Food & drink - Good & plenty
Connect offers no end of culinary goodness, as Malcolm Jack discovers when he peruses the festival's extensive larder and speaks to the producers of every food delight you could possibly imagine, from oysters to sticky toffee pudding
Judging by reports from those present at last year's Hydro Connect festival, the selection of locally-produced eats and beverages available in the Circuses and Bread Field – which included such delights as Inverloch cheeses, Loch Fyne oysters, Ifferdale Glen lamb, Fyne Ales and Bumble Puddings – was a definite hit.
An even wider range of Argyllshire cuisine is set to be on offer at the festival in 2008. Food sourced, prepared and packaged right on the site's doorstep, then sold direct to punters – at competitive prices – by the very people accountable for its quality should again prove an irresistibly wholesome, great value-for-money combination.
'It was lucky Hydro Connect was on our doorstep,' says Loch Fyne Oysters' Virginia Sumison, of her experience at the festival last year. 'I had to keep running back to get more stock.' Such was the eager demand for molluscs, Sumison and co – who have built up a UK-wide empire of sustainably sourced seafood from a small stall on the banks of Loch Fyne – were practically forced to scoop the little shelled devils straight out of the water and onto the plate to satisfy appetites as the weekend wore on. 'I'd slightly underestimated the enthusiasm of Hydro Connect goers for oysters,' she adds. 'We had to keep raiding our oyster bar and shop, running in shouting, "Quick, give me more oysters!"'
Sumison adds: 'I knew people would like them, but they just kept coming back and back and back. By the end of the weekend we had made firm friends with about six different groups of people who just spent the whole time in our tent.'
According to Fergus Younger, Strategy Development Manager for Argyll Area Agricultural, and the man responsible for bringing all the local producers together at Hydro Connect, such a warm response was typical. 'We got wonderful feedback. Lots of comments,' he says. 'People running into a tent saying, "I'm gonna have another one of those", or "This is just so us!".'
So, what does Younger think made it such a popular culinary experience? 'People sitting down enjoying good food in a good atmosphere,' he says. 'Rather than some faceless person selling you some sort of frozen burger or the like, it was someone with an identity selling their product, fully aware of where it came from. And they'd made it fresh. We make sure everything we have is really good quality. Our producers are selling their own products – it's either the farmer, the brewer or the cheese maker themselves – so it's very truthful and very honest. And with Hydro Connect being such a high quality festival, it would be wrong if it didn't have that type of produce at it.'
All eight vendors present last time round will return again this year. Additionally, two meat-peddling newcomers will join the foodie fray. 'We'll have Winston Churchill venison, all wild venison from the Argyll area,' says Younger. 'He'll be doing venison pies made fresh by his own hand. We'll also have some local chicken from Kintyre, a place called the Allt Mor Hatchery.'
As far as food that was pretty much the definition of hearty there's the likes of Barbreck Farm's legendary roast beef or roast lamb rolls. Which in festival food terms, is pretty much as good as it gets.
'We only use the best bits for roasting,' enthuses Barbreck's Katie Ritchie, of the Argyll beef and lamb specialists' much loved meat-filled baps. 'People will be getting top quality cuts. We're not going to be trying to pass them off with anything inferior, just because it's a captive audience. So they'll be getting all the topsides and silversides of beef, and the best roasting joints. We've got a full-time butcher here, everything's boned out by hand. We've got nothing mechanised. It's all hand crafted, because it's quite a skill, the whole butchering process.'
Don't expect to get skimped for quantity by Barbreck either, they're never backward in coming forward as regards portions. 'People particularly loved it last year because our portion control was a bit wild,' says Ritchie. 'People were actually telling us to stop putting so much in. Everyone was well filled.'
Anonymity isn't something any of the local producers at Hydro Connect have the luxury of hiding behind should their eats not match up to expectation. Nor would they want it to be either.
'It's great to be proud of something that people are really enjoying,' explains Alexandra Marshall of Bumble Puddings, a Lochgilphead-based sweets and desserts specialist who originally got into afters after doing outside catering for Travis when they were recording an album at a recording studio in the area.
'It's not just a quick makeover or a quick burst or a fashion fad, but the work of people who have been doing it for years and years. We're proud enough to put our own names to our products. So you can't hide, and you're known locally. It just does make a difference.'
Marshall believes that the reputation of the entire West Highland area, as much as that of these particular food producers, hangs on the quality of product they sell at events such as Hydro Connect.
'We're promoting our food as much as we're promoting Argyll,' she explains. 'Come and have a look round and we think you'll enjoy it. It's such a beautiful place and such a natural larder that you can't help but take pride in it. Not just because of the views and the water and the countryside, but the food as well.'
Really though, after ten pints, do people honestly want a serving of mincemeat crumble, chocolate fudge or sticky ginger pudding? 'Yes!' replies Marshall, without missing a beat.
'We were really surprised how people were so up for it. I suppose it takes a lot of energy jumping up and down all day, and you do need food. And when it tastes good . . .'