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Food & Wine Festival
The 11th Annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival:
Eating Myself into Oblivion
Debra Martin Koma
ALL EARS® Senior Editor
article first appeared in the
October 10, 2006, issue #368, of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
For the fifth year running, I have made a pilgrimage to that mecca that calls to all who suffer from the dual afflictions of being both a "foodie" and a "Disneyphile" -- the annual event known as Epcot's Food and Wine Festival. And, for the fifth year in a row, I have overscheduled myself, trying to attend as many of the special dining events as possible in a very short amount of time. Yes, I did it again. I ate (and drank) myself nearly into oblivion. Fortunately, I have recovered enough to share some of my thoughts and observations of this year's Festival with you.
This year there are 26 "International Marketplaces" stationed around World Showcase featuring the foods and beverages representative of various regions -- Australia to Scandinavia, South Africa to South America. New this year are marketplaces representing the cuisines of Thailand and Argentina.
Wisely, I paced myself a little better this year, and spread out my taste-testing of these food booths over the course of several days, instead of trying to sample as many as possible in just one. I did find on opening day, a Friday, that the lines at the booths were much more manageable than on the weekends - no surprise, really. And of course the lines grew longer as the day went on. TIP: Try to visit the booths during mid-week.
If you're sampling the wares at the booths, I can recommend more than a few tasty treats to try. The Traditional Kjottkaker ($2.75) at the Scandinavia booth is quite savory. The meatball itself was a bit chewy, and I tasted no cauliflower, even though it's supposedly an ingredient. The cheesy potatoes, mashed still wearing their red skins, were a good accompaniment, and the sweet beet sauce was very good. If you like veggies, don't miss the Vegetable Curry with Jasmine Rice and Lemongrass ($2.50) at the new Thailand marketplace. Loaded with mushrooms, green beans, cauliflower (there it is!) and even cucumber, with a slightly spicy kick, this was a tasty morsel served over fragrant rice that must have been cooked in coconut milk. And if you have a sweet tooth (or, like me, more than one!) don't miss the Zeppole Fritte al Cioccolato ($2.75) at the Italy booth. It wasn't exactly like the zeppole I'm used to getting at my local Italian groceria, more like a chocolate cream-filled cream puff, but the pastry was light and the filling so smooth and creamy, not overly sweet. Yum! I stayed away from items that I've tried in previous years, like the Bobotie in the South Africa booth, and the Cheese Soup in Canada, instead concentrating on foods that were new to me. Other items I found to be at least worth a try on my walk around the World: the Chilaquiles ($3.50) in Mexico, the Grilled Beef Sirloin with Chimichurri ($3.75) in Argentina, Curried Butternut Squash Soup with Naan Bread ($2.75) in India, and, the Duo of Chocolate Truffles (one milk chocolate, one dark for $3.00) at the Champagne booth.
TIP: Unless you're a glutton for punishment, avoid the Potato Leek Soup with an Irish Cheddar Crisp at the Ireland booth. Greasy, salty and apparently made with a beef base (rather than the chicken stock that I use when I make potato leek soup), this sample was not worth the $2.75. The best part of the soup was the cheese crisp!
I noted a number of new items on the menus this year, some exotic, and others not so. But no matter how your tastes run, you're sure to find plenty to please your palate as you stroll around World Showcase. And, since you're there, why not be a little adventurous? Go ahead -- for around $3 a plate, you can afford to branch out a bit. There's Albondigas (Spanish Pork and Chicken Meatball) at the Spanish booth, and Porotos Granados (I never did find out what that is) at Portugal -- you know you want to try them!
As with last year, visitors who are using the Disney Dining Plan as part of their vacation package can use the plan's snack credits to buy most foods and beverages at the booths, regardless of price (except for the alcoholic beverages). Even the Maine Lobster Roll, which is selling for $6.50 at the USA booth, can be purchased as a Dining Plan snack. Just look for the purple and white Dining Plan icons on the menus posted around the World.
