At the beginning of August we had the pleasure of exploring the bee’s knees of the folk world: The Cambridge Folk Festival. It was a weekend filled with glorious weather, heart pumping musical performances and late night Irish jam sessions, however, we went for so much more than that. We heard the Cambridge Folk Festival was one of the greenest festivals in the UK and that they had a pretty awesome selection for vegans. This sounded right up our street so we wanted to see if this was true. Keep reading to find out exactly what we discovered!
The Cambridge Folk Festival
The festival is held in Cherry Hinton Hall, a leafy park just outside of the centre of Cambridge that Sarah and myself grew up playing in. Sarah’s family still live about 50 metres away and each Summer we would sit and listen to the music from her garden. Entering the festival for the first time was amazing to see what a warm and intimate environment they had created in the small grounds. With grand trees, organic art displays and a peaceful duck pond it definitely looked like a sustainable festival.
Many punters go year after year since it’s beginnings in 1965, creating a community-like ambience which was incredibly welcoming and friendly. The crowds contained a mix of folk enthusiasts from around the world, young musicians, liberal looking families and locals just there for a good time.
Unlike many other festivals the main emphasis here really was the music but there was still an inclusive and interactive feel as you walked around. Groups of musicians casually played bluesy riffs in the Guinness bar, whilst mass ceilidh dances were taking place in some of the bigger tents. Despite the name it wasn’t just folk music; we saw a fantastic performance from Malian group Songhoy Blues and the music spanned from acoustic, to jazz and some electronic sets.
As the day went on, the music roared louder, the bars got busier and our highlight of the weekend was definitely watching the late night Irish jam sessions. Musicians would come and go, joining the excitingly fast past music, many with cider by their side and cigarette in their mouth. It was a spectacle to watch and the infectious music had us dancing and spinning around before we knew it.
After a few hours of following our ears and listening to some interesting talks it wasn’t long before our bellies were screaming.
It was time to explore the vegan food.
Unfortunately a lot of festivals make it difficult for us ethical eaters and that can make the whole festival experience slightly sour. If you’re spending 4 days in a field, dancing and getting merry then you need some proper plant based food. As the Cambridge Folk festival is small in size and truly focuses on the music we weren’t sure what to expect. So, as promised, we took one for the team and spent the weekend hunting and munching all of the vegan grub on offer. How considerate we are, ey? We ended up more than content as the vegan options were diverse, delicious and plentiful. 99% of food traders offered vegetarian dishes and 50% offered vegan options which is pretty damn good.
We tried as much vegan food as we could handle, for research purposes, and some of the coolest cats we met were Spice Box. A proudly 100% vegan stall selling real food inspired by Indian cuisine. Personally, we love it when stalls are loud and proud about being meat free, it makes it so much easier looking for ethical options. Spice Box was a vegan beacon, calling out to our greedy taste buds.
On offer was a jackfruit jalfrezi or a coconut vegetable curry served with brown rice, Keralan slaw, raita, pickles and crispy onions. If those options don’t tickle your pickle I don’t know what will. Both curries really hit the spot with traditional flavours but without being too heavy for festival food. The curry bowls are definitely not your average festival curries, they were fresh and healthy with unique tastes tearing through. Everything in the bowl worked together a treat and it was a joy to eat. The crew could see we were happy about the jackfruit option and told us ‘it’s been on the menu since day one’. They also sold vegan lassi, nan bread and tandoori cauliflower which looked divine but we thought it was best to be modest with our first meal of the day.
“The move to go vegan was to have a better impact on the planet, the environment and the animals” Spice Box
On top of awesome food Spice Box also won the Sustainable Stand award at the festival the previous year. The award is given to traders with the best environmental practices which we thought was a cool incentive. They we’re proud to tell us that 99% of food was made fresh on site and that ‘the move to go vegan was to have a better effect on the planet, the environment and the animals’.
Grace the owner was inspired by her travels to India and you can taste the authenticity of the dishes from their Indian chef. The company was actually started after she began selling food from her front door in London. It wasn’t long until the company had won street food awards and that’s how it all began. At Veggie Vagabonds we love to hear of vegan start-ups doing well!
