Special report by our roving festival reporter, Wendy Varley.
Each year the quest to find the very best of what Bestival has to offer gets harder, simply because there is so much to hear, see, do – and eat – that any one of the 45,000 revellers in attendance can only sample a tiny portion of it. In 2010 Bestival was voted Best Major Festival in the UK, and I can understand why. So much effort and creativity goes into the planning, and despite the stormy weather in the run-up to the event this year, it opened on Thursday without a hitch (other than some very lengthy queues for the shuttle buses).
Unlike the Isle of Wight Festival, which has lost many of its local and niche food concessions in the past couple of years as its prices have risen, Bestival retains an abundance of interesting and mouth-watering food, much of it local. On Thursday evening, I stumbled across Ginger Mullet, a stall by the Bandstand promising “fabulous, fresh, local fish & fruit”. It’s run by Richard Quigley of Cowes’ chippie Corrie’s Cabin, and its neighbouring greengrocer. Ian and I shared grilled (unsmoked) mackerel, cooked to order so the skin was lovely and crisp, in a soft white bap with a choice of tartare or horse-radish sauce for £5; and new potatoes with butter and a choice of salts (regular, garlic or rosemary) for £2. We found both meltingly good. The simple but tasty meal set us up for the whole evening. And what a revelation to find a proper fruit stall at a festival. Five pieces of fruit for £3.50! Usually, I have to resort to the smoothie stalls for a fruit fix, so this innovation gets my full approval.
On Friday I already knew where I’d be eating. I’d pre-booked a spot at The Underground Restaurant, an intriguing new Bestival venture in the Grassy Hill arena run by food-blogger Kerstin Rodgers (aka Msmarmitelover), pioneer of the supper-club movement, who opens her London home to paying diners once a week. Here, her pop-up restaurant offers a three-course lunch, dinner or a late supper (including a pyjama party-themed midnight feast on Saturday night) for £27.
I took one of my daughters to the 5pm sitting (meals are wisely timed to avoid clashing with headline acts), and we found our place names on the long trestle table, charmingly adorned with scented flowers, proper glasses and cutlery and place mats. Kerstin introduced herself and her team of waitresses, dressed in matching polka dot frocks, and our musical accompaniment, an excellent accordionist called Tom Baker.
Kerstin encouraged us to get to know our neighbours, and Becky and I chatted to the charming couple alongside who turned out to be curator Rob da Bank’s parents. They’ve been to every Bestival and are clearly big supporters. Rob’s mum is hoping to come as Dolly Parton for Saturday’s pop stars, rock stars and divas-themed fancy dress: she’s got the wig but not sorted out the chest yet!
I probably ought to clarify that I buy my own Bestival ticket and meals, and it was pure coincidence that we found ourselves in the midst of Bestival royalty. Last year I ate at Malinkey’s and found myself on the next table to Mumford and Sons. There is no dedicated VIP area, and long may it stay that way.
Becky and I ordered a glass of rosé each (wine was extra) and we merrily tucked into our first course of corn chowder, made with fresh local Isle of Wight corn, and served wittily in a bowl made from a pumpkin. It was superb, with the sweetness from the corn mingling with just the right amount of “bite” from the chilli.
Next up was an amazing stargazy pie, a Cornish concoction of fish, boiled eggs and potato, with fish-heads peeping out of the pastry for a theatrical twist; and for vegetarians individual mushroom pies. Becky and myself had these and found the pastry wonderfully crisp and light, and the pie packed full of morels, with real depth of flavour. Accompanying it were plates of Isle of Wight heritage tomato salad with basil – again, to share round: all part of the conviviality. And how nice to be able to dish up as much or as little as you like.
Dessert was an equally impressive Shipwreck Pavlova with salted caramel and crème de marrons, dressed up on its platter to look like a pirate ship. Everyone dived in and ate at least two helpings, and the soft meringue base, with cream topping and marron sauce was heavenly.
“No Pieminister for me tonight, then,” I said, rubbing my full tummy after this seriously robust meal. “Pieminister?! Are they here?! Where?!” exclaimed Rob da Bank’s dad, who is also a fan of the Bristol-based company. “Well, the weekend IS looking up!”
But after Friday’s hearty meal at the Underground Restaurant, personally, I’m not sure I’ll find room for more pies this weekend. At any point. I am still full!
Although the Underground Restaurant is officially fully-booked for Bestival weekend, there were a few no-shows at our sitting, which were filled at the last minute by standbys, so if your mouth’s watering, you may yet get a seat at the table if you turn up and check.
And hopefully, Kerstin will be back next year. On our table, it was notable that none of us were camping at Bestival. I was “commuting” from home; others were staying in B&Bs or local hotels. There is a kind of Bestival-goer who loves the music and party atmosphere but appreciates home comforts, including a civilised three-course sit-down meal. For the likes of us, this is spot-on!
If you’re at Bestival, do please comment and tell us what you’ve been eating, how it was, and whether it was value for money. The choice is vast. Check out the Bestival good food and drink guide for more info.