Best of the fests

With National Vegetarian Week coming up 21-27 May 2007, now is the perfect time to celebrate vegetarianism. Jill Starley-Grainger rounds up some of the world’s best veg festsWhether you’re on holiday in the Far East or East Anglia, joining in a festival is always great fun, offering the chance to experience local life, customs and foods. Unfortunately, when hunger strikes, vegetarians and vegans often discover that meal choices range from hamburgers to pork pies in Britain or chicken’s feet to ox tongue in China. Eurgh!Luckily, that’s not always the case. All around the world, there are events celebrating the harvest of fruits and vegetables, usually with delicious meat-free dishes on offer. Even better, some places hold annual vegetarian festivals, where you can eat, drink and be merry without worrying about what’s on your plate.In the Far East, vegetarian festivals date back hundreds of years. Many of them are tiny events in small villages, so stumbling across one is a real treat, and you’re unlikely to find much information on them before your trip. Some however, such as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, are hugely popular and well worth a special trip. The vegetarian festivals of the Far East were often started for religious reasons, but for some, this aspect of some has all but disappeared, much in the way Christmas is celebrated by many Christians and non-Christians. Of the religious-based festivals, the Hindu and Buddhist ones hold the most promise for vegetarians and vegans.In the West, vegetarian festivals are a more recent concept, and a new wave of vegetarian festivals seems to be gaining momentum. The best place to find these is in the United States, where annual VegFests, as they’re most often known, are almost de rigeur in most major cities, with many occurring on World Vegetarian Day (1 October), or one of the two Earth Days (20 March and 22 April 2007). There are, however, many omnivorous festivals in the West that celebrate fruit and veg, offering numerous meat-free delicacies worth trying.Ensure you next holiday is packed with unique cultural experiences and fantastic food by planning your trip around one of these fantastic events.Key V = vegetarian festival; O = vegetarian-friendly omnivorous festival HOT-FOOT IT TO PHUKETPhuket Vegetarian FestivalPhuket, Thailand30 June, www.phuketvegetarian.comVThe most famous and largest vegetarian festival in the world takes place in and around Phuket’s Chinatown. Since 1825, Thais of Chinese origin have been observing a strict vegetarian diet and performing acts of faith, such as walking on hot coals and climbing knife-rung ladders, in Phuket’s most spectacular annual event. This nine-day event is a feast for the eyes as well as the belly and firmly debunks that myth that vegetarianism is a recent fad. Participants aren’t necessarily full-time vegetarians, but they all abstain from meat and other products, such as cigarettes and alcohol, for the ninth lunar month in the belief that this will ensure good health for the year.The festival began when a travelling Chinese opera troupe all became ill on a visit to the island. They cut all the meat out of their diets and performed a series of ceremonies to honour their gods, and they were cured. The locals decided to follow suit. Since then, the festival has continued in pretty much the same vein, with street processions, ceremonies to honour the gods, acts of faith, fireworks, drumming and, of course, the consumption of delicious vegetarian and vegan food. All during the event, stalls and restaurants in the area sell a huge variety of vegetarian delights, with barely a fishcake in sight.SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROPThe Incredible Veggie ShowLondon30 June a veg fest closer to home, head to The Incredible Veggie Show in London. Held for the first time in 2006, it was a huge success, and this year’s looks to be even better. With cookery demonstrations by the likes of Rose Elliott, vegetarian cafes and more than 100 stands offering food, drink, clothes, cosmetics and more, you’ll want to take some empty shopping bags to this one, ready to fill with veggie treats.In recent years, vegetarian events similar to The Incredible Veggie Show have been springing up throughout America, offering the opportunity to check out goods not available yet in Europe, with many events including parades, competitions and fairs. VegFest in Boston, Massachusetts (, Seattle, Washington (, Salt Lake City, Utah (, Portland, Oregon ( and San Francisco, California ( are all popular ones.BUNS OF STEELCheung Chau Bun FestivalCheung Chau, Hong Kong24 May 2007www.cheungchau.orgVJoin in the world’s biggest bun fight on the tiny, car-free island of Cheung Chau, south of Hong Kong. Every year, thousands of people flock here to watch as children float in airborne processions, effigies are burned and people compete to reach the top of bun towers, where the sweetest rewards await.The festival started more than 100 years ago as a period