The Big Feastival
- Credit: Ric Mellis
Katie Jarvis talks to Alex James about the Big Feastival, while a PR enforced on just in case she mentions the banned word ‘Blur’. You do wonder why the bother.
Steers are idly grazing on green slopes below us; chickens are contentedly pecking around the yard (though the sheep have gone AWOL). Everything on Alex James’s farm seems free-range; nothing is intensively farmed. Apart from Alex himself.
He’s sitting on a small rock, slightly apart from the crowds of media bods and PR people, being intensively force-fed questions and grilled. An assistant consults a rota, before taking the next journalist up to him for their allotted 10-minute slot, in a swift, efficient production line.
Soon, it’s my turn, and I’m led towards him by the Girl-With-The-Clipboard, feeling strangely self-conscious; like I’m doing one of those walks on-stage to collect some kind of award.
He’s welcoming and friendly, as always, kisses me on both cheeks, though I hardly see him these days.
“So what can I ask you that no one else has asked?” I ask (an attempt at unusual questions running through my mind. What’s the capital of Chile? Do Michael Fabricant and Boris Johnson share hairdressers?)
It seems likely I have to stick to asking about Alex and Jamie Oliver’s Big Feastival, however; the music and food festival taking place at Alex’s farm at the end of August.
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I’ve even been informed (via a third party) that I can’t ask about Blur. I don’t know if this is true but I’ve only got 10 minutes so experimental questioning is right out. And I’ve already wasted a crucial 20 seconds by asking what I should ask.
I’m not cut out for this journalism lark.
So, I say, with sudden inspiration: tell me about this year’s Big Feastival.
“I saw Jamie the day before yesterday and he’s so up for it; it’s brilliant,” Alex says. “Last year, it was absolutely, utterly amazing, just seeing the looks on people’s faces and what a good thing it was. How much the locals enjoyed it; how much the local producers that were involved got out of it. It was just a huge buzz. It felt like we got the recipe exactly right. Paloma Faith absolutely smashed it. The chefs’ demos were brilliant. It just felt it was really on its way.
“So this year, it doesn’t get any easier. I think it’s one of those things that will take everything I’ve got, no matter how brilliant it gets – because doing anything brilliantly will take everything.”
There’s no doubt that he gives his heart and soul to the festival. I’ve no idea how much Jamie’s into music, though I believe he likes cooking. (Friendly joke.) But for Alex, the Feastival marries two passions. He has rekindled his (I’m only whispering this) Blur days to great acclaim (they’re performing as far away as Uruguay this year); and we all know he loves cheese.
“I’m launching my new blue cheese. I’ve remixed Blue Monday,” he says, during an aside in which I discover we can mention Martini. “It’s a new recipe and I’ve worked out how to make a really good blue cheese Martini. It’s going to be carnage.”
Really? A blue cheese Martini. Am I misunderstanding something?
“No – you can do it. Just stuff the olive with blue cheese and they’re absolutely killer diller. I think they’re going to be the Drink of the Year.”
So… back to schedule. How involved is he with the Feastival? On a day-to-day, washing-the-dishes basis.
“Oh my god! Everything. Now I know it’s definitely a goer, it’s worth considering the whole layout of the farm and putting in new tracks. It’s not sort of noise or crowd-control that the councils are worried about. It’s getting traffic on and off the road and parking. That’s the stuff you’ve got to get right before you can even start calling Rizzle Kicks and saying, ‘Come on! It’s going to be great!’”
Brillo. And even more brillo that there are people like Adam Henson involved this year, bringing the world of his Cotswold Farm Park to the Little Dudes Den.
“Oh, the kids love the farm park and I love Adam. I’ve known him for years. So Adam’s heavily involved this year; Daylesford are heavily involved.”
There are some brilliant chefs taking to the stage to do cookery demos in the Big Kitchen – Jamie’s mentor Gennaro Contaldo; Bruno Loubet and Valentine Warner. To say nothing of the fascinating Little Paris Kitchen chef Rachel Khoo, among others.
