Each year, as the middle of the summer approaches, my thoughts start to turn to... no, not time at the beach, or an exotic vacation abroad. My thoughts turn to what the autumn brings -- the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World! (Yeah, I'm kinda odd like that!)
I love the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot -- as my waistline can attest. It's a six-week-long event filled with so many diverse experiences: a chance to sample food and beverages from around the world presented both in fancy dinners and informal tastings, celebrity chefs, cooking demonstrations, seminars, not to mention an impressive array of live entertainment. This year's festival, Epcot's 16th, starts September 30 and runs through November 13, sporting the theme of "A Passport to a World of Flavors." I recently had the chance to speak with Marianne Hunnel, who as Event Content Development Manager, is responsible for overseeing much of what goes on during this culinary cornucopia of eating and drinking events.
"It's so much fun to find these little discoveries and then share them with our guests," Hunnel enthuses, as she talks about what's new at this year's festival. "This year especially I'm excited to see the hard work of so many people showcased -- things that we have been talking about for several years have finally come to fruition, and it's very exciting to watch that happen."
So what are the new things that Hunnel is most excited about?
You may know that for the duration of the festival, a couple dozen food booths, known as International Marketplaces, are placed around Epcot's World Showcase Lagoon. Each of these marketplaces represents a country or a region and offers small portions of dishes indigenous to the area, along with native beverages as well. In the Italy marketplace, for example, you may find ravioli and chianti, while in Morocco you might find a kebab and mint iced tea.
This year, there are several areas that have never been represented at the festival before: Portugal, Hawaii (inspired by the new Hawaiian Disney Vacation Club, Aulani) and the Caribbean.
The Caribbean marketplace will feature a braised beef dish over rice called Ropa Vieja, as well as Jerk-Spiced Chicken Drumstick. Beverages in this booth will be tropical -- a frozen Rock Coconut Mojito and a frozen Dragon Berry Colada. (One of the sponsors here is Bacardi.)
Hawaii also will not have a "wine presence," but will instead offer Kona beer and a rum-based Seven Tiki Mai Tai to accompany its tuna poke (cubes of tuna sashimi, aka uncooked) with seaweed and Kalua pork sliders. Note: don't confuse Kalua with the liqueur Kahlua -- Kalua is the barbecue method used to cook the pork!
Portugal's booth will offer a wine bar, as well as calamari salad with olives and smoked paprika.
"We've been talking to people in Portugal about doing this for many years," Hunnel explains. "They've wanted to break out of that paradigm, that Portugal just has port wines. I'm excited to see this come about."
Hunnel notes that even returning marketplaces are going to be changing things up a bit -- in France, for example, they're going to offer Coq Au Vin.
"We talked to the managers and chefs at our operating participants," she says, "and they're doing a lot of other fun new things, too, including quite a few new dining events that they've not done in the past."
("Operating participants," by the way, are those locations around World Showcase that are not owned and operated by Disney, including the restaurants in Mexico, France and Italy.)
In France, for example, they will again be holding the French Regional Lunches as they have done the past few years, but they are also introducing a dining experience called, "The Best of Bocuse." Hunnel says this dinner will be "all about Paul Bocuse," the famous French chef who had a hand in developing the restaurants in the France pavilion. Mexico will not only continue with its popular Tequila Tastings in the La Cava tequila bar, but will add a tequila tasting plus lunch at its new La Hacienda. Not to be outdone, the Italy pavilion will offer beer and pizza tastings from 2 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays in its newest restaurant Via Napoli, as well as an Italian dessert and wine pairing, and a special dining event on October 23 featuring Italian white truffles.
If it seems like you're reading about more than wine at some of these programs you're not imagining things. The last few years there has been a growing shift to include spirits at the festival as well as beers, especially hand-crafted beers. This year that trend continues, with mixed drinks also being added to many marketplace menus.
"There has been such an incredible spin in the food and beverage world regarding beer," Hunnel notes. "It's almost being treated similar to wines now -- there are even certifications you can get for learning about the various beers."
To follow that trend, Hunnel says that they are featuring eight craft beers from around North America in one of the marketplace booths. Brews from Canada, Lousiana, New Hampshire and Colorado will be included. But if crave an imported ale or lager, fear not -- you'll still find plenty of international beers at other marketplaces like Germany.
If beer and wine aren't to your liking, but you're still interested in an alcoholic beverage, you might want to swing by the Scandinavian marketplace, where they'll be featuring a Xante Sunshine Cocktail -- an aromatic concoction of pear liqueur made from cognac, lime juice and elder flower. Or maybe you'd prefer the sparkling sake from South Korea that will be offered at the First Bites reception and some of the beverage seminars. Or there's always the mixology seminars that will be offered each evening at 6 p.m. in the Festival Center.