of devotion to pray for safety from the pirates who regularly attacked and took up temporary residence on the island. In the 1970s, the bun towers, traditionally made from bamboo, toppled over, injuring hundreds of people. Now they’re made from steel, with thousands of sweet Chinese buns packed on for those brave enough to climb up. Those who reach the highest buns are ensured a year of good fortune.Apart from the promise of a plethora of Chinese sweet buns and pretty paper lion parades, the best news for visitors is that the entire island goes veggie for the three days leading to the bun climb, with even international fast food chains offering only meat-free menus. Now that is something worth celebrating!CITRUS SENSATIONFete du CitronMenton, FranceFebruary, www.villedementon.comOAdd some zest to grey winter days with a trip to the sunny French Riviera, where you can top up your Vitamin C levels with lemon-based food, drink, sculptures and parades. Menton’s lemon is much lauded by chefs for its low acidity and mild flavour, and this 15-day event heralds the start of its season.Satisfy your sweet tooth with lemon tarts, curds, cakes and candy at the stalls and bistros around town, but the savoury dishes might surprise you. Plenty of vegetarian fare will be on offer, but this being France, there will also be meaty dishes, so always ask before ordering. Kids will especially enjoy this event as the whole city takes on a carnival atmosphere for the entire period, and frequent parades, enormous lemon sculptures, a variety of live music performances and costumed dancers will keep the whole family happy.LIGHT UP YOUR LIFEDiwaliNationwide, India9 November 2007www.diwalifestival.orgOThe Festival of Light is a great time for animals, with most of the country observing a vegetarian diet throughout this important period. Not only that, but cows are honoured and, in places, worshipped. The holiday shares some similarities with Christmas in that houses and businesses are decorated, gifts are exchanged and people spend time with family and friends. Candles are lit in homes all over the country to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, light over dark. Special vegetarian and vegan savoury and sweet dishes will be on offer throughout the country, including creative curries using as many types of vegetable as possible. If you can’t make it to India’s festival, Britain’s Hindus also celebrate Diwali with gusto.ALL DAY BREAKFASTElmira Maple Syrup FestivalElmira, Canada31 March 2007www.elmiramaplesyrup.comOLike pancakes? You’ll love Elmira, home to the world’s largest maple syrup festival. More than 50,000 people line the streets to watch the parades and pancake flipping contests before sampling Canada’s most famous foodstuffs in maple syrup tastings and, of course, on pancakes and waffles. Maple syrup can be used on more than just breakfast foods, though, and this festival shows the many uses of this gift from the trees. Who needs honey when maple syrup is so more-ish?HOME-GROWN GOODNESSWatercress FestivalAlresford, Hampshire13 this great British food in ways you never imagined, including crepes, pesto, cheese biscuits and chocolates. Chefs, including Antony Worrall Thompson, offer cookery demonstrations to show the versatility of this vitamin- and mineral-rich food.Watercress contains more calcium than whole milk and more iron than spinach, making it a fantastic food for vegetarians and vegans. Parades, live music, street theatre, bouncy castles and plenty of tastings should make for a fun day out.BEST OF THE REST In addition to those already mentioned, many countries have festivals that offer the food-loving vegetarian and vegan many delicious meat-free options. If you’re considering a trip to the area anyway, it’s worth making a special effort to get to these festivals, but just remember that you’ll need to double-check that any food you order is entirely animal-friendly.PongalSouth IndiaMid-January / 020 7437 3677ODelicious savoury and sweet rice dishes abound at South India’s colourful harvest festival, packed with veg, herbs and spices, but some of the sweet specialities are made with milk.Melbourne Food and Wine FestivalMelbourne, Australia16-30 with the World’s Longest Lunch, then sample Aussie tipples before indulging at Wicked Sunday, a day devoted to decadent gastronomic delights.Prince Albert Town FestivalPrince Albert, South Africa28-30 a taste of South African cuisine at this food-themed village fair, where olives take pride of place. It’s not always easy to find veggie options in Africa, but this fun event should offer some interesting olive-packed delights.Asparagus FestivalBretforton, Worcestershire23 May-3 June 2007OSink your teeth into the first, gorgeous asparagus of the season in numerous guises, most of which are veggie, then stroll around the craft fair and farmer’s market while enjoying the live silver band and tutored asparagus tastings.Pineapple FestivalEleuthera, Bahamas1-4 June you like piña coladas, you’ll love the pineapple eating