Womad Festival, Nr Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England
A foodie weekend needn’t just be about lording it up in some boutique hotel or other. Oh no. Festivals have been upping their game in the food stakes for a while now, and at Womad, there’s even a specialist tent dedicated to all things culinary.
Taste the World gives musicians the opportunity to cook a traditional dish from their home countries in front of an audience, as well as perform a live set. “All artists are asked if they’d like to take part,” says Annie, one of the show’s organisers. “Then Womad gets the recipes, sees if it can source the ingredients, and away we go.”
On the day I visit, there are cookery demonstrations and musical performances from Italian modern folk band Nidi D’Arac, Mongolian ten-piece AnDa Union, and Japanese bluegrass duo Shunsuke Kimura x Etsuro Ono.
First up, Nidi D’Arac, who face each other, duel-style, across the tent. Lead singer Alessandro Coppola holds court behind the bamboo kitchen, and combines his skills of pizza-making with live music and social commentary. Tearing off a piece of dough, he narrates the history of pizza, hitting the dough with the palms of his hands in time to the drums. “Italy,” he says. “Italy has many problems. Mainly with our politicians.” Bang, bang, slap, slap. “But! No matter what problems Italy has, Italians will always be united by food. And what better food than pizza?”
The band strikes up a folk song, and Alessandro sings for a while before continuing his story. “I have a confession… Pizza… Is not really Italian… Pizza is Arabic.” The music speeds up. The dough comes in for another pummelling. “It was the Arabs who brought the bread to Italy. Colombus brought the tomatoes from America. Italians put the two together, added mozzarella, and there we go. It was named after Queen Margareta of Naples, and exported it all over the world.”
Reaching for another piece of dough he sets about working it into a thin base, Roman style, while the musicians play a rapid folk-reel on the violin, accordion, guitar and drums. “Of course, the best pizza comes from Italy,” says Alessandro, spinning the dough on his fist, sending flour everywhere. “In Italy we have two kinds – thick pizza from Naples, and very thin, from Rome. Roman pizza is more like Arabic bread, and is sometimes still made by the Arabs in Rome. The most important thing to remember is the balance of flavours and ingredients – bread, tomatoes, cheese, basil – all are like instruments playing a piece of music – they must come together to make something new.”
Six pizzas line the kitchen counter, one of which is a capricciosa – “means a little bit spoilt, a little bit of everything” – and a primavera – “a springtime pizza, made with rocket and fresh tomato”. Alessandro blends the mozzarella in time to the music using an electric whisk, then spreads it onto the base of the primavera, as a substitute for regular tomato sauce. (“Whisking it makes it creamier,” accordion-player Claudio tells me later. “It stops it going all long and stringy, like in the movies.”) “It’s the pizza folk opera!” laughs Roger de Wolf, today’s compere. “We’ve had food for healing before, and food as sacrament, but never food as an instrument. This is great!”
As the pizzas are being prepared, Alessandro explains how the band got together. Nidi d’Arac bills itself as a “live project”. Anyone can join, and members come and go, which perhaps explains why many of the songs have an element of sadness to them. “Our music, and the concept of Nidi d’Arac, hail from Salento, in the south-east of Italy. Salento is a rural area. It’s quite poor, and it’s where people regularly emigrated from, so the music is traditionally melancholic. It’s called tarantella. Our music is a version of that. But our sound is also full of surprises – with Nidi d’Arac you never know what you’re going to get.”
Alessandro gently slides the pizzas into the oven, directly onto the bottom shelf – “to make it crispy” – while the band performs another dark, gothic number. Before long, the smell of smoke starts to permeate the tent. Alessandro runs over to the oven, wafting a tea towel. “I don’t know this oven!” he says. “We never met before!” Ducking beneath the stage, he reappears seconds later with what looks like a piece of decidedly burned parchment paper, but also a perfectly cooked pizza. The audience breathes an audible sigh of relief. “Next time I use a tray,” smiles Alessandro, sheepishly, before slicing up the pizza, sliding it onto a tambourine and handing out pieces to the audience.
Next up is AnDa Union, a ten-piece troupe from Inner Mongolia. While most of the band busy themselves preparing tea soup and buuz – small, boat-shaped dumplings – two members play traditional stringed instruments and sing long guttural moans, almost growls. These are accompanied by high-pitched notes of a different timbre and melody, which sound like they’re coming from the nose but are actually coming from the mouth. It’s a captivating sight and sound.
The tea bubbles away in a huge pot on the stove. In it is milk, rancid butter and mutton pieces. Dried cheese and tea are added, sliced from a solid block that’s made for travelling (most ingredients in Mongolia are easily transportable). The musicians amble back to the kitchen to help prepare the dumplings, while a lady wearing jade green traditional dress and apron takes to the mic and sings a haunting “long song”, accompanied by a maodun chaoer (a three-holed flute) and a morin khuur – a traditional wooden instrument with hand-carved horse’s head, played with a horse-hair bow.
The dumplings steam away, and a highly potent mare’s milk alcohol or black spirit, made from wheat, with a taste similar to perfumed vodka, is passed among the crowd. Before the alcohol is drunk, each person is told to dip their finger into the liquid and point to the air, the ground and sky – an act that has both spiritual meaning and practical purpose – and a blue scarf is handed to each person after they’ve drunk their cup. Genghis Khan’s father was poisoned, and performing this routine reveals if the liquor is lethal. If it tarnishes your silver ring, you know to leave it well alone. One last song – a thunderous piece called the galloping horse – is performed by a man in knee-length trousers and brown leather boots – then the feast is pulled together. Tea is poured into cups, dumplings dropped into bowls, and more black spirit poured for toasting.
The final act of the day is Japanese bluegrass duo Shunsuke Kimura x Etsuro Ono, who rustle up what Roger describes as “a big sandwich filling” – a salad made from rehydrated daikon, canned tuna, mayonnaise, soy sauce and pepper. This is accompanied by a broth made from daikon, devil’s tongue (vegetable stock jelly), miso paste, shiitake mushrooms, fresh dumplings, fish stock and chilli. “Daikon is used a lot in rural food because it can be dried and preserved,” explains Shunsuke. “It’s peasant food – eaten by the poor people of Japan.”
As the broth simmers away, the duo perform bluegrass songs on shinbone (bamboo flutes) and tsugaru-shamisen – large three-stringed instruments, plucked with a scraper-like plectrum made from buffalo horn. The music is fast and technical, a characteristic of northern Japan as the tsugaru-shamisen were traditionally played by 19th-century blind travelling entertainers, who had to keep the interest of their audience as they went door-to-door in cold weather.
“We never know what’s going to happen,” confides Roger. “Some artists have cooked in public before, some haven’t. We had one Iranian artist who confessed he’d never cooked anything in his life. So naturally we all loved him. But it’s always interesting. Always fascinating.”