Christchurch Food & Wine Festival

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The heady aroma of roasting Peruvian coffee mingles with a strong tang of garlic, fragrant saffron rising from huge vats of paella and lemony scents emanating from the bruised leaves of herbs. Small groups of people lean against walls or sit along the kerb in the sunshine, chewing from fishy skewers of bacon and scallops, or slurping up gravy-soaked roast beef from overflowing cups made from Yorkshire pudding batter.

On one side of the crowded walkway, tiers of iced cupcakes in a glowing pastel rainbow of yellows, purples and pinks draw the eye and the purse, whilst across the way we sample exotic vodkas, ciders and novelty beers. There are oysters and prosecco; wild mushroom risottos; salted caramel chocolates; game pies; trays of Turkish delight and a whole stall of Italian calzone – small, folded-over pizzas so convenient to eat on the move.

Not only are children catered for, with bright lollipops, fudge, candy floss and ice cream, but even a dog can find a treat. Tucked away behind the Spanish stall swathed in black is another devoted to doggy muffins topped with small bones; chewy biscuits and slices of savoury cake.

As we select chilli flavoured olives and salted nuts to take home we are serenaded by a seated banjo player. Walking a few yards, we reach a pub where someone energetically fiddles as a tall couple dance sedately in front of the beer drinkers. Competing for attention a little further up the street is a group of wannabe young singers and, just in front of the cathedral, we pause amongst the headstones to listen to a 50s classic played by an elderly duo on electric keyboard and saxophone.

If you are trying to work out which souk or casbah I have wandered into on my travels, it may surprise you to learn that all this is happening in the sedate English town of Christchurch, Dorset. As street food in general has become the norm, so international food festivals are springing up all over the UK. This one in Dorset has been going some time and is now in its 13th year.

The festival spans a period of two weeks, although the street market is only run across the first weekend. As well as stalls to visit, we could have watched cookery demonstrations, learnt to draw herbs, absorbed extra gardening tips, listened to jazz or sampled special menus put on by various restaurants and hotels around the area. But for us the great pleasure is just to mingle with the crowds, sample the food and drink and take a few bags of goodies home to eat at our leisure. We buy too much, of course, but that is only to be expected. As the Spanish stallholder puts it as he rubs his stomach and waives us towards his paella: "the more you eat, the more you fancy."

Christchurch Food & Wine Festival will not be round again until May 2013, but there are hundreds of others across the country and it is well worth trying to catch one or two if you like eating and want to have a great day out.

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