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Rate and Review
2012 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival
September 28 - November 12, 2012
Tasting My Way Around the World
by Debra Martin Koma
AllEars® Senior Editor
This article appeared in the October 9, 2012 Issue #681 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Did you know that I wrote about the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival for the first time in 2002? That means this is the 11th year that I am covering this fantastic event. I am emphatically NOT complaining. It has been and remains my very favorite event during the Walt Disney World calendar year.
This year's festival, which started on September 28 and runs through November 12, carries the tagline "Taste Your Way Around the World," continuing on from last year's "Passport to a World of Flavors" theme. The 46-day event features many of its by-now standard programs, such as Party for the Senses, Signature Dinners, International Marketplaces, Food and Wine Pairings, Sweet Sundays, and Cheese Seminars. But for those of us who await this annual food fest with bated breath and plan entire vacations around it, there are also a few new offerings like the Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour.
Because my time at the festival is always so limited, that's what I tried to focus on this year -- the new things. That's not to say that I avoided my old faves completely, of course. I simply couldn't do that, so please -- follow along and "Taste Your Way Around the World" with me as I share some of the highlights of my recent and all-too-quick trip to the 17th Annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.
One of the festival's mainstays is the collection of "International Marketplaces" (or food booths, if you prefer) that circle the World Showcase Lagoon. This year there are 29 of those quirky kiosks, serving up small plates and beverage samples that range in price from a couple bucks to $7.50 (the lobster roll at the Hops and Barley booth).
Terra -- As you walk into Epcot's World Showcase Plaza from Future World you'll encounter one of the first new food booths -- Terra, the festival's first completely vegan marketplace. I sampled both of the meatless main dishes at this booth -- the Trick'n Chick'n Curry with Basmati Rice and the Chili Colorado -- and thought they were both outstanding. It may sound patronizing, but really, these dishes could almost make you
believe that they were made of real chicken and real beef tips, respectively. (The Chocolate Cake with Passion Fruit Sorbet and Coconut Foam was not being served the first few days of the festival because, as I eventually found out from Epcot Executive Chef Jens Dahlmann, they were unable to maintain it at a proper temperature in the excessive heat. I'm told that they have since started serving the dessert, though.)
Florida Local -- The other new marketplace this year is the Florida Local booth, serving Florida Shrimp Ceviche with Fire Roasted Vegetables, Fried Plantain and Cilantro, and White Corn Arepa with Mangalitsa Pork Rillette and Zellwood Sweet Corn Salad. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, which was surprising given the conditions under which they were prepared, and the vegetables in sauce had a nice spice to them. The accompanying plantain, though, was bland, and a bit greasy, adding nothing to the dish. Still, I'd rate the ceviche itself worth a taste. The pork dish, on the other hand, did not impress me at all -- I found the arepa, a corn cake, to be dry and almost flavorless, and did not bring out the flavors of the rillette (a sort of pate) at all.
Still, as I have noted the past few years, many of the marketplaces appear to be upping their game, serving dishes that are a bit more adventurous than before. Take for example the Poland marketplace -- yes, it still offers the traditional kielbasa and potato pierogi, but this year is also offering something new. Called Zapiekanki, it's a toasted mushroom, caramelized onion and cheese bread with housemade ketchup that is a popular street food in Poland.
Other booths have also shaken things up: the usual lamb chop in Australia is accented with a mint pesto this year, making it my absolute favorite marketplace item of the festival (so far!). Last year's lamb sliders at the New Zealand booth have transformed into tasty little meatballs, and China has exchanged its black pepper shrimp and barbecued chicken on a stick for Mongolian beef with Chinese steamed bun and chicken satay with spiced peanut sauce. Also, the steamed mussels in Belgium now sport a beer broth instead of cream sauce, and, in perhaps the biggest break with tradition, the Canada marketplace has foregone its maple-glazed salmon for Le Cellier Filet with mushrooms. I'd say that the food booth visitor was the definite winner in that gamble.
