Flower and Food? Food and Vine?

The 2013 Flower and Garden Festival

by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the March 12, 2013 Issue #703 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

FlowersIn the interest of full disclosure I'll admit to you all up front that I do not have a green thumb. It's not that I can't grow plants, exactly -- it's more that I subject them to a slow and lingering death. I love plants, and gardens, I really do. I just don't know how to get them to flourish, so I tend to leave it to the professionals... or at least to my husband, who definitely wears the green thumbs in our family.

Still, I do enjoy looking at green things. I can appreciate the beauty of and skill behind perfectly manicured gardens and the explosion of color that springtime flowers bring after a bleak northern winter. That's why I have enjoyed visiting Epcot during its annual Flower and Garden Festival year after year.

But this year, I was looking forward to the festival, which started March 6 and runs through May 19, with a renewed enthusiasm. Why? Because a few months ago I learned of the addition of a miniature "Food and Wine Festival" taking place within the 20th Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. "Get a Taste of Spring" the festival organizers cleverly teased. You mean I get to eat and drink some new and exciting foods and beverages WHILE taking in the fabulous flowers? Sign me up!

Thus enticed, I anticipated this year's event eagerly. Not only did I have all the tasty new treats ahead of me, I was escaping from what I hope was Mother Nature's last-gasp of winter, last week's storm that threatened to dump multiple feet of snow on my Northern Virginia home.

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FIRST THINGS FIRST
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Rocky Road Brownie MousseEven though I've attended the Flower and Garden Festival many times before, I didn't really get to explore it last year at all, so I approached this visit as I normally do -- by concentrating first on what was new. As I noted at the outset, the biggest change this year, and maybe the thing seasoned visitors are most curious about, is the addition of the "food" element. Would this enhance or detract from the Flower and Garden experience? This added dimension intrigued me, so I spent a great deal of time eating my way around World Showcase's 12 Garden Marketplaces to evaluate it.

The Marketplaces themselves -- the physical structures -- are not unlike those you'd find at the Food and Wine Festival. In fact, I think most of them were actually re-purposed Food and Wine Festival booths given catchy names like Primavera Kitchen (in the Italy pavilion) and Bauernmarkt (in Germany). Stationed in front of each marketplace are at least two giant planters overflowing with fresh-growing produce -- vegetables and herbs, ingredients all used in the dishes being prepared in the marketplaces' tiny kitchens. The tie-in with the Flower and Garden Festival was obvious, and I thought made a lot of sense. Why not showcase the seasonality and freshness of the ingredients in an event that is essentially all about reconnecting with nature?

But what about what was going on INSIDE the Marketplaces? Were the Garden Marketplaces successful? In a word, yes. As Chef Jens Dahlmann, executive chef of Epcot, noted when talking to media the other day, one of his primary aims was to not replicate anything that you might find at the annual fall Food and Wine Festival. He definitely achieved that, and in some cases exceeded all expectations.

After visiting all of the marketplaces over the course of several days, and tasting nearly every item, here's my short list of winners and... well, let's not say losers. Let's call them... also-rans.

Winner #1: Shrimp and stone-ground grits with andouille sausage, Zellwood corn, tomatoes and cilantro, from the Florida Fresh Marketplace. Tender, perfectly cooked and seasoned shrimp coupled with creamy grits and a subtle kick of spicy sausage made for my favorite dish of the festival.

Winner #2: Watermelon Salad with pickled red onions, baby arugula, feta cheese and balsamic reduction, also at the Florida Fresh Marketplace. Who would have thought that the sharpness of feta would pair so well with juicy, sweet watermelon and onions? The combination of tastes and textures -- sweet, salty, crunchy, crumbly -- made for a totally surprising, and totally delicious, dish.

Winner #3: Lasagna Primavera at the Primavera Kitchen (Italy): Vegetable lasagna NEVER tasted so good. A slightly sweet tomato sauce, tender spinach pasta sheets, layered with peas, zucchini, mushrooms, broccolini and some of the best bechamel sauce I've had in a long time. The only reason I didn't go back for seconds was because the portion size was so generous.