New Mexico Cantina was another one of our favourites with an extensive vegan selection. As I love burritos Sarah was worried I wouldn’t share so we went for a loaded vegan nacho plate instead. The nachos were fresh and crispy with generous amounts of creamy guacamole, a tangy salsa, a thick bean chilli and topped with Jalepenos. At first I was sad we didn’t get a burrito because they looked pretty intense but on eating the nachos that frown definitely turned upside down – they were beautiful!
Ben from New Mexico Cantina told us it was their 7th year at Cambridge Folk Festival and it was the perfect demographic for them. The crowds ‘appreciate healthy, fresh food and that’s why we do well’. Talking about the event they told us ‘separation of waste actually takes place, sometimes you spend the whole weekend separating waste and then they just chuck it all in a landfill, that doesn’t happen here’.
Ben then proudly showed us all of their different recycling bins, ‘a lady came round to do a survey on what we do to reduce our carbon footprint… our warehouse is all run on solar panels, we encourage carpooling and we always choose locally grown, fresh ingredients’.
We mentioned the Cambridge Folk Festival had won environmental awards, ‘I didn’t actually know that but i’m not surprised, a lot of festivals say they’re really committed to cutting down waste but when you get there a lot of the time it isn’t the case, here they do actually take the time to separate everything which is nice’.
‘The demand for vegan food has skyrocketed, now the amount of people asking for vegan options has matched chicken‘. Because of this demand Ben said they were now making foods with oil instead of butter so it’s available to vegans. Everything vegan was clearly highlighted and served with a smile so we were very happy customers.
After some Latin American food and some Asian food our next stop was Mediterranean food. Greek Expectations seemed to be the festival goers choice with a naturally wide variety of vegan food on offer, all from traditional recipes from the Cypriot owners. From hand wrapped vine leaves to hummus with chargrilled aubergine and courgette – all the traditional Mediterranean deli options were available.
‘There’s a hugely growing number of vegans and vegetarians so you need to make sure you cater for everyone’ Greek Expectations
Once again all of the food was freshly made by hand and the portion sizes were generous. They suggested their vegan meze box to try a little bit of everything that was on offer and it was perfect for the hot weather.
‘There’s always been a strong demand for vegan food at the Cambridge Folk Festival, we’ve been doing the meze box for 15 years here’.
Greek Expectations hardly uses any packaging and what they do use is all biodegradable, with sources using replanting systems. ‘Cambridge is our nicest festival every year, nice and chilled, always a nice vibe, customers and organisers… it’s probably because they’ve all been here for a long time’.
Our last meal was from Old Granary Pierogi who served us a traditional Polish stew inside their own homemade bread. IN THE BREAD, amazing, we were blown away, the food was top notch and we were very happy. To wash this all down, besides a few pints of cider and Guinness, we slurped some amazing Bloomberry Juices. The smoothies and juices are blended without electricity and using peddle power instead. The blenders are hooked up to bicycles and you get to blend your own smoothie when you buy it!
Around the rest of the site you could find a huge amount of vegan options at Goodness Gracious Healthy Foods with their delicious falafels, a variety of vegan curries at Taste of Spice, oriental dishes and a splendid vegan bao creation from Guerrilla Kitchen.
It’s important to mention how happy all of the traders seemed at the event. At a lot of other festivals staff look at you like you’ve just stepped on their toes but this wasn’t the case here. Everyone we spoke to said how much they enjoy the event and how nice everyone is to work with.
Overall for a small festival the food options were more than we could ask for. Not only was the food varied and extremely tasty, the vast majority of it was fresh, made on site and from local suppliers. It was very encouraging to hear the traders talking about their own personal sustainable practices and how much the festival encourages them. The vegan options definitely get the thumbs up from us at Veggie Vagabonds. As it was a very hot weekend it might have been nice to have cold options, possibly a salad variety, but how often can you bank on the UK weather being hot!
Now we had tackled the edible obstacles, it was time to look at the sustainability of the festival.
