You can eat your own body weight in harvest produce at the various food festivals staged across the UK this autumn. British Food Fortnight () kicks off on September 17, but it’s Conwy in North Wales which lays claim to one of the most coveted titles – Britain’s oldest harvest festival (according to them, anyway).
The Conwy Honey Fair is staged each September in this historic town, with its Unesco World Heritage-listed castle and complete city walls, and dates back more than 700 years to the reign of Edward I when local beekeepers were given the right to sell honey, without charge, within the walls of the town for one day only.
Harvest festivals have long been part of the church calendar, but the right to hold the Honey Fair was formally decreed by the King in the town’s 13th-century Royal Charter.
Today it is staged annually on September 13, almost six months after the Seed Fair on March 26. It remains true to its origins with local artisan producers drawn from Anglesey to the Llyn Peninsula taking stalls for their honey-related produce.
“I love the simplicity of it as a place to still buy and sell honey,” says event organiser Peter McFadden, the secretary of Conwy Beekeepers. We’re sipping halves of Honey Fayre, a golden honey ale from the Conwy Brewery in The Albion, Conwy’s real-ale hub.
“It’s an event frozen in time,” he smiles, “and still generates a huge sense of community.”
As well as a honey-flavoured food festival, Conwy is home to a host of local food champions that can be savoured at any time of year. A short stroll along the town’s cobbled High Street, where the Honey Fair is staged, reveals plenty of places to stock up on local goodies between the cafes, antique shops and art boutiques.
Edwards of Conwy is a traditional butcher and deli with a particularly fine line in pork pies that are perfect for take-away picnics. Across the road, Vinomondo has a range of local wines, beers and spirits and hosts regular tasting events.
Another favourite local hang-out is Parisella’s Ice Cream Parlour, combining Welsh produce with Italian flavours. After an ice cream and an espresso, be sure to pop around the backstreets to catch the latest exhibition at the Royal Cambrian Academy, a centre for contemporary Welsh art.
The quayside is home to Conwy Mussels, which has been gathering mussels in the Conwy estuary for hundreds of years. The fishermen here still farm the traditional way, sustainably hand-raking mussels from where they naturally form on the seabed and the plant’s on-site shop sells freshly caught mussels from September through to April.
Over at the town’s Tourist Information Centre, meanwhile, there’s a new display of local flavours for take-home souvenirs, including Halen Môn sea salt from Anglesey and flavoured gins from the local Aber Falls distillery, where a new visitor centre opens next spring to complement the distillery tours.
All of these producers will be showcasing their wares at the Gwledd Conwy Feast, a weekend food festival with street food, show-cooking displays and live music from October 25-27.
“Conwy was traditionally a place of trade as a garrison town for Edward I’s army at the castle,” says Feast organiser Jane Hughes. “It once hosted around 13 medieval fairs, including honey and wool, attracting traders from across Wales. In many ways, I like to think the Feast is simply maintaining the tradition.”
How to see the bee hives
A short drive through the Conwy Valley will take you to the National Beekeeping Centre Wales, located near Bodnant Gardens, a National Trust site. The centre acts as a champion for Welsh honeybees, which are increasingly under threat from climate change and the loss of wildflower meadows.
The low-key visitor centre helps to raise awareness of environmental issues and highlights the art of apiarist over 4,000 years of honey-making history from the ancient Egyptians via the Romans. It also runs regular courses to train a new generation of beekeepers.
Join the Meet the Bees tour and don a protective bee suit and gauntlets in order to get up close to some of the bees in the apiary. During the hour-long visit, you’ll learn how the heather-rich landscape of the valley and its sheltered microclimate makes Conwy a haven for honey-producing hives.
Back at The Albion, Peter offers some advice for the honey-hungry cognoscenti at this year’s fair, where some 70 stallholders will set up their pitches from early morning on Friday 13 September.
“Look for anything with a Conwy label. It always sells out first,” his suggests, finishing his honey beer. “And look for the vendors with a sense of theatre, such as tasting or observation hives to showcase their bees.”
“It’s simply my favourite day of the year.”
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