disembarked from school buses held up for hours in traffic and actually walked home. Some schools had to close altogether.
High winds meant the main arena stayed closed on Friday until 4pm, so by the time I ventured in, I wasn't sure whether I should be wearing wellies and a jacket, or waders and a sou'wester. I expected to find scenes reminiscent of the great Bestival mudbath of 2008.
But not so – or at least, not entering the site from the non-camping entrance off Fairlee Road. The main arena was a lush but not too squidgy green. People lounged on picnic rugs, watching Elbow on the main stage. Their lead singer, Guy Garvey, delighted the crowd with a wry impromptu ditty about the traffic and the mud and the ferries. The rain held off and the wind dropped. The sun even peeked through the clouds now and then.
I was cheered. Especially when I spied Octopus's Garden (no relation to the Cowes café of the same name), a new food area with seating at picnic tables behind a white picket fence. It's on the left as you walk in to the main arena from the non-camping entrance.
At the past two Isle of Wight Festivals, I've grumbled about a lack of food choice, and an absence of locally-produced food. Compared to Bestival - which offers everything from organic burgers, to locally-caught lobster at the farmers' market, through to sit-down three-course dinners - Isle of Wight Festival has been a foodie desert lately. Maybe Octopus's Garden is meant to be the new 'more varied' bit of the festival.
But on closer inspection, is it really more varied, or more corporate? Wagamama, one of the sponsors of this year's festival, has an outlet here, selling a selection of their curries, soba and udon noodle main dishes for between £7 and £9 and a range of side dishes for £4 to £5. Instead of just having a food stall, Wagamama has copied the beer tents, and included a dance area, and music. So you've got chefs punching the air in time to the beat as they serve up noodles.
I usually love Wagamama's food, but with no woks in sight, I wondered how the food was being cooked. Plus, the rap music drowned out Elbow on the main stage, who I really wanted to hear. PLUS, there was a sign on the wall telling me to smile, as there were cameras around filming customers for the website.
Suddenly I didn't feel so hungry for noodles and browsed the other stalls instead. Tapas Patatas was tempting, with its offer of three tapas dishes for £5.90 or six for £8.90. But I spied Jamie Oliver's Fabulous Feasts in the corner, and wanted to know whether his festival-fodder would match up to the standard of his restaurants (which I love). Savouries on offer are roast meats, or summer veggies, in a seeded bap. Choosing the veggie option (£7), I can say that Jamie's baps are superior, but the contents fell short. "Summer veggies" turned out to mean peppers. Only peppers. And they were supposed to be "tray-baked" but had barely touched the oven. The rest of the filling – gooey cheese, peppery rocket, and salsa – did match the menu description. Overall, it was tasty, but would have been much better with a range of veg, properly cooked.
The festival site gets stickier underfoot towards the Big Top. There I spied Harbour Sea Foods (an Isle of Wight based company that goes to all the major festivals) serving up their popular paellas and seafood dishes. Other than that I didn't spot any local food outlets, though the cosy Kashmir Café, run by an island charity, serves local beer. It's a popular hub for local music talent, too.
To keep me going through Tom Petty's Friday headline set on the main stage later on, I chose a vegetable curry with rice and naan bread from Indian Foods & Kebabs (main arena, left hand side) for £6. With the rice buried at the bottom of the dish, it wasn't exactly pretty, but it was excellent festival food. Decent portion, rice perfectly cooked, and the curry itself deliciously spicy, with a range of veg, including lovely little round new potatoes. Recommended.
My partner, Ian, was also out and about on Friday sampling the music and the food, and texted me his findings:
• "Had the reliable Thai Green Curry plate: £6.90 and they fill the plate with a lovely fresh-tasting combo." (That's near the Big Top, between the Strongbow tent and Kids Zone.)
• The wonderful Solace tent, serving FREE tea and cake, run by island church groups, is out towards the camping exit this year, to the right of the Perdu tent. "They gave me a really big piece of cake. Because Jesus loves me."
• "Got to the I Need Chips part of the evening. Really like the ones from Market Street Chippy: well-cut, well-cooked and well-priced at £2.50. Everybody else seems to be £3-£4." (Market Street Chippy is between the Strongbow tent and Kids Zone.)
So that was our festival Friday. But we can only sample a tiny portion of what's on offer. There are a vast number of concessions, and an awful lot of mouths to feed (exact numbers hard to establish this year, but somewhere upwards of 50,000). What are the rest of you eating at the festival? How's the food on the camp sites? What have you liked and disliked? Please do comment and let us know.
The individual and quirkier sellers had been squeezed out it seems, through Strawberry Fields and into Penny Lane. Have enjoyed a fair few dishes from the Phillipino Food Village over the years!
The best choice by far was in the Octopus's Garden, it actually had seating for diners, which there was a distinct lack of in the main arena this year! The choices in the garden offered an opportunity to eat some better quality food.
We tried a Jamie's pork roll, excellent pork, seedy bun and smashed apples, but sadly no crackling!
The absolute highlight was from the Tapas stall with the Flamenco dancer canopy. For £8.90 a large tray of mixed tapas, we shared and it was plenty enough. Scrummy meatballs in tomato sauce, divine braised chorizo & peppers, sublime mixed olives with preserved lemons, nice and spicy patatas bravas, pesto pasta, lemony cous cous and a big dollop of alioli. So good we've had it twice so far.
Final day today, we'll see if we can find something to top this.
I haven't encountered the Dough Ball Deli yet. Will see if it's there this year!