Another bright idea that someone had is use of color-coded tickets to expedite the purchase of the booth items. At those marketplaces that tend to be most popular at peak times (primarily those with the most familiar cuisines, such as Italy, USA, and Poland), you pay at a little kiosk before you receive your food and beverage and are given color-coded tickets to hand in to the Cast Members at the booth. This does speed up the process in most cases. Except for the Ireland booth, where I paid in advance and was given nothing in return. No cards, no receipts, nothing. How, I asked, would the Cast Member know what I had bought? Just tell them, was the response. In other words, I could have told the food dispensers that I had purchased five not-so-yummy cups of Potato Leek Soup and five glasses of Irish Cream liqueur and no one would have been the wiser. They might want to re-think that.
The popular "Wine Walkabout", located near the Germany pavilion, has returned as a part of the "Australia -- Discover Down Under" exhibit. The price of the Walkabout "passport" hasn't increased this year -- it's still $7 -- but now you can only sample four wines (not five as before) while talking with the wineries' representatives. The "walkabout" concept has also been adopted over at the America pavilion this year, with the introduction of the "American Wine Tasting Adventure." You purchase a passport that will allow you to try samples of four American wines for $8. The featured wines are from Virginia, Washington State, Napa Valley and Sonoma, which ties in neatly with the festival's "Exploring Regional Flavors" theme.
New this year is an exhibit spotlighting the culture of Turkey, located near the Morocco pavilion. In this area you can experience daily complimentary demonstrations on Turkish cooking and Turkish coffee, or learn about Turkish crafts, such as calligraphy. Unfortunately, on opening day when I stopped in, the times for the presentations had gotten mixed up somehow. They were demonstrating calligraphy when I was hoping for a cooking lesson. Hopefully they'll work that glitch out before you get there.
I was disappointed to note that many of the so-called "special exhibits" didn't really seem that special this year. None were on the grand scale of the Spain exhibit a few years back, an exhibit so elaborate that rumors were flying it might be become a permanent World Showcase pavilion. With flamenco dancers and demonstrations on olive oil and the fancy art of pouring sherry, it seemed to always have something going on. Nor were any displays even close to the exhibit that featured the Piedmont region of Italy a year or two ago. But later in the festival another new exhibit will have a limited run (October 20-29) -- the country of Peru will set up in a space in World Showcase Plaza, where chefs from the city of Lima will hold demonstrations of authentic Peruvian cooking. Perhaps that will live up to previous, more grandiose displays.
Situated just before you enter the Mexico side of World Showcase, the Odyssey, formerly a counter service eatery, is once again home to the "Chef's Showplace," the center of a number of special Festival events. As in the past few years, it's the spot for special, ticketed cooking demonstrations, such as Sweet Sundays and Chefs A'Field, for which you can find some individual reviews on AllEarsNet.com. Visiting chefs for these programs come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and include several very well-known names, like Cat Cora and Michael Psilakis from the Food Network. The Chef's Showplace is also the site of many complimentary cooking demonstrations, tasting seminars, and book signings (see the Festival program for events and times). The complimentary programs, though, are extremely popular and can be very difficult to get into. Be sure to check the schedule in the Festival program and plan accordingly -- you may need to arrive more than 30 minutes ahead of time for these 45-minute programs. One day I saw the line for the Valrhona Chocolate tasting wrapped about 3/4 way around the building!
There are also free wine tasting seminars held in the Innoventions West Festival Welcome Center in two areas, one known as the Vineyard Hall, the other as the Estate Hall. Again, these complimentary programs are very well-attended and require that you arrive early to be assured of getting a seat.
Other free programs around the World Showcase this year include the Twinings Tea Seminar held at the United Kingdom pavilion. This year, the seminar celebrates the 300th anniversary of the revered tea company and, at least for opening weekend, was presented by Stephen Twining, 10th generation of the long-established family. ALL EARS® reader Andrew Della Vecchia attended the seminar this year and submitted a review for us HERE.
If you'd like to attend the tea seminar, or another of the Festival's complimentary programs, such as The History of Beer in America (presented by the Boston Beer Company in the American pavilion), and International Beers of the World (hosted by InBev at a kiosk in between the Canada and UK pavilions) consult your program for the times. TIP: Stop by the appropriate locations in advance to see if you can obtain a ticket to guarantee your spot. And be sure to arrive at least a half-hour early for admission!
