Monday 2 May 2016

Dorset Knob Throwing Festival

There’s a moment on the Great Western Railway diesel towards Maiden Newton, nearly two hours into a 40-mile journey, when I question why I’m doing this. Outside it’s May but grey, I should probably be using the weekend for something more enlightening, and aren’t food festivals just venison burgers and cider in a field anyway?

But I’m a sucker for three things: a double entendre, an eccentric English tradition, and warm cider with a venison burger in a field. Let history record that the BBC lost one viewer for the World Snooker Championship (and Tesco’s the sale of an economy lager four-pack) on Saturday, May 1, 2016. I had a knob-eating competition to attend.

Dorset Knob Throwing Festival

Cattistock’s Number One Festival
The festival – which is part of The Dorset and Frome Valley Food Festival – started in 2008 in the village of Cattistock. Organised by Nigel and Shelley Collins, the event raises money for the Cattistock Cricket club, Football Club, Playing Fields and Savill Hall. It’s fun, but above all it is a masterclass in marketing.

If you’re coming to the festival by public transport (and I feel as if I’m possibly the first to try this approach), you get off at Maiden Newton and find yourself in a quintessential West Dorset village – thatch roofs, hedgerows, undulating hills and top-of-the-range Range Rovers. The only hint that there’s a food festival in town is the 30-minute tailback of single-lane traffic that will eventually deposit some 5,000 visitors to the entrance gate by the end of the day.

Back to the marketing. This convoy of pilgrims would probably not be here if it were just a few food stalls and pop-up bars on offer. It needed something special, something quirky, something distinctive. And the fact is, less than ten years since its creation, the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival has become one of those events that define the county. In time, one of those events that overseas websites pick up as being part of the English fabric, like cheese rolling, Dwile flonking, swan upping, worm charming, bog snorkelling, and toe wrestling. Quite simply, this is still a country where you can lay down the challenge of tossing a knob, gobbling knobs, or putting the knob, and people will turn up to show their support.

Top Turnout
As it is, some 50 stallholders have made the early-morning journey to set up in time for the action, on top of live music. It’s well organised, convivial and easy to navigate. Enough people to make it worth everyone’s while, but not so many that there isn’t time to stop and chat with producers when the opportunity arises.

Dorset Knob Throwing Festival
Clockwise from top left: Liberty Cakes, gluten-free cakes, Jane from Goldhill Organics, new labels by From Dorset with Love, Dorset Tea, James's Cheese, Dorsetshire Sauce, cider

In a couple of hours, there’s time to… 
  • Establish that Liberty Cakes has been shortlisted for the 2016 Free From Food Awards for their vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free delights. They use agave nectar for sweetness. Many vegans, it turns out, don’t eat honey.
  • Check in with James’s Cheese, who is understandably busy chopping out samples. The cumin-flavoured and garlic cheeses are outstanding.
  • Enjoy a long chat with Jane from Goldhill Organics as she tried to stop her canopy from flying away. They’ve just been shortlisted for a Soil Association Award for the first time, having been doing the boxes for 2 ½ years. Jane advises me to focus on summer veg over roots in the coming months. Leeks, chard, radishes, rhubarb, spinach, and lettuce are all coming into season.
  • Introduce myself to Karl and Chrissy, founders of From Dorset with Love, who are unveiling their new labels. It’s hard not to admire this couple who find the time to produce 150 jars a day on top of keeping quite a few plates spinning elsewhere in their daily lives.
  • Meet Daniel, the winemaker from Langham Wine Estate. I can’t wait to get back in touch for a more in-depth article on the winner of ‘The Most Outstanding English Sparkling Wine’. England, it turns out, is pumping out better sparkling wine right now than a certain little town in France. We have the same chalky soil and the bonus of more sunlight. The proof? A recent blind tasting in the heart of the Champagne region picked out English sparkling wine ahead of local wines. Look out for another big announcement this week…
  • Sample a pint from Piddle Brewery, who will be unveiling a new initiative soon with some local chefs to pair the nine brewery ales with certain recipes, dishes and local produce.

Tell me Moore’s
In amongst this mayhem, there is of course the knob throwing. It’s both central and peripheral – there are knobs flying through the air and announcements for the next event over the tannoy, but you don’t have to be a devotee of the brittle, hard biscuits to get something out of the day. Instead, I grab a spot on a haystack and enjoy five minutes of Cattistock thrash metal, then a charming medley from a ukulele group. It’s like Glastonbury for foodies.

Unfortunately, because it’s Sunday and it’s Dorset, I have to get back all too quickly to the railway station if I stand any chance of getting out of Cattistock before winter. That means an hour spent on the bench in the waiting room gazing into space. It’s lonely and isolated, under the slightly menacing gaze of some local teenagers who seem to want me gone. There’s probably a joke to be made here about the role this waiting room has played in tossing many a Dorset knob, but this blog is not the place to make it.

Dorset Gourmet Maiden Newton Station
Sound advice at Maiden Newton

It's been a great day, one worth sacrificing an afternoon in front of the snooker for. I'll be back next year. But for now, having ticked off the Knob Throwing Festival, I feel a little closer to Dorset. 

As always, get in touch or post below with comments. 

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