Newent gets ready for its annual Onion Fayre
- Credit: Archant
Never one to turn down a challenge, Tracy Spiers attempts to munch her way through an onion the size of a grapefruit in the market town of Newent
“If you bring an onion with you, I might just have a go at eating it,” I jest.
You don’t joke about onions in Newent. And I don’t mean here that the people in this quaint small market town aren’t playful or fun-loving. Far from it. In fact, it is because they have a sense of humour, that when I meet five members of the core committee who help put together the internationally famous Newent Onion Fayre – officially Gloucestershire’s last festival of the summer on Saturday, September 8 – they give me a whopper of an onion, the size of a grapefruit.
“That is so unfair,” I cry as David Sass who is charge of advertising and PR puts the peeled offering in front of me. I may not know my onions, but I have done my research and that isn’t five ounces – the weight given to lady contestants who on the day, race against each other to chomp through the allium layers in the fastest time. It isn’t even 7ozs, the apple-size weight the men have to gobble. My large offering is 16 and a half ounces, but I still have a valiant attempt at munching it, much to amusement of fellow customers in The Italian Kitchen, a delightful 17th-century warm and friendly café/restaurant.
Onion doesn’t mix well with cappuccino I find out very quickly. In fact, eating a whole onion doesn’t go with many things and is most definitely a passion killer, as chairman Andy Offord admits.
“The first time I entered the competition, I did not have a kiss from my wife for three days as I still smelt of onions. The myth of eating mints to get rid of the taste is not true, because the combination is vile. Peppermint and onions do not go well together,” says Andy.
“I guess you could always eat more garlic, eat a lemon or try drinking milk to balance out the acids, but it doesn’t take the smell away. However, many do have to down a pint or two of cider before they embark on the onion-eating challenge.”
Now why would anyone want to eat a raw onion you may well ask? Well there’s nothing stranger than folk and this eye-watering challenge has become the novelty or quirky factor of Newent Onion Fayre that has drawn enormous media attention over the years. To watch grown men and women, with eyes streaming, munching onions as fast as they can, does draw the crowds. In September I am told a crew from the BBC’s Out & About children’s television programme may be taking part.
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“You should join them and have a go on stage,” David tells me. To be honest, I am one of those rare people who don’t cry when peeling an onion and I do in fact like raw onion – but just in small doses. Knowing my love for the purple kind, my husband kindly devotes part of his allotment for my personal home-grown collection. But I am not sure my marriage would survive eating a whole one raw every day!
The onion eating contest
This part of Newent Onion Fayre takes place at 1pm on the main stage, with competitors from all over the country taking part.
The first round is the ladies’ event. Ten contestants only are given a 5oz peeled raw onion to consume in the fastest possible time. Then the men, spilt into two heats of 10 compete against each other and chomp their way through a 7oz onion as if it is an apple. Once the onion is consumed the contestant holds their arms outstretched with mouth wide open before the judges declare them the winner. Last year’s winners were Leanne Wright, winner of the Ladies’ event with her time of 1 minute 14 seconds; and Alex Navari, the men’s champion with his winning time of 1 minute 16 seconds.
Onion Fayre history
The relationship with onions and the town of Newent (or Noent as it was originally known) goes back centuries. Peter Pain, who has been involved in the modern-day festival ever since it was reintroduced 23 years ago, presents me with notes on the origins of Newent’s passion for its alliums. Newent was mentioned in the Domesday Book as a sizeable town and had already been a settlement for many centuries. By the 13th century it was part of a manor belonging to the Abbey of Cormeilles in Normandy and King Henry III granted the town a market and two annual fayres by charter. Two more annual fairs were granted by James 1 so by the end of 17th century, the well-established thriving town of Newent had a weekly market and four annual fairs.
Originally, the September fair dealt mostly in sheep, but by the end of the 18th century this fair was the only one of the annual fairs to have survived and was now trading onions. At this time, there were onion fairs happening all over the country but Newent Onion Fayre became of such importance that the price of onions here was used to set the onion price over a wide area, including South Wales, Gloucester and even Birmingham, which then had the largest onion fayre.
By 1910, the Fayre was run by the Peters family, a travelling showman family who ran fairs throughout Gloucestershire and surrounding counties. The fair centred around the Market Square with swing boats, roundabouts and gallopers, many of which were electrically driven from power generated by a traction engine.