Honorable Mentions: Limoncello Panna Cotta with wild berries and Green Asparagus and lobster with garden cocktail sauce (both at Primavera Kitchen); Frushi (Fruit Sushi at Hanami); and Rocky Road Brownie Mousse (The Smokehouse).

Now, for the not-so-good news:

Jardin de Fiestas FoodsAlso-Ran #1: Pulled Pig Slider with Cole Slaw (The Smokehouse): The oaky, smoky aromas wafting from the Smokehouse were tantalizing and the place looked great, so I had high expectations, but this pork left me cold -- little to no BBQ sauce, and the cole slaw was tart to the point of being inedible.

Also-Ran #2: Ginger and Green Tea Trifle at The Cottage (UK Pavilion): The other trifles in this trio of desserts (chocolate and wild berry) were perfectly scrumptious -- I had no idea the pretty green third cup would be such a let-down. The flavors just didn't work.

Also-Ran #3: Guava Flan at Jardin de Fiestas (Mexico): The orangey-brownish color of the flan alone was not very appetizing, but the musky, slightly tart flavor sealed the deal. Or maybe I just don't like guava.

Other items that disappointed: Dried out Ratatouille Tart with Goat Cheese at L'Orangerie (France); heavy and dry Savory Bread Pudding with Peas and Mushroom Ragout and Potato Pancake with housemade applesauce (both at the Bauernmarkt in Germany). The potato pancake in particular was disappointing -- the pancake was good and flavorful, but it was unnecessarily drenched with an overly sweet applesauce. Why?

That brings me to one of my complaints about several of the dishes in general. Why hide their natural goodness under gorpy, sweet sauces and dressings? The Angel Food Cake with macerated strawberries at Florida Fresh, for example, was nearly ruined by the gloppy, oversweetened strawberry sauce. It was so much better when the chef prepared a separate dish using only plain, fresh berries with the cream on the side. I had a similar issue with the Baked Goat's Brie with Kumquat Chutney, a savory pastry pocket with a scant amount of cheese, drowning in what tasted like peach pie filling. This had the potential to be one of my favorite treats -- love goat cheese, love pastry, love kumquat. Instead it fell somewhere in the middle, after I scraped off most of the chutney.

But don't let these quibbles discourage you. I really did enjoy the majority of the foods and beverages I sampled. (Did I mention the Hot Sun Tomato Wine? I should have -- it was great! As was the gorgeously pink Rosita Margarita with its rose petal garnish.) Yes, overall, I felt the Garden Marketplaces were well worth visiting.

OK, you're probably saying, enough about the food... what about the FLOWERS? What about the GARDENS?

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WHAT ELSE IS NEW?
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Garden PassportThough I thoroughly investigated the foodstuffs among the flowers, don't worry. I didn't forget to check out the other new features of this year's festival.

Starting at the front of the park, I encountered the new front-entrance topiary focal point: Party with Mickey & Friends. There I found Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto and Goofy engaged in the cookout of our dreams. More than 15 varieties of flowers and plants make up this sweet-smelling centerpiece that looked great from every angle, even though it was hard to get a good photo of the badminton-playing Donald and Daisy.

Once I got to the Festival Center, one of the first things I discovered was the new Garden Passport. This pocket-sized booklet is a take-off on the popular Food & Wine Festival Passport that was started a few years ago. Take the passport to a cast member in each area you visit in Epcot to receive a stamp in the book! It's a fun idea for kids, but I noticed many adults getting in on the stamping action, too. The great thing about an activity like this is it encourages you to visit areas you might otherwise have skipped, and it is always an opportunity to have a little chat with a cast member so that you might learn a thing or two.

Along with the passports, it seemed to me that there were a number of new things geared specifically to attract the attention of the younger set. There's even a new symbol urging kids to "TRY IT!" which labels not only new experiences, but foods at the Garden Marketplaces that might be considered "kid-friendly."

One of these "TRY IT!" signs was posted at the new Radiator Springs interactive play zone in Future World East on the Test Track walkway, which already seemed to be a huge draw. Detailed topiaries of race car Lightning McQueen and tow truck Mater of the Disney-Pixar "Cars" films are stationed in this area that's decorated with gleaming hubcaps and gasoline cans. It's the perfect pitstop for young ones who want to climb around on the play equipment, or take a minute to try some of the hands-on or interactive activities, like finding Mater's missing shock absorbers.

Another new play zone claims a spot on the Rose Walk, promoting "Oz the Great and Powerful." This whimsical "Land of Oz" playground is actually entertaining for all ages, with old-time funhouse mirrors and giant plastic poppies, and play structures for both 2- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds.

Radiator SpringsKids will also enjoy seeing some of their favorite and more recent Disney characters brought to life. The ubiquitous Phineas and Ferb, from the Disney Channel cartoon that bears their names, finally have their own greenery alter egos -- you'll find them stationed in the Innoventions Plaza right behind Spaceship Earth, with a menacing Agent P peering over their fence. You'll also see the topiary prequel versions of Sulley and Mike Wazowski promoting their upcoming movie, Monsters University, in World Showcase Plaza. The detail on these new pieces, and the other "monsters" surrounding them, is impressive, but as I heard some observers noting, it would have been nice if Sulley could have been a bit bluer.

While the stages and shopping areas of the Festival Center are set up pretty much as they have been in recent years, in the back of the building, you'll find a pleasant surprise. There's a retrospective depicting the evolution of horticulture at Disney Parks, including a tribute to Disney Legend Morgan "Bill" Evans, whose long career included transforming Anaheim orange groves into lush Disneyland attractions like the Jungle Cruise. Evans also worked on the master plan for Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center. Even after retiring in 1975, Evans consulted on the landscape design of Tokyo Disneyland as well as on the schematic designs of the Polynesian Resort, Discovery Island, Typhoon Lagoon and Disney-MGM Studios. He was involved in the selection of plants for Disneyland Paris and Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Finally, the Flower and Garden viewing doesn't have to stop when the sun goes down, as it has in years past. The horticulture team has added Illuminated Gardens, which literally shine a spotlight on the featured figures so that you can enjoy them longer. I found the illuminated Captain Hook topiary in the UK pavilion with the Croc menacing in the background especially dramatic -- in fact, I think I liked him even better at night!

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THE TRIED AND TRUE
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Woody TopiaryEven though there was plenty of "new" to see, I couldn't neglect my old festival favorites.

As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the Butterfly House, which has a Tinker Bell and her Fairy Friends theme. Sadly, the day I visited was too cool for many of its 1000 or so butterflies to flutter by, but I loved peering into the chrysalis boxes, checking to see if any winged creatures were ready to burst free. The fairy topiaries have nearly all been moved into the butterfly house now, with the notable exception of Tinker Bell, who is perched with her sister Periwinkle outside. Don't miss the miniature pixie houses that dot the landscape as you browse around looking for fritillaries, monarchs and swallowtails. I still chuckle when I see the little home made from an old plastic roller skate.

Along with the brand new topiaries, there were many old standbys that I was happy to see again, some of which had been "rested" for the last few years: Buzz Lightyear and Woody were there, though not together (Buzz near Mission: SPACE and Woody in the American Adventure) and I must say I am impressed with the attention to detail on each of these figures. Woody even sports a pull-string on his back. The gawky old troll has returned to Norway after an absence of several years, and of course Winnie the Pooh and friends are scattered around the UK pavilion as usual. The Lion King figures are always beautiful to behold -- how the horticultural team is able to convey such movement and the nuances of these characters just by using ornamental grasses, ivies and moss, is truly a skill I would love to have. I also found the arrangement of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs topiaries to be especially clever this year. Something about the way they were lined up and the angle of the sun hitting them at various times of the day really brought the entire scene to life.

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HOURS OF
HORTICULTURE
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Don't let all my talk about food fool you. The Flower and Garden Festival still offers much more than just its feast for your eyes and, this year, taste buds. There's a wide range of informative demonstrations and hands-on activities for all ages.

This year's HGTV Designers' Stage, located in the Festival Center, kicked off its series with speaker Roger Swain, former host of PBS's "Victory Garden" show. (Yes, I remember it. I'm that old.) Upcoming speakers who will grace this stage Monday-Thursday at noon and 3 p.m. include local and nationally recognized garden experts. On weekends, HGTV personalities take over. The coming weeks will see the likes of Egypt Sherrell ("Property Virgins") and Brandon Johnson ("My Yard Goes Disney") speaking. The Greenhouse Stage, with talks scheduled at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, will have even more local gardening experts and Disney horticulturists.

Also in the Festival Center, you'll find informal booths where you can "Ask an Expert" from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or get "Planting Pointers" at 1 and 4 p.m.

If you're really interested in seeing how Disney does it, you can take the three-hour Gardens of the World tour, only offered on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday during the festival run. It's $60 and gives you a chance to tour the park with a Disney horticulturist who shows off the special displays and shares some secrets. (Read Kristin Ford's blog about this tour, which she took last week -- see the link below.)

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MORE THAN
JUST FLOWERS
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By far one of the best side shows at the Flower & Garden Festival is the series of "Flower Power" concerts held on the weekends at the America Gardens Theatre in World Showcase. A cynic might say these performances by recording artists who were popular in the 1960s and '70s are just the last gasps of a bunch of has-beens -- but you won't hear that kind of remark from me! Over the years I have delighted to enthusiastic and nostalgic performances by Peter Noone, The Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie and the late Davy Jones. This year, they've added several acts I just might be willing to make a special trip to see -- including The Village People! If upcoming Flower Power acts (among them Paul Revere and the Raiders, Tommy Roe and Nelson) are even half as entertaining as the returning, must-see Peter Noone, you must make time in your flower-viewing schedule to catch at least one show.

And finally, while there are smaller shops with outside vendors scattered around World Showcase, the Festival Center is the central location for Festival-themed merchandise. You can find everything from the annual Flower & Garden Festival poster (which now costs a whopping $24.95) to t-shirts, caps, totes and more sporting this year's logo. There is of course, loads of other gardening related merchandise, from small tools to gazing balls, bird feeders to wind chimes. (I'll have a blog on Festival merchandise on AllEars.Net later this week!)

So, did I "Get a Taste of Spring," as the festival organizers had promised? Indeed I did. The addition of the mini food and wine fest injected some new life and stirred the interest of this non-gardener -- which I suppose was partially the point. I look forward to seeing how they'll improve upon the concept if they decide to go with it again next year (and I hope they do!). And of course the flowers, gardens and topiaries were a welcome sight for these greenery-deprived eyes. I'd like to visit again in a few weeks once all the plantings fill in a bit and give it a lusher look.

And to give that Vegetable Lasagna and Shrimp and Grits another try...

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RELATED LINKS
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20th Annual Flower and Garden Festival:
http://allears.net/tp/ep/epcot-flower-and-garden-festival.htm

Festival Video Tour
http://youtu.be/4aKSgRK3cXA

Garden Marketplace Photos:
http://allears.net/tp/ep/fg13/epcot-flower-garden-marketplaces-foods.htm

Illuminated Gardens Photos:
http://allears.net/tp/ep/fg13/epcot-flower-garden-illuminated-topiary-gardens.htm

Gardens of the World Tour:
http://land.allears.net/blogs/kristin-ford/2013/03/gardens_of_the_world_tour_retu.html

HGTV's Chris Lambton Talks about Transforming Your Yard:
http://land.allears.net/blogs/allearsteam/2013/03/hgtvs_chris_lambton_at_epcot_f.html