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The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Best Food Festivals

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4 May 2016 by Debbie Mayger

For some, travel is as much about discovering new foods and cultures as it is exploring new destinations. And, with oysters among African coastlines and fine wines from Australia’s rolling, green interior there’s plenty of food festivals that combine the two. But, given that there are far too many to choose from, we’ve selected a collection of the very best and most interesting so you can make the most out of your gastronomic holiday. What’s more, all can be combined with a gourmet food tour – perhaps of Thailand’s city street markets and island eateries or of Italy’s classical indulgences and fine wines.

Food and Fun, Reykjavik

When: March

For the first weekend in March, chefs from around the world descend on the kitchens of the Icelandic capital for the imaginatively named Food and Fun festival. What originally started as a friendly competition between local restaurateurs and international stars has grown into something of a spectator sport with restaurants filled with foodies keen to sample the inventive delights on offer.

Iceland Food and Fun Festival Reykjavik 2016 2017
Some of Iceland's finest chefs create show-stopping dishes for the attendees to try
(Credit: Iceland Food and Fun Festival)

And the twist? Chefs are only allowed to use local ingredients in their dishes so prepare for freshly caught fish, free range lamb and organic dairy products. And, as Iceland is only just starting to emerge from its winter hibernation, ingredients can be limited, pushing the folds of culinary experimentation. At the end, a panel of celebrity judges choose three finalists to compete in front of a packed house at the Harpa Concert Hall while local producers showcase their goods in a speciality food market.

Iceland Food and Fun Festival Reykjavik 2016 2017
Freshly-caught oysters are delicately garnished
(Credit: Iceland Food and Fun Festival)

Gelato Festival, Florence

When: April

While Persians, Egyptians and the Chinese fight over who invented ice cream, no other country save Italy can lay claim to its richer, younger cousin – gelato. Despite being lower in fat than other ice creams, a slower churning process eradicates air pockets, making for that dense gooey-ness that’s so moreish. It turns out that the Italians are pretty fanatical about it; there are some 5,000 Italian gelato parlours and its production is even governed by law – gelato must contain at least 3.5% butterfat.

In April, the Michelangelo Piaaza in Florence – the self-styled gelato capital of the world – is taken over by the country’s best artisan producers. They’ll exhibit over 100 of their best flavours with everything from variegated orange and cinnamon to mango cheesecake on offer. You can even vote on your favourite. But, Florence doesn’t just get all the fun as the festival tours throughout Italy in May before calling into London, Berlin and Valencia in July.

Gelato Gelataria in Florence, Italy
Gelato is a quintessential treat on any Italian summer holiday

Knsyna Oyster Festival, South Africa

When: July

We’ve written about this one before , and with good reason—Knysna’s oyster festival is one of South Africa’s hidden gems. This Garden Route town is best known for its stunning lagoon waterways fringed by dense forests and quaint Cape Cod architecture, but – come July – it wakes up to wine tastings, bike rides and, yes, sumptuous local oysters. Some 30 vendors exhibit their finest produce; oysters come freshly shucked and naked, seasoned with Tabasco or even in a gourmet burger, topped with jellied fruits. It’s also not difficult to find a complimentary glass of champagne thrown in.

Knysna Oyster Festival on the Garden Route, South AfricaKnysna Oyster Festival is a small but popular festival – it's well worth timing a road trip along the Garden Route to accommodate for a visit

But, since its 1983 inauguration, the festival has grown and grown to span over and between two weekends featuring everything from geocaching and marathons to group dives and jazz boats. Of course, this being South Africa, there’s plenty of opportunities to fire up the braii as you can learn how to grill rich meats to get the best out of their gamey flavours.

Maine Lobster Festival, United States

When: August

In international cuisine, there are certain foods that are inextricably linked to their source. There’s wagyu beef from Kobe, Japan; barramundi from Australia and – of course – lobster from Maine. This unassuming New England state features over 3,000 miles of coastline lined with picturesque fishing villages all engaged with the state’s most important industry. And, over the first weekend of August, visitors flock to its midcoast Harbor Park to indulge in steaming hot lobster rolls, freshly prepared salads and other gourmet delights.

In 2015, over 15,000 pounds of lobster were cooked and served with most of it prepared in a giant shoreside cooker. There’s also a seafood cooking contest where the audience is invited into the kitchens to sample the contestants’ recipes. It’s also one of the most children friendly festivals on the international circuit with fun runs, arts and crafts tents and parades. There’s even the ‘Great Lobster Crate Race’ whereby participants have to run and balance over bobbing crates.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival, Thailand

When: October

Not merely a foodie celebration, Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival has its roots in Buddhism. In accordance with the eight precepts of the faith, devotees will abstain from eating meat, drinking in alcohol and having sex for nine days in October. The upshot of their dedication is some of the most delicious veggie food around with delicately spiced stir-fries, richly flavoured curries and classic spring rolls all widely available.

Dating back to 1825, it’s also one of the oldest food festivals the world over. One of the more unique aspects of the tradition that still lives on today is the choosing of a mah song – a man believed to be possessed by a god. He will then perform – through the streets of Phuket – a series of tasks that can range from walking across hot coals to piercing their cheeks with spears. And, combined with mouthwatering tom yam soup, it’s a fascinating spectacle.

Margaret River Gourmet Escape, Australia

When: November

Between the Sunshine Coast, Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s east has been grabbing headlines for decades. But, away from the tourists, the country’s southwestern tip has quietly been making a name for itself with its excellent wines and farm-to-table foodie philosophy. In November – Margaret River’s idyllic shoulder season – typically over 50 culinary events take place in wineries, on beaches and aboard boats spanning everything from exhibitions to guided tastings.

Of course the celebrity talks draw the most attention with last year featuring Marco Pierre White, but the festival’s real strength lies in its excellent fringe events. Farmers’ markets abound as wineries open their cellar doors to in depth tours and breweries come together to showcase their best. You’ll even find fermenting workshops and food photography classes while speciality dinners are held in forest depths and fine dining restaurants.

Cape Lodge in Margaret River has a restaurant placed in the Top 10 in the World for Food in Condé Nast Traveller's Gold List

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