If you're going to tackle testing the international marketplaces, allow me to share my tried and true tip again this year: The lines are really, PAINFULLY long on the weekends, so go during the week if you can. If you MUST go on a weekend, enter World Showcase the instant it opens at 11 a.m. (Sunday's quieter than Saturday), grab one or two dishes from the booths in the World Showcase Plaza area, then move quickly further inward toward the American Adventure. (Start with either side, Mexico or Canada.) The lines at the booths in the back of World Showcase will be nearly non-existent until noon or 12:30. Just remember to pace yourself so you don't get too full too soon. Yes, I speak from experience.
While I'm talking about tasting my way around the marketplaces, I need to mention a new tour that I was lucky enough to experience.
Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour -- This program promised a walking tour "around the world" through the International Marketplaces, hosted by a festival chef, and boy, did it deliver. Along with a group of about a dozen others, I had the good fortune to spend two hours walking around World Showcase trying an assortment of the marketplace food and beverage items with running commentary provided by Epcot Executive Chef Jens Dahlmann. Unfortunately for most of you, this tour's remaining dates are already sold out -- but if you're curious about this exciting new program, you can read my review HERE in anticipation of next year!
From the Bean to the Bar Hosted by Ghirardelli Chocolate Company -- This new chocolate experience, found in the rear of the Festival Center, could have been so much more than it was. What was it? Well, cast members were offering guests a small square of complimentary Ghirardelli chocolate upon entry, and there was a bar at which you could purchase (for $2.75) a small cup of lukewarm drinking chocolate -- like drinking a melted chocolate bar, it was a little taste of heaven on Earth! And there were some truly impressive chocolate sculptures in cases around the room. The attention to detail was amazing, and if you go be sure to check out the Finding Nemo-themed creation. But the historical timeline on the evolution of the chocolate industry in general and the Ghirardelli company in particular was dry and uninteresting, and there was certainly nothing that screamed "chocolatey fun" at me. Even the sculptures, which would have at least been of some interest to kids, were so dimly lit, and behind high-glare glass so that they were difficult to see -- plus they were at such a height that small children had to be hoisted on your hip to have a peek at them. In the end, this exhibit amounted to not much more than an advertisement for Ghirardelli, with an opportunity to purchase a number of their delectable sweet treats. In addition, located as it was at the entrance of the new Chase Lounge, it was often filled with a long queue of visitors just waiting to get into the private area, making navigation difficult.
And let's talk about the Chase Lounge. This small walled off area, open to anyone with any sort of Chase debit or credit card, is a great addition to the Festival Center. A brilliant idea, in fact. But apparently its popularity was way underestimated. I visited several times over the course of my stay, and it was always overcrowded with long lines waiting to enter. On the plus side, though, it offers guests complimentary beverages and -- HURRAY -- a charging station, with a variety of power cords, for electronic devices. Also, if you visit the lounge early enough in the day, they dispense a limited supply of wristbands that entitle you to a special viewing area for the Eat the Beat concerts and IllumiNations. (Early-bird Disney Visa cardholders may also get a special bonus for showing their cards, while supplies last.)
Sampling at the Festival Center Wine Shop -- Another great idea this year is the return of actual FREE wine samples available several times throughout the day at the Festival Center Wine Shop provided by participating beverages companies. The lines were a little long, but this was a nice treat, and clearly is a great way to convince casual shoppers to purchase a bottle or two.
Watermelon Patch hosted by The National Watermelon Promotion Board -- Last year's big novelty was The Cranberry Bog hosted by Ocean Spray, situated just before the entrance to World Showcase. The bog has returned this year and is just as cool as ever. But its new competition in World Showcase is actually no competition at all. The Watermelon Patch is a nice display located at the entrance of World Showcase, between the two shops, but there is no hands-on activity associated with it that I could see and no mention of "Mr. Food," who early press had indicated would be present to offer tips and fun facts.
Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts prohibited me from tasting my way into any of the offerings in the Italy pavilion, like the new Italian Regional Lunches, but I did have a chance to catch up with some other returning programs. A few highlights:
Discovery of Grand Marnier -- I attended this program two years ago when it was first offered (under the moniker "Taste Shake and Indulge Like the French") at Bistro de Paris in the France pavilion. This renamed program is now operating