2011 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival
September 30 - November 13, 2011

Review/Overview

FEATURE ARTICLE

Epcot's 2011 Food and Wine Festival:
Around the World in 180 Bites
by
Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, AllEars®

This article first appeared in the October 4, 2011, issue #628, of
ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


logoIt's that time again -- time for a review and overview of my favorite annual Walt Disney World event, the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.

The festival, which started on September 30 and runs through November 13, has a new theme this year, Passport to a World of Flavors, and a new look, thanks to a partnership with HGTV, which has provided attractive sets for many of the festival's programs held in the Festival Center (that's the old Wonders of Life pavilion to you and me).

As in years past, the festival offerings run the gamut from the basic (such as the tastes you can find at the 30 international marketplaces dotting the perimeter of World Showcase Lagoon) to the very erudite (such as the $495 per person Signature Dinner held at Victoria and Albert's -- which is already sold out, by the way).

It's my job to give you a taste, if you will, of what you'll find should you be lucky enough to make it to the World during this year's festival, and help you navigate the sometimes overwhelming number of choices offered to you. I can't cover it all, as much as I tried, but I hope it gives you a flavor of what to expect.

Not a foodie? Don't worry. You don't have to covet caviar, cherish chervil, or relish radicchio to enjoy the Food and Wine Festival. There is, quite literally, something for every palate, novice or gourmand.

Let me take you "Around the World" of this year's festival -- you won't even need your passport!

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INTERNATIONAL
MARKETPLACES
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There are 30 "International Marketplaces" (commonly referred to as food booths) ringing the World Showcase Lagoon, with "tapas-sized" (which means smallish) portions and accompanying beverage samples, ranging in price from a few dollars to $7.25 (the lobster roll).

It seems that many of the booths have stepped up their game this year, offering a number of innovative dishes that go beyond the foods we've come to expect over the years. Don't panic! You will still find many of the old standbys like Cheddar Cheese Soup and Maple Glazed Salmon at the Canada booth, but you can also discover notable new entries at booths like France, which this year added Coq au Vin to its usual suspects of escargots and chocolate creme brulee. This is such a good thing. One of my criticisms over the last several years is that so many of the booths played it safe, with food items that visitors were sure to find appealing. You know, some sort of pasta and cannoli at the Italy booth, pierogis at the Poland booth. This year, I noticed some of the marketplaces getting a little more adventurous, to my delight. I must confess that over the course of four days I did not manage to sample every single offering, but I did make a valiant effort and humbly offer my opinions.

jerk-spiced-chicken-drumstickTHE WINNERS:

The Jerk-Spiced Chicken Drumstick with Mango Salsa at the new Caribbean booth -- I thought this might be too sweet and/or spicy for me, but it struck just the right notes of both sweetness and heat. This was the surprise of the food booths for me, and I give it two slightly greasy thumbs up.

The Seared Filet of Beef with Smashed Sweet Potatoes and Braai Sauce at the returning South Africa booth -- All I can say is, "Mmmm, good." A tender slice of beef on a bed of savory sweet potatoes, with tantalizing flavors of curry permeating throughout. This was definitely one of my faves this year, based on flavor alone. I mean, it wasn't as unattractive a dish as the Swedish Meatballs, but it wasn't exactly photogenic, either. But it WAS oh-so-tasty!

NOT-SO-MUCH:

calamari-saladThe Calamari Salad with Fennel, Smoked Paprika and Olive Oil from the new Portugal booth -- I'll admit that I'm not really a fan of either calamari or smoked anything, but I felt I needed to at least try this bold new effort. Presentation-wise, it was a win, very visually appealing. But as far as my tastebuds were concerned, this dish was an epic fail. Those of you who consider yourselves calamari connoisseurs will have to let me know what you think -- maybe it's just me.

The Feijoada (black bean and pork stew) from the Brazil booth -- Ho hum. And not a shred of pork to be found.

Not to dwell on the negative, I want to be quick to report that I tried lots of other foods that ranged from very good to awesome: I can heartily recommend the Kalua Pork Slider from the new Hawaii booth, the returning Chicken Chipotle Sausage with Polenta in Canada, the Shrimp on the Barbie in Australia, the Swedish Meatballs with Lingonberries in Scandinavia and that same booth's dessert, the Rice Pudding with berries. Yum.