“While researching past issues of the local newspapers there has been the ability to trace the existence of the Newent Onion Fair back to 1878, through court reports of petty crime on the day and advertisements. There has only been one report found about the event and there is only one know picture of the Onion Fayre in its original format,” says Peter.
The Newent Onion Fayre existed in its original format until the war years brought it to an end in the early part of the 20th century.
Fast forward to 1996 and group of local people set to work to revive this festival with the first modern Newent Onion Fayre taking place in the September of that year to celebrate local food and drink. Bearing in mind this town is still one of, if not the smallest market town of its kind, with no more than 5,500 people, it now triples in size on the second Saturday of September every year. The fun-packed festival now attracts almost 15,000 visitors each year and is a fantastic crowd-pulling national event. It may look very different to the past, but the passion for the allium remains. Today, visitors will find three stages of live music, street entertainers, dancing, fairground rides, exhibitions, lakeside events and over 150 stands with arts, crafts and plants. A Food Village, representing international cuisine from the likes of Mexico, the Caribbean, America and Spain as well as local breads, cakes and ice cream, will be set up in the Co-op car park.
“Newent Onion Fayre has changed dramatically since the first year we put it on. Round about the fifth year, Blue Peter heard about it. They invited the town crier and the Morris dancers up to London for the day and dedicated a whole programme on onions. It has grown from strength to strength as it attracted more and more media attention. Pixie McKenna, a doctor who features on Embarrassing Bodies, ate a 5oz onion in the women’s contest for a Channel 4 programme Food Hospital which considered the science behind research, indicating that onions contain a chemical with blood thinning properties. And celebrities Rory McGrath of They Think It’s All Over fame and Will Mellor, known as Gaz in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps have also tried breaking a new world onion eating record at the Newent event. In 2013 an Australian television crew attended the festival.
Amidst the fun, there is some serious competition amongst the onion growers. Affiliated to the National Vegetable Society (NVS), Newent Onion Fayre’s Allium Championships, which takes place in the Memorial Hall, now includes leeks, chives, garlic and shallots. The NVS motto is: ‘if you can’t eat it, don’t show it.” Chris Comer who is Newent Onion Show Manager has had experience on both sides – as an award-winning grower, who has won many an Onion Fayre trophy, and manager of the show. He’s a man who does know his onions. In September 1996, there were just seven classes; today there are more than 30. Seventeen of these are open classes – including the heaviest quality onion; six are for the local postcode only and four for Newent Allotment holders. There is also an open-for-all cookery section, judged by Pippa Palmer from Newent Community School, which consists of a cheese and onion pasty, a quiche containing onions, a loaf of onion bread following a specific recipe, a scone based pizza which includes onion and a pound sized jar of caramelized onion relish or chutney.
“We also have a vegetable character class for the children, which is one of the favourite classes. They have to make a character using vegetables including members of the onion family and we always have some amazing entries,” says Chris. “Some of the pupils at Newent Community School have an in-house competition growing garlic and onions which is judged at the Newent Onion Show. Last year more than 30 pupils took part.”
Onion Ed & music
One character who won’t be on a plate, is Onion Ed, the festival’s 7ft mascot, who takes part in the parade through the streets and mingles with the crowd. Andy tells me Onion Ed, whose language is ‘onish’ by the way, is quite the party animal and has met the likes of Chris Evans, Alex Jones, Doctor and The Medics and had a hug from the Cheeky Girls. And on the theme of music, Newent Onion Fayre celebrates this big time. On the main stage in Market Square will be Who’s Next, The Who tribute band, and The Roving Crows, an award winning original Celtic folk fusion band. Ten local acts will also be performing during the day.
As you can imagine, whilst chatting with the Newent Onion Fayre organisers, we explore every onion pun in the book from peely great event to crying out loud and sowing the seeds.
Having eaten the last mouthful of my whopper of an onion, I open my mouth wide and raise my hands before my spectators declare that the task is complete. I like to have a taste of the events I write about and I certainly do on this occasion. I leave Newent not smelling as sweet as when I arrived. My husband flew off to India at three o’clock the next morning, no doubt to get away from his onion-breath wife in favour of a land filled with curry and spice. However, I did lovingly water his beloved red onions in his absence. Maybe I can persuade him to enter them in the open classes? Onion lover or not, this festival billed as Gloucestershire’s largest free one-day event and officially the last festival of summer, is well worth attending. It is a day which will definitely make your eyes water. And if I sneakily slip in probably the worst onion pun of all to finish, that’s shallot!
For more information, visit www.newentonionfayre.org.