But wait... there's more! (I sound like an infomercial, but it's true!) The special dining experiences will extend beyond the borders of Epcot, and spill out into restaurants around the Walt Disney World Resort. There will be an assortment of dinners at several of the Downtown Disney restaurants -- Bongo's, Wolfgang Puck -- as well as dinners at The Wave, Victoria and Albert's and two opportunities to partake of exclusive dinners at California Grill. Over on the BoardWalk, Cat Cora's Kouzzina will host a number of special events as well, many attended by the Iron Chef America champion herself.
Speaking of celebrity chefs, they will be out in force this year -- names you might recognize if you're a fan of Top Chef or any of the cooking-themed Food Network and Travel Channel shows include Alan Wong, Robert Irvine, Art Smith, Suvir Saran, Jamie Deen, and Keegan Gerhard. In fact, Gerhard is returning to host the kick-off for the festival, its "First Bites Reception," held the evening before the festival officially begins in the Festival Center (formerly known as the Wonders of Life pavilion). Buddy "Cake Boss" Valastro is also appearing at this year's festival. He'll be hosting a culinary demo on October 8 and a Sweet Sunday event on October 9. Other famous names you might spot in the festival's program are Andrew Zimmern, Bryan Voltaggio and Chris Cosentino, three chefs who are also dads, who will be sharing the spotlight with their offspring for a special event in the Festival Center to be held on October 29.
"This event comes under the umbrella of Disney's 'Magic of Healthy Living'," Hunnel explains. "These chefs were tasked with creating an incredible, healthy meal paired with a non-alcoholic cocktail. I've always wanted to do a very family-oriented event like this, and these kids cooking with their dads should be special."
Does it seem like I'm overusing the word "special"? Well, maybe I am, because there are a lot of new and unique offerings this year, and the word just fits. Take for example another "special" new event -- The Discovery of Chocolate. Offered on three Sundays (October 9 and 16, and November 6), this is a tasting that explores the many forms our favorite cacao bean can take.
"Each of these tastings is going to be very different," Hunnel asserts. "You'll have the chance to listen to experts talk about the origins of chocolate, while tasting different types -- maybe Mexican versus Belgian, or white, milk and different types of dark chocolate. You'll be tasting them with a cocktail or maybe wine, and at the end of the program you'll have the chance to try two tapas-sized dishes made with chocolate, one savory and one sweet."
Mmm, chocolate! I can hardly wait for that one!
In addition to all the new culinary programs, the Food and Wine Festival is pairing with HGTV for the first time this year to bring a series of entertaining programs on... entertaining. Well-known HGTV personalities like Vern Yip and Lisa LaPorta will be appearing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Festival Center, presenting home entertaining seminars with plenty of tips for the upcoming holidays. These seminars will take place at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays.
And finally, kids might enjoy checking out the Cranberry Bog (sponsored by Ocean Spray) that's going to be on display near the World Showplace. I'm anxious to see this myself after seeing the latest batch of commercials featuring those two guys standing out in a bog. I wonder if we'll be able to wade in it ourselves?
Whew. I think that's all that's NEW this year, but that doesn't even take into account all the returning programs. For example, the First Bites Reception, Sweet Sundays, 3D Delicious Dessert Discoveries, Grand Marnier and Tequila Tastings, Cheese Seminars, Signature Dining Experiences, French Regional Lunches, Food and Wine Pairings in Morocco and Japan, Wine Schools -- these are all returning this year. Also returning is the Friends and Family in the Kitchen series, renamed Kitchen Memories. (Hunnel's husband Scott, of Victoria and Albert's fame, will be featured the first weekend in that series, by the way.) And of course, what would the Food and Wine Festival be without the Party for the Senses, the signature Saturday night grand tasting event? These will be back, but not, unfortunately for every Saturday of the festival. There will be no Party on the first Saturday, October 1, nor will there be one on October 29.
Complimenting all the eating and drinking is the chance to make merry with the Eat to the Beat Concerts. This year, there are a number returning acts, like Hanson and Howard Jones (who I WILL see this year, I promise!), as well as new-to-the-series performers like The Pointer Sisters and The Orchestra (which is former members of ELO).
Now I know you're all wondering what all the details are -- times, dates, prices, how to book, etc. Unfortunately, these sorts of details are still being finalized, so Hunnel couldn't really be specific about everything.
"We hope to get everything online by the beginning of August, if not sooner," she says. "But we want to make sure we have everything accurate -- we know how people plan their trips around a certain event or chef, and we don't want to disappoint anyone by announcing something too soon."
So... we have to be patient a little while longer.
Hope I've given you something to mull over while you're sitting on the beach, or taking that vacation abroad this summer, and dreams of the Food and Wine Festival are dancing through your head.
Remember 407-WDW-FEST -- that's the number to call beginning at 7 a.m. on August 16 to make reservations.
The previous post in this blog was Theme Park Snapshot - July 6, 2011 Epcot .
The next post in this blog is Untamed! Lunch with an Animal Specialist at Sanaa.