There was a bit of a mix-up at the opening weekend of the Festival this year -- some of the usual merchandise was not available. No recipe books, no pins, for example. By now, those issues should be resolved, and the pins and other commemorative merchandise should be available at the Festival Gift Shop located between World Showcase Plaza and the Canada pavilion. This year's Festival poster, available in the Festival Welcome Center, is a subtle scene of fruits and vegetables in muted shades of yellow and orange. The Welcome Center is also home to a number of book signings, as well as to a retail spot that offers a variety of food and wine related merchandise, not to mention hundreds of bottles of all types of wine from all over the world. Who knew there was such a thing as MANGO wine? Beware though: They won't ship wine for you, and with the new TSA rules for air travel you can't carry bottles of liquid on board with you. If you don't live locally, or have room in your luggage for your purchases, you might be better off remembering the names of those wines you want to buy, and then look for them at home or online. Other items in the market that I found interesting were little organic spice packets by Pinch Plus ($1.00 for one tablespoon, or combo sets were also available); laser-type wine thermometers (from $25 to $75, depending on size and type); and an assortment of mouse-shaped cheese knives by Ganz.
Other Festival shopping can be found at Birdsville Provisions in the Australia exhibit -- that's where you can pick up a $20 boomerang, then learn all about it with the $7 "Boomerang Book." A variety of Turkish crafts are on hand in that country's exhibit, as well. You can also purchase wines by the bottle in the usual places around World Showcase: at the Weinkeller in the Germany pavilion, Les Vins de France in the France pavilion, and Enoteca il Castello in the Italy pavilion.
TIP: Disney is plugging the use of its Disney Gift Card for purchasing the food and beverage items around the World Showcase. Although there is no special Food and Wine Festival design for the card, it is a handy way to buy your booty. You can buy the gift cards, and "reload" them when they run out of purchasing power, at most Disney shops.
I've commented in years past that the Food and Wine Festival really is lacking when it comes to activities that might appeal to children. This year, if it's possible, they have even LESS. The last several years they have had two recurring exhibits, The Buzz about Honey and Nuts about Peanuts, both of which were normally positioned somewhere in Future World. This year, these two exhibits have returned but have been significantly scaled back and are located in World Showcase Plaza. If memory serves, The Buzz about Honey even featured a type of children's play area, but that aspect of the exhibit is now missing-in-action. Although the program specifically states that there would be hives for the kids to examine, I sure didn't see them -- and I walked past the exhibit at least a dozen times over the course of the weekend. And what happened to the hands-on area sponsored by Mission Foods? I recall that kids could grind corn, or play in an interactive area that had a scale to determine your weight in tortillas. In several press releases leading up to the Festival I saw mention of a teen cooking demonstration, which piqued my interest since I have a teen who will be coming to the Festival when I return in November. Unfortunately, that demo seems to have gone by the wayside -- there's no mention of it in the Festival program, and Cast Members I asked had no clue as to what I was talking about.
Still, there are the Kidcot Fun Stops around Epcot that have a specially themed Food & Wine Fest craft for them to work on. The littlest kids always seem to enjoy that.
Kids will also probably enjoy the Eat to the Beat Concerts at the America Gardens Theater (showtimes are 5:45, 7 and 8:15 p.m.), even if they've never heard of the performers -- and most likely they haven't. During my stay, the featured entertainment was Survivor and The Family Stone. To coin a Food and Wine Festival type of phrase, they weren't my cup of tea, so I didn't go to the shows. However, I will be certain to stop by to have a listen to Chubby Checker when I return. I just wish I could be there to see some of the other former chart-toppers coming up on the schedule, like Little Richard, The Beach Boys, Gloria Gaynor and Three Dog Night.
IF YOU HAVE
If you can only afford one big-ticket culinary experience during this year's Food and Wine Festival, I will, as I have done for the last few years, recommend the Party for the Senses, held at the spacious World ShowPlace, located between the United Kingdom and Canada pavilions. Even though the price has gone up substantially this year ($125 per person plus tax, up from $95 plus tax last year), I still find this event to be one of the most fun evenings you can have at Epcot, or anywhere in Walt Disney World.