Any Cotswold chefs? Such as Rob Rees or David Everitt-Matthias?
“This is about… This is like… You have to nail… I mean, absolutely. Who? Where do they cook then?”
I tell him about the Cotswold Chef; and David’s internationally-recognised, two-Michelin-starred Cheltenham restaurant.
“Ah, OK. Yeah, I’d love to have them involved,” he says. “I love Jim Graham - do you know him at Allium? I hadn’t thought about Champignon Sauvage. That’s a good shout. It’s always a work-in-progress. But the more local brilliance I can showcase, the happier I’ll be.”
And he does mean it. At this, the local press launch, there are some wonderful local producers showing off their world-class wares: superb Cerney Cheese, for example, as sold by the fascinating Janet Angus (consultant dermatologist by day, cheese-seller by night. Eat your heart out, Mary Portas). Alongside their award-winning goats’ cheeses, they’ve a prototype cows’ cheese – their first ever. Rolled in smoked paprika, chilli, thyme and tomato, it’s absolutely yummy. There’s Cotswold Fudge Co, every Fairtrade batch made by hand in a farm kitchen near Chipping Norton. And even villagers from Bledington, determinedly selling jams, pickles and salad dressing as part of their drive to raise money to fund a village shop and café.
“I really like those guys Ross & Ross in Chippy,” Alex chips in. “They supply, like, rillettes to Harrods. They’re really good.
“Artisan food is the one thing that’s blooming on the High Street. You go to Witney – have you been to that milkshake shop in Witney? Absolutely wonderful. It’s, like, amazing milkshakes – every kind you could imagine.”
And, with his expanded family, he has to buy seven each time.
“My own fault, innit! But I think there are so many possibilities for independent food producers. In the same way that people used to have bands in their garage, if you can make really nice pickled onions in your garage, you’re in business. There’s absolutely a market for really nice, nichey food products.”
It’s great that there are local producers here at the launch; and that they’ll be at the Big Feastival. I hope they don’t get too lost in the crowd at the event itself. It’s been transported from London – fair enough; and it’s trying hard to bring in more Cotswold producers – also fair enough. But festivals are expensive to run and I guess taking a stall isn’t cheap. The bottom line is, though: if you run an event in a place that’s been formed by farming, it needs fully to reflect that, too. I’ll withhold judgement for a bit.
So – food covered: let’s not forget the excellent Big Feastival music: Rizzle Kicks, Basement Jaxx, Take That’s Mark Owen, KT Tunstall, The Feeling and others.
It’s a no-brainer that Feastival-goers will have a fantastic time here in the Cotswolds. But what about Alex? Has the dream of moving here and making cheese lived up to the reality? Will he be city-bound once again at any point?
“I’m enjoying every minute. I don’t know how many years I’ve got before the kids start saying, ‘God, this is boring’. But the more time I spend here, the more fascinating it becomes.”
He and Claire did move here on a honeymoon-whim, though?
“But everything starts with a whim. Really. Empires…”
There’s lots I want to ask him about. His Sun piece last year, praising KFC for example: “A clever recipe, cutting-edge technology and good training”. (Well, maybe. But doesn’t he worry about the ‘life’ the chickens led?)
I can’t though. For one thing, I’m on 9:47; plus, it seems churlish. Because he does love local producers; he does love his farm.
“There’s a lottery-funded exhibition of local history in the old parish church in Churchill and there’s loads about this farm. It’s absolutely fascinating. There used to be huge walled garden, and there were greenhouses and orchards.
“This field here – the s-shaped one - would have been ploughed by oxen...”
So between rebuilding the farm and running the Feastival, he’s happy.
“The idea of filling this place - that I’ve absolutely given everything I’ve got to - with brilliant music and amazing chefs: I mean, why wouldn’t I?”
Jamie Oliver & Alex James presented The Big Feastival at Alex’s farm in Kingham OX7 6UJ on August 31 - September 1;
For more information and news on next year’s Feastival visit: www.thebigfeastival.com