The response of most people I told I was going to Taste of London this weekend was pretty much the same - take lots of money, because you'll need it. For someone like me, who can somehow get through the best part of £60 just sipping cocktails in a London hotel bar of an afternoon, this was worrying. So I made a solemn pact to absolutely not spend more than the £20 worth of 'Crowns' (the festival currency) that came with the ticket and still try to make the most of what was on offer.
The first purchase of the day was a lovely Caipirinha at a bar whose plugged product I've completely forgotten. Yay advertising. But the Australian bar staff were very cheery and the Caipirinha itself had just the right mix of brown sugar, crushed lime and cachaça.
Our next stop was the Freedom Lager stall where I sampled a pint of their organic pilsner, and very nice it was too. If you want to try it yourself they have it on tap in a bar at the top end of Brick Lane. I know because I went there the other night - goes very well with a salt beef beigel.
After liquid refreshment we were ready for our first food course, and a decision was jointly made to go for Gary Rhodes' (from Rhodes 24 restaurant) White Tomato Soup. This was really lovely - rich and creamy and despite its dramatic appearance tasted like a very well made tomato soup, which in fact it was. I wondered whether they used a special type of white tomatoes or whether they made a consommé and bleached it somehow. Clever stuff anyway.
From Launceston Place we had a little paper cone of roast middle white pork risotto, which was light and fluffy but just slightly too sickly for my tastes - I've never been a big fan of risotto though so I'm sure others would have loved it.
Scallops from Forntum & Mason (their new Fountain restaurant perhaps? I didn't ask) were only OK really. Prettily presented in the shell and the coriander and lentil mixture was tasty but the scallops themselves too tiny to have a decent crust. They were nice and sweet though.
Next we tried a smoked salmon thingy from Rowley Leigh's Café Anglais - they pumped wood smoke into these little plastic containers so it all looked quite dramatic, but the effect was just a gimmick unfortunately as the salmon and baby watercress (literally all it was) was very dull once the smoke had evaporated. It was interesting, actually, how the plastic plates and cutlery provided an uncompromising level playing field for all the restaurants, and although the queue for Le Gavroche (2 Michelin stars) was massive, the dishes they were turning out (admittedly I didn't actually taste any) looked quite lost, whereas a more budget restaurant such as AWT's Notting Grill seemed to adapt quite well to the rustic festival atmosphere and their spit-roasted pig looked brilliant. I mean I know Taste is supposed to be all about fine dining, but if I'm sat in the grass on a hot summer's day with a beer in one hand, give me a pig sandwich over a foie gras terrine any day.
I suppose if the worst you can say about the Taste festival is that it's a slightly posh cook-off/picnic then it's still worth a visit. And although the opportunity was there to ram product launches down your throat (literally) at every stall, you have to give the festival organisers credit for keeping blatant mass-market PR stunts to the minimum and any high-street products tended to be organic (Rachel's Farm) or worthy in some other way. The only really blatant corporate gatecrashers were Cobra beer, but they won my favour by providing endless free samples while I filled in a market research survey for them and earned £5. Drink Cobra beer! See, it does work after all.
We didn't stick around for Marcus Wareing's live demo at 21:30 but I did spot Angela Hartnett and Aiden Byrne manning their stalls, and I suppose it's only natural the level of involvment of the chefs at their festival tents reflected what goes on in the kitchens of the actual restaurants. I don't blame Gary Rhodes or Joel Robuchon wanting to kick back slightly now they're multi-millionaires, I just wish they'd stop pretending to still be head chefs. Or maybe I just deeply misunderstand the restaurant business. Yes, in fact, it's more likely to be that.
I will definitely be going back to Taste of London next year, and I think I'll probably still go along on the same ticket (the £35 Premium option). I had a peer through the glass of the VIP section and I can't say I'm annoyed I didn't pay £95 to stand up in a room of corporate freeloaders and BA employees. Certainly the potential was there to spend a fortune on food and drinks, but there's still plenty to do for the blogger on a budget as well. Here's to next year.