If you're going to tackle testing the international marketplaces, though, remember a few key things: The lines are really, PAINFULLY long on the weekends, so go during the week if you can. If you MUST go on a weekend, be standing right at the entrance to World Showcase when it opens at 11 a.m., grab one or two dishes from the booths in the World Showcase Plaza area, then move quickly further inward toward the American Adventure. (Go to either the Mexico side or the Canada side first -- I prefer starting at Mexico.) The lines at the booths in the back of World Showcase will be nearly non-existent until noon or 12:30, and you can cover a lot of territory before then. Just remember to pace yourself so you don't get too full too soon. I speak from recent experience.

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SPECIAL PROGRAMS
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Unfortunately for me (and for you too if you were at the festival for opening weekend), there were a number of new programs that were NOT offered during my stay. For example, I would have LOVED to try the new "Discovery of Chocolate" program, but it's only being offered October 9, 16 and November 6, none of which are dates I'll be in town. (It's also sold out already, all three dates!) Also not offered this past weekend were the "3D" Disney's Dessert Discovery, Epcot Wine School, Party for the Senses, or the superb Gran Marnier tasting known as "Taste, Shake and Indulge Like the French." Perhaps I should have rethought my decision to attend the opening weekend of the festival. Also, I was unable to try out some of the new events at the Italy Pavilion (a beer and pizza pairing at Via Napoli and a dessert and wine pairing at Tutto Italia) as they are only offered mid-week. But don't cry for me, Argentina. There were a number of other special events I was able to attend -- probably too many, if you ask my ever-expanding waistline!

THE WINNERS:

Kitchen Memories -- Even though the name has changed for this three-course lunch prepared by some very well-respected chefs, the format is basically the same. (It was called Friends and Family in the Kitchen last year.) And why shouldn't it be? The concept works. I was lucky enough to enjoy a presentation made by Victoria and Albert's Scott Hunnel and Erich Herbitschek, with wine pairing and commentary by master sommelier and former Disney chef Brian Koziol. I knew I was in for a treat before I attended, but I didn't realize how wonderful the experience would be. Looking ahead at the list of upcoming chefs -- among them, Robert Irvine, Suvir Saran, Art Smith -- I think this program is bound to be money well spent, always.

rosita-margaritaTequila Lunch at La Hacienda -- Having attended one of the very first Tequila Tastings held at the Mexico pavilion's La Cava del Tequila a few years ago, I was eager to see what this lunch would be like. Tequila expert Hilda Castillo was again my host through the exploration of three tequilas, which were paired with three delicious courses. My only complaint? The whole thing was way too rushed. You're greeted at the door with a margarita, then sample three different tequilas, followed by a tequila liqueur, all within the span of an hour. I think 90 minutes would have been much more appropriate, allowing us not only to savor the experience a bit more, but also to absorb all that alcohol! Still, this program is a great addition to the festival's roster.

NOT-SO-MUCH:

The First Bites Reception -- Held the evening before the festival officially begins, the premise of this event is that it gives you a sneak preview of everything the 45-day festival has to offer. It's an ambitious undertaking, and while I felt that things went much more smoothly this year -- the reception's second -- I still am not convinced that it achieves its goal. Maybe I'm doing something wrong, but I find that I simply cannot sample all the different foods and beverages AND listen to the presentations to a degree that makes me feel like I'm getting my money's worth. Yes, the price has dropped a little from last year ($175, down from $195), but I still find that a bit on the high side for what you get. I know I sound rather Scrooge-ish saying this, but I just don't think I get the best bang for my buck at First Bites, when there are so many other delicious doings to spend my cash on at the festival.

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CULINARY DEMOS/
BEVERAGE SEMINARS
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chef-tj-culinary-demoThese 45-minute to one-hour long events, which take place in the Festival Center are still some of the best bargains of the festival's many paid events. Ranging in price from $10 to $13 (with some slightly discounted for Tables in Wonderland members), these programs are both informative and entertaining, offering participants the chance to watch and interact with incredible chefs (and in some cases celebrity chefs, like Keegan Gerhard and Robert Irvine) while they prepare dishes or listen to experts expound on the challenges of wine-making, while at the same time sampling the wares.

This year I had the opportunity to attend a variety of these presentations, both those formats that were tried and true, as well as a few completely new offerings.

