One thing the Isle of Wight does well is festivals. Back in the day – when the West Wight was all fields – it played host to the mother of all pop festivals; hippies were drawn from around the globe to a tiny corner of a tiny corner of England.
As any fule kno, the Isle of Wight Festival was revived in 2002 and, with Bestival, these events top and tail the music festival season. Somewhere in between is the Donkey Sanctuary‘s Faux Fest – like the pop festival but with tribute acts.
But it’s not all grizzled rockers performing to young girls in hotpants; the festival season also includes food festivals – and it is these that are naturally of interest to Matt and Cat. For example, they have been regular attendees of Red Funnel’s seasonal Cowes Food Show; where local producers peddle their wares and talented chefs concoct edible delights in the food theatre. Arreton’s Sweetcorn Fayre is a good addition to the autumn festival calendar and the Garlic Festival probably has more years under its belt that the old and new pop festivals combined. One food festival that M&C would love to see make a return appearance is Ventnor Botanic Gardens’ Hop Festival, toasting the garden’s hop harvest with locally-brewed ale. Then there’s September’s proposed Festival of the Sea which promises to have all sorts of fish-related fare.
The newest kid on the festival block is the Isle of Wight Chilli Fiesta. The brainchild of the folk behind the Chilli Farm, it’s smack bang at the beginning of the summer holidays. Matt and Cat visited on the first day of the inaugural festival. The weather gods smiled down on the event: it wasn’t so hot that everyone was at the beach and it wasn’t so dull that everyone was exploring the Island’s many indoor attractions. As porridge-rustler Goldilocks herself would say, it was just right.
With free parking and an extremely efficient marshalling team, Matt and Cat soon found themselves shepherded into the fiesta, aka Smallbrook Stadium. The speedway ground had been transformed for the weekend; tents had been erected, banners were flapping and Raw Samba were percussing their way around the showground. Everywhere M&C looked they were faced with grinning skulls – an appropriate visual device for this tongue-terrifying food, if a touch macabre. In fact, the marketing of these potent pods is generally like a fusion of Hells Angels and Day of the Dead; death-heads, black and red packaging and distressed fonts – as aptly demonstrated by the products of Grim Reaper Foods. However, it wasn’t all about the fearsome aspects of the capsicum – Matt and Cat were entertained by the sight of a cowl-sporting huckster at Kankun Sauce. The Isle of Wight Chilli Farm had the biggest tent, natch, groaning with shelves of their own chilli-infused concoctions and sauces. Helpfully there were samples available so punters could test their tastebuds before parting with their spending money.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Cat doesn’t really like chilli, and certainly not the extreme stuff that could see the weak-palated hospitalised. That stuff’s for the boys – and there was plenty of it available if you’re think you’re hard enough. A bit of research revealed that some of the extreme chilli powders are not even for human consumption and are sold with purchasing disclaimers such as “Due to the extremely hot nature of some of these products, I agree that they shall only be used as a collectors item. This product can cause serious injury if consumed, ingested and/or applied to the skin, eyes, or any other bodily organs.” Jeepers! At the IW Chilli Fiesta, hardcore chilliheads can buy a small vial of ghost chilli from the Chilli Pepper Company which has been measured at over one million Scoville heat units. Matt and Cat have no idea what this means but can make a pretty good guess.
Chilli jacket potato £6
Falafel wrap £6
Americano (small) £2
Americano (large) £2.50
M&M & marshmallow toasty £2
As it was conveniently lunchtime when Matt and Cat arrived, they took a stroll around the fiesta looking for something to eat. There was a good range of nammet, from Thai street food, Indian, and even pizza, plus local delicacy Crab on Chips and the Island’s latest mobile food wagon, Tansy’s Pantry. Seeing all the skulls and spicy peppers had made Cat quiver and, as she and Matt viewed the many places to eat, she was keen to find something without chilli. They found the perfect menu combo at Tansy’s Pantry – a chilli jacket potato for Matt and, as Cat was assured, a chilli-free falafel for the self-confessed coward.
The pantry’s converted vintage Daimler bus was a real eye-catcher, with its double-decked height conspicuous above the tents and trailers of the other businesses. Cat took a sneaky-peek upstairs and found it was sympathetically converted into a fabulous dining space which could seat twenty or more. It was also quite hot up there so Matt and Cat nabbed a table outside under the bus’ yellow awning and Cat placed their orders.
Tansy’s pantry is an exclusively vegetarian joint and Matt, as regular readers will know, is a committed carnivore. Despite his meaty predilections, he really enjoyed his spud and didn’t miss the meat at all. There were lots of interesting ingredients in the chilli which gave it texture – cauliflower, peppers, tomato – plus loads of tasty cheese and a big dollop of sour cream with a mint leaf in it on top. Cat’s falafel wrap was gently spiced and served with a mixed salad and yoghurt and fresh mint dressing. It was a good summer dish, which she washed down with a carton of apple juice.
It was hard to ignore the delicious-looking cakes at Tansy’s Pantry but Matt and Cat had already decided to get their afters from Kaputino, the Island’s mobile coffee wagon. With two Americanos ordered, Cat’s arm was easily twisted into buying an M&Ms and marshmallow toasty. It sounded like a bizarre creation but she was keen to give it a go. Within a mo’ the toasty was delivered in a paper bag and with a napkin to hold it – which was good as it was searingly hot and the napkin acted as hand-protecting insulation. When withdrawn from the bag, the toasty looked like your typical Brevilled sarnie, albeit a somewhat alarming mottled blue and green. On peering inside, Cat saw that the little melted chocolates had shed their candy coats in the heat, and the marshmallow had melted completely. It tasted like a sweeter version of pain au chocolat – it was much better than it looked! Cat was glad she’d given it a go, but had to be honest and say she’d put the experience in the file marked ‘Because You’ll Try Anything Once’: along with Scotland’s deep-fried Mars Bar and the Elvis sandwich.
By this time, the clouds were forming over to the south and the now well-fed Matt and Cat took this as a sign to leave the Chilli Fiesta. They’d seen terrifyingly hot chillies, Matt had eaten vegetarian food (again!) and Cat had expanded her food horizons with a chocolate experience that probably couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. Alas they’d missed the eating competitions, including the ‘Young People’s Donut Eating Competition’ and whole lemon-eating contest (a pity, as Cat has a special face for lemon-sucking). Still, it’s all happening again tomorrow – and Matt and Cat hope that the Chilli Fiesta might become a permanent fixture on the IW’s busy festival calendar.
Matt and Cat were invited to the event courtesy of the IW Chilli Fiesta. They visited anonymously, chose what to eat and paid for their own food.