Eat Local: 12 Food Festivals Worth Travelling For

From mangoes and ice wine to wild foods and garlic.  
Gilroy Garlic Festival, U.S.A.
At California’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, “Pyro Chefs” put on a spectacular flame-up show while dishing out plates of calamari and scampi. Photo: Gilroy Garlic Festival/Facebook

January: Niagara Icewine Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada

What goes well with chestnuts roasted on an open fire in the midst of a mid-January freeze? Ice wine, the sweet nectar produced from grapes frozen while still on the vine—is the perfect pairing to fight back frostbite. Ontario is the primary producer of this celebrated dessert wine, which can be a pricey passion because of its labour-intensive production and low yield. For nearly three weeks, the Niagara Icewine Festival pours the fruity elixir at ornate ice bars, winery tours, gourmet galas, and food stalls.

February: Limpopo Marula Festival, Phalaborwa, South Africa

South Africa has its share of edible festivals—crayfish in Lambert’s Bay, chilli and biltong in the Eastern Cape, prawns in KwaZulu-Natal—but the Limpopo Marula Festival is surely the most spirited. Celebrating the first fruit of the marula tree (the tart, nutritious, golf-ball-size fruits are the essential ingredient in the caramelly liqueur Amarula), the fest launches with rituals performed by local chiefs and traditional healers and includes marula cooking competitions, open-air concerts, and sporting events. Bonus: Kruger National Park is just up the road.

March: Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, Hokitika, New Zealand

Hokitika Wildfood festival New Zealand

The Hokitika Wildfoods Festival is all about exposing your palette to new flavours—from unusual ferns and flowers, to lesser-known fish, even larvae (pictured here). Photo: Hokitika Wildfoods Festival/Facebook

Not even Gollum from The Lord of the Rings would dream of devouring wasp larvae ice cream. But you—along with 12,000 other scorpion-sampling culinary daredevils—can. Every year, the globe’s gutsiest diners alight on the South Island at Hokitika’s Wildfoods Festival to feast on the world’s most extreme cuisine, from crocodile to kangaroo to worm sushi. Wandering musicians and mimes bring a carnival spirit. Anyone for the last chocolate-covered huhu grub? (It’s a long-horned beetle, but it reportedly tastes like peanut butter.)

March: Food and Fun Festival, Reykjavík, Iceland

Food & Fun Festival Iceland

For five days every year, Reykjavik residents forget the bone-chilling winter and dig into gourmet delights, created by acclaimed local and international chefs at the Food & Fun Festival. Photo: Food & Fun Festival/Facebook

The Food and Fun Festival features an international chef ’s competition and local guest-chef collaborations at Reykjavík’s best restaurants. It’s a chance to see how this small island nation has made the most of its luscious lamb, fisheries, and burgeoning dairy farms. Between meals, make sure to nab a pylsur—Iceland’s famously succulent hot dog.

March: Vendimia Festival, Mendoza, Argentina

Wine Argentina

The Argentinean region of Mendoza produces some of the country’s best wine, including award-winning malbecs and simple foot-pressed wines. Photo: Florian Kopp/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

Gauchos, grab your goblets! The Vendimia Festival serves up barbecued beef and mega-casks of Malbec, a popular red wine from Argentina. Add folk music, a flowery procession of regional harvest queens, and fireworks and you have Argentina’s over-the-top annual ode to oenophilia (love of wine). The monumental festival, staged since 1936, honours both Mendoza’s million-dollar wine-making industry and the local cultures and characters that have forged a unique culinary heritage in the shadow of the Andes.

April-May: Spirit of Speyside Whiskey Festival, Speyside, Scotland

Scottish Highlander Gathering Speyside Scotland

Sips of whiskey are savoured at a Scottish Highlander gathering. Photo: Catherine Karnow

Scotland’s national drink brings a spark to five days of frivolity during the Spirit of Speyside Whiskey Festival. You may know the storied names—Cardhu, Glenfiddich, Strathisla—but to savour these sips in their natural habitat is a thrill. Events also include distillery tours, tastings of new releases that will never be exported, whisky feasts, and wildlife walks (bring your own flask).