THE WINNERS:  

Well, actually, they were all winners in my opinion. But I especially loved the new Scent Demonstration, which, unfortunately for those of you who weren't in attendance on October 2, was a one-time affair this year. I'll have a review with photos of the program on AllEars.Net later in the week, but I have to say that this opportunity to learn a bit about the science of scent and how it affects the way we experience our food only left me hungry for a more expanded program  -- something the presenter Chandler Burr calls a "Scent Dinner." Next year, I hope such a dinner is on Epcot's Festival menu.

eric-hayI also really enjoyed the new Mixology Seminar, offered daily this year at 6 p.m. As with so many of these sorts of demonstrations, I realize that the presenter is often the key to its success or failure. Happily, the Mixology Seminar I attended was hosted by Eric Hay, Beverage Development Manager at Wirtz Beverage, who was a great presenter and not only made three different cocktails, but taught us the hows and whys behind the recipes, as well as explaining a bit about the tools of the mixologist's trade. It was a really enjoyable program that I think I'll try again later in the festival.

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OTHER SPECIAL
EXPERIENCES
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One of the things I most enjoy about the Food and Wine Festival is the opportunity to experience new delicacies, wines and spirits from another country or culture. And so I really like when the Epcot festival branches out and brings in new and unusual things that I would otherwise never see or learn about. This year I found a few things that really appealed to my novelty-loving side.

cranberry-bogTHE WINNERS:  

The Cranberry Bog hosted by Ocean Spray -- Yes, a real live cranberry bog, just like in the commercials! How cool is that? It's located right in the middle of Epcot, in between Mousegear and Club Cool, just before the walkway that leads you into World Showcase. Cast members knee-deep in bright red berries will tell you everything you want or need to know about the cranberry growing and harvesting process, and they even hold cranberry tastings there. Especially fun for the kids!

Authentic Taste -- Each year the festival holds a series of these free 30-minute presentations on basic cooking ingredients, spotlighting their characteristics and history. This year I had the chance to get a "taste" of the POSH Salt presentation, an informative look at how you can "food your salt" rather than simply "salt your food." Looking ahead, I see the topics include ingredients such as butter, mushrooms, and vanilla. These are definitely worth spending some time at -- and did I mention that they're free? Because of that, though, you'll have to line up well ahead of the start time, so be sure to consult the schedule and plan your day accordingly if there's a session you especially want to see.

vern-yipNOT SO MUCH:

HGTV Home Entertaining Seminar -- As I mentioned earlier, Disney has partnered this year for the Food and Wine Festival with HGTV, the network devoted to home improvements and decorating. Each weekend, an HGTV personality will be appearing, ostensibly offering tips on entertaining in the home. This first week, the celebrity speaker was Vern Yip, known for HGTV's Design Star (and also for his former work on a show on another network called "Trading Spaces"). As charming and personable as Yip is, he spent the first 15-plus minutes of his presentation talking about himself -- which I'm sure his many fans in the audience enjoyed. But I was there for genuine tips, and Yip spent only the last 15 minutes or so of his talk going over some fairly obvious entertaining pointers. (Dim the lights to set the mood? Really?) I hope that upcoming speakers are less focused on fluff and more on content.

 

Is your mouth watering yet? Would you like to read more about these and the other special culinary events that are a part of this fabulous food fest? Well, I'm out of space here, but remember to check AllEars.Net later this week, and throughout the festival's 40-plus remaining days. My fellow festival fans and I will be writing up in-depth reviews of the very special events we've attended (or will be attending) and we can't wait to share the details, along with many, many photos and some video.

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VITAL INFO
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Epcot's 16th Annual International Food and Wine Festival runs daily through November 13, 2011. Admission to the festival is included with your park admission, but there are several dining events that are an additional charge. To make reservations for events such as Party for the Senses, contact 407-WDW-FEST. Some reservations can also be made online. Visit Disney's official site at www.disneyworld.com/foodandwine

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RELATED LINKS
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Watch for other event reviews a lot more photos on AllEars.Net this coming week! But until then you can read a quick recap of Deb Koma's first 36 hours at the festival.

If you're new to the festival this year be sure to read Deb Koma's Food and Wine Festival Primer. Even though it was published in 2009 most of her tips and suggestions still apply.

Also be sure to read Andrew Rossi's Tips for First-Timers here:

2011 Food and Wine Festival General Information

2011 Food Booth and Price Guide

2011 Food Booth Exteriors

2011 Festival Merchandise

Have you been to the Festival already? Share your experiences with others! Visit our Rate and Review section to provide your thoughts on the events.

And complete our International Marketplace survey HERE.

See the results of that survey HERE.

For additional coverage of this year's Food and Wine Festival, be sure to visit our friends over at the Disney Food Blog.