The Cambridge Folk Festival has won global environmental awards, including nominations for the Greener Festival Award which showcases festivals that have ‘effective environmental policies and practices for traffic and transport, greenhouse gas emissions, waste and recycling, water conservation, noise pollution, ethical policies, environmental protection and carbon footprint measuring and monitoring’.
It was great to have the opportunity to speak with Liz Warwick, the Environmental Manager of the festival. We had lot’s of questions so it was the perfect opportunity to sit down and talk about the event.
What environmental aspects of the festival are you most proud of?
‘It has been lovely to be able to work with the festival’s bars and caterers on surplus food which we collect and distribute to Cambridge Community Lunches which provides food to school children in the holidays who may not otherwise have a good meal. We also liaise with charities and communities to recycle waste each year including the stage carpets being recycled for creative projects through ChYpPs (Children and Young People’s Participation Service)’.
‘We are really proud of our audience at the festival as very little camping equipment is left behind – up to 10 tents each year and these are because they are broken. We have also increased our vegan, vegetarian and local food offerings over the last few years. By choosing local we are supporting the local economy and cutting down the carbon footprints – in 2017 trader and caterer travel emissions were reduced by 15%. We set environmental and ethical standards for our traders and caterers to use biodegradable packaging and utensils, Fairtrade tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar, no single use sachets or plastic straws etc’.
What are your future environmental goals for the festival?
‘In 2019 we are planning to ban the sale of single use plastic bottles on site and are also looking to provide dedicated coaches from various locations in the UK to cut down on vehicle emissions’.
What tips can you give to festival goers to make their time at festivals more sustainable?
‘Consider your travel options to the festival as that usually accounts for about 80% of the event’s carbon footprint. We do appreciate that this is not always possible but smaller parties could think about public transport and car sharing. Always try to segregate waste as per the festival’s guidelines. Each festival may have different bins as the waste plant’s processes vary across the country and it depends what the treatments are available. We work closely with our waste plant and encourage everyone to recycle in the arena and on the campsites. Importantly bring your own water bottle and reusable coffee cup!’.
What are some of the main challenges of keeping a festival environmentally friendly?
‘At Cambridge we have an audience who love the parks and are keen to be environmentally friendly. Larger festivals have significant issues with waste and people leaving tents. There is a lot of research and work being carried out by various festival industry initiatives to look at ways to encourage people to ‘Leave no trace’. These are still in trial stages but by offering good quality environments with lovely coffee and showers for example this may encourage festival goers to keep their area cleaner. I think there is a lot of work that could be carried out further with tent manufacturers to ensure they can be packed away easily at the end of the festival and are not so cheap that they are considered disposable items’.
What advice could you give to smaller festivals to make their events greener?
‘Look at what you want to achieve. Monitor and record waste and energy and set targets for reductions and keep reviewing these. Focus on communications through the website and social media to the audience and get everyone on board – staff, contractors, sponsors. There are some great resources out there through organisations such as A Greener Festival, Powerful Thinking and Energy Revolution that offer fact sheets and guides to help plan and reduce impacts’.
Speaking with Liz was really insightful as it gave us an insiders perspective to the environmental concerns of the event, rather than that of the public. Noticeably the crowds were extremely considerate with waste and people seemed to take joy in recycling and protecting such a beautiful environment. It was clear that what they are doing is going bloody well!
Overall our weekend at the Cambridge Folk Festival was a really fantastic experience. Since our evenings in the Irish sessions tent we have been listening to a lot of fast fiddling folk music and it’s opened our eyes to more folk festivals in the future. The whole atmosphere left us wanting more and we were definitely sad to leave it all behind.
For a small festival the vegan options were seriously good, not just showcasing gimmicky ‘vegan options’ but a variety of delicious vegan food made on site. The sustainable ethos resounded throughout the whole festival and it was truly motivating to see everyone, staff, traders and public working to make the event as green as possible. Liz Warwick and the environmental team are doing a fantastic job and they definitely deserve the title of one of the greenest festivals in the UK.