June: Spargelfest, Schwetzingen, Germany

Spargelfest Schwetzingen Germany

At Germany’s Spargelfest, the Asparagus Queen oversees a cooking demonstration. Photo: Martin Kirchner/laif/Redux

Asparagus roots run deep in Baden-Württemberg, but it’s the asparagus shoots that locals celebrate. Springtime in southern Germany brings spargelzeit—a season to devour these white stalks in all their permutations. With its sandy soil, Schwetzingen prides itself on being the asparagus capital of the world (it’s in the heart of the “Asparagus Triangle”). Its Spargelfest honours the königlichesgemüse (royal vegetable) with song and dance. Food stalls serve the tender, savoury sprout with smoked ham, beneath waves of hollandaise, and in soups and salads.

July: Copper River Wild Salmon Festival, Cordova, Alaska, U.S.A.

Salmon are revered in mythology from Celtic Ireland to the Pacific coast of North America. During the Copper River Wild Salmon Festival, remote Cordova in Prince William Sound honours the iconic fish with music, crafts, and one of America’s most breathtaking marathons. The star attraction: salmon every which way you can—barbecued, on pizzas, and in chowders and gumbos. The funds from a seafood cook-off go to salmon education and awareness for school children.

July: International Mango Festival, New Delhi, India

Some 500 varieties of India’s national fruit—revered in Hindu mythology as a symbol of joy and spiritual attainment—take centre-stage at the two-day International Mango Festival. The many-coloured king of fruits is a major Indian export, but flavourful fun is the theme here—take in the mango-eating competition, mango-carving demonstration, mango-savouring stalls (jams, juice, pickles), and some decidedly haute-cuisine preparations of mango that bring this ancient fruit to the forefront of modern gastronomy.

July: Gilroy Garlic Festival, Gilroy, California, U.S.A.

Gilroy Garlic Festival USA

Garlic is everywhere at the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival—from the faces of visitors to the ice cream! Photo: Gilroy Garlic Festival/Facebook

“There’s no such thing as a little garlic,” quipped humourist Arthur Baer. This is especially true at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, an aromatic annual homage to the humble bulb. Some two tonnes of garlic fuel the festival, which features a recipe contest/cook-off, boundless servings of garlic ice cream and zesty garlic-topped dishes like scampi and stuffed mushrooms, and appearances by the current Garlic Queen. Our hint: Bring mints.

September: Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival, Galway, Ireland

Oyster festival Ireland

Established in 1954, the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival is the longest running celebration of the delicious bivalve in the world. Photo: Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival/Facebook

Champion shuckers from around the world pack their oyster knives for Ireland to compete at the World Oyster Opening Championship, the centrepiece of the three-day-long Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival. Get ready to shell out for the buttery bivalve in its many incarnations—raw, chowder, fried—and prepare to swoon for this ultimate aphrodisiac as bands jam in dozens of bars, Irish ales flow, and a lucky girl named the Oyster Pearl takes home her crown.

September: Mistura Festival, Lima, Peru

At the Mistura Festival, a local serves up choclo, or Peruvian large-kernel corn. Photo: Nicholas Gill/Alamy

At the Mistura Festival, a local serves up choclo, or Peruvian large-kernel corn. Photo: Nicholas Gill/Alamy

At the Mistura Festival, cuy (roasted guinea pig, an Andean specialty) makes an appearance, but the picarones (fried sweet-potato-and-squash dough rings), Afro-Peruvian stews, Peruvian-Chinese chifa cuisine, zesty fresh ceviches, and frothy pisco sour cocktails are standouts. Even the starches get star treatment: A thousand varieties of potato, large-kernel corn, and quinoa are whipped into dishes that run the gamut from street food to haute sensations.

Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Where Is The Party?”. Updated in January 2017. 

  • GEORGE W STONE is Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Travel. He tweets as @travelerstone.

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