contests, pineapple cocktails and pineapple parades.Taste of DublinDublin, Ireland14-17 Junewww.tasteofdublin07.ieOSample traditional and modern food from some of Dublin’s best chefs, with no doubt more than a few spud-based vegan goodies.Hampshire Food FestivalHampshire, England23 June – 8 your larder with asparagus, broad beans and strawberries at this fun day out.Garlic FestivalOulu, Finland12-14’ll smell the town before you get there during this vampire-free (but not meat-free) feast, where you’ll discover a 101 uses for the delectable garlic bulb.International Food and Drink FestivalCardiff, Wales13-15 Julywww.cardiff-festival.comOLeeks, cheese and plenty of Welsh wines make for a tasty day overlooking Cardiff’s St David’s Bay. Vegetarians and vegans are well catered for.North Carolina Watermelon FestivalFairbluff, North Carolina, USALate July / early Augustwww.ncwatermelonfestival.comOQuench you thirst with a free slice of luscious watermelon at this annual four-day festival. What started in 1986 as a friendly rivalry between two friends has turned into a fun-filled event, with more than 40,000 people turning up to watch parades, join in street dances, hop on amusement rides and watch contestants work through dozens of the local fruit in watermelon-eating contests.Crop Over FestivalNationwide, Barbados6,, parades, picnics and markets all herald the end of sugar-cane cutting season in the island’s biggest carnival. Sweet!La TomatinaBunol, Spain26 Augustwww.turisvalencia.esOPelt friends, enemies and strangers with tomatoes in Valencia’s famous food fight, which uses up the glut of tomatoes at the end of season that would otherwise be wasted. Gazpacho, anyone?Soil Association Organic Food FestivalBristol1-2 food and drink, talks and tastings, fashion shows and home products, all with green credentials.Ludlow Marches Food and Drink FestivalLudlow, England7-9 density of Michelin-starred restaurants in this town ensures its food fest is one of the best. Other great ones this month include Abergavenny (15-16), Alnwick (22-23) and St David’s Really Wild Food Festival (1-2).Fiero del TartufoPiedmont, Italy21 September - 11 Novemberwww.fieradeltartufo.orgOTrue foodies fork out heaps of dosh for the white truffle of Alba, which can cost more than gold. The brave can enter a bidding war with local and international restaurateurs at the Alba truffle market. Throughout truffle season, sample fresh shavings of this pungent fungus over risotto, salad or bruschetta at the region’s restaurants and numerous truffle festivalsNut MarketVianden, Luxembourg7 Octoberwww.nessmoort.luOMake a meal of walnut pizza, hazelnut liqueur and chestnut cake at this nutty event, which usually features a good selection of meat-free foods.Amu FestivalHo District, Ghana24 November – 1 the rice harvest with fantastic festivals featuring rice dishes, drumming, dancing and singing.Kimchi FestivalGwangju, South Korea15-19 Novemberwww.kimchi.gwangju.krOSample the many Korean dishes that feature kimchi, fermented chilli and vegetable paste, at this spicy festival. Some good vegan Korean dishes will be on offer, but do ask because the meat is often hard to spot in certain specialities.Day of the DeadNationwide, Mexico1-2 Novemberwww.visitmexico.comOCheerier than it sounds, try skull-shaped candies and local Mexican treats at the festivities surrounding these important days. It’s usually fairly easy to eat vegetarian and vegan food in Mexico, especially compared to some of its southerly neighbours, so this nationwide festival should provide plenty of delicious discoveries.Winter Solstice FestivalNationwide, China22 December up on dumpling soup, red bean paste and glutinous rice balls at one of China’s most important winter feasts. Vegetarian visitors to China should do a little planning because some aspects, such as the markets with animals for sale, will repulse animal lovers, whereas places offering Buddhist cuisine are well worth a visit.SIDE DISHESHeavenly feastFor the ultimate year-round foodie experience, make your way to Kyoto, Japan’s old capital city. Less than two hours from Tokyo by bullet train, this stunningly beautiful city is practically a pilgrimage site for the world’s top chefs and gourmands. Forget sushi and noodles. Kyoto-ites have taken food to a higher plane, offering the the planet’s most sublime dining experiences, from the ultra-refined, multi-course kaiseki-ryori, which is easily adapted for vegetarians and vegans, to the elegant shojin-ryori, vegan cuisine fit for the gods, served in and around Kyoto’s Zen temples.Imagine dining in an ancient temple surrounded by beautiful gardens, gently flowing water and smiling staff. After a meal of delectable shojin-ryori, perhaps including chestnut tea rice and lotus root soup, you are given a bill that comes to less than a tenner. Bliss.Visit during one of the Kyoto’s many festivals, such as the Aoi Festival on 15 May or the Gion Festival in July, and you’re sure to be able to sample a wide variety of scrumptious vegetarian and vegan treats.