Last year about half of the chefs in attendance were from Disney properties -- this year 14 of the 26 chefs present were from Disney kitchens. This, however, is not a complaint, merely an observation. In truth, some of the best offerings I sampled at this year's Party were from Disney chefs. Let me tell you, I have never had a 'lollipop' as delicious as the Black Angus one prepared by Daniel Sicilia of Saratoga (not Sarasota, as the program misstated) Springs Resort's Turf Club Bar and Grill. And the Horseradish-crusted Prime Filet of Beef presented by Le Cellier's Albert Riviello was a close second on my top 10 list of the evening.
Many of the wineries represented this year were familiar to me -- I would venture that anyone who imbibes alcoholic beverages knows about Robert Mondavi, Moet & Chandon, Samuel Adams, and Remy Martin. But some of the new (to me) vineyards also offered some more than palatable potions: Raphael Vineyards from New York; Napa's Etude Wines; Mission Hill Family Estate of Canada; and Pierre Sparr from the Alsace region of France.
Performers from Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba were again on hand to provide entertainment, yet this year the strolling musicians were absent. Piped in music was the order of the evening, and while it was satisfactory, the live music of years gone by was missed.
In past years, the Festival has offered a number of reasonably priced Food & Wine Pairings at several Epcot restaurants. This year, the pairings' price has gone up a modest $5 (to $40 per person plus tax), but they still remain one of the best Festival values. The cost gets you three light courses (usually appetizer, entree, dessert) paired with three different wines, along with the chance to hear from the chef and the winery representatives about the pairings.
A former Festival culinary experience known as "Lunch and Learn" has evolved into two different offerings this year: The Cook, the Book and the Bottle, and Chefs A'Field. In the former event, a highly regarded chef prepares a three-course lunch, paired with complementary wines. In addition, attendees receive a cookbook by the chef, along with a commemorative bottle of wine. The latter program, based on a current PBS television series, features three courses prepared by a chef who has teamed with a local farmer, as well as three different wine pairings. The emphasis in the Chefs A'Field program is clearly on working with the freshest ingredients, with a slant toward organic growing methods, and attendees receive a cookbook and a video of the first season of the PBS series. Each of these two new programs costs about double the price of the original Lunch and Learn series (which was $75 per person plus tax), and have garnered mixed reviews. In addition, the Festival has added two new educational seminars, priced at $45 plus tax -- the Food and Wine in Balance Seminar and the Cheese and Wine Pairing Seminar, both held at Ariel's in the Beach Club resort. Again, these new offerings have been met with mixed reaction.
You'll find reviews on these new events, as well as many other Food & Wine Festival experiences, on AllEarsNet.com in the next few days, as I recover from my food-induced stupor and have the chance to write.
As you can see, even after five years, I still find enough worthwhile to keep returning to the Food and Wine Festival. Yes, I did notice a definite downsizing in many aspects of the six-week-long event -- except in the prices, which have most decidedly increased. But I really don't mean to complain -- the Food and Wine Festival is still my favorite of Walt Disney World's "big" events. I'm even planning to return with my family in a few weeks. And when I do, I will really try to restrain myself and refrain from, yet again, nearly eating myself into oblivion, not to mention the next dress size.
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Epcot's 11th Annual International Food and Wine Festival runs daily through November 12, 2006. Admission to the Festival is included with your park admission, but there are several special events that are an additional (and often hefty) charge. Many events are sold out, but some openings remain, particularly for the Party for the Senses. To make reservations, contact 407-WDW-FEST. And if you're thinking ahead to next year, the dates have already been announced: September 28-November 11, 2007. Remember that reservations for many of the ticketed events go fast -- be sure to watch AllEarsNet and ALL EARS® for an announcement, probably sometime in July, concerning reservations for the 2007 Festival.
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the Food and Wine International Marketplace (Food Booth) Survey!
Tell us what you thought of the samples!
Read the survey ratings HERE.
The AllEarsNet.com Team hopes you enjoy our other reports and photos on the Food & Wine Festival -- click on the links to our reports in the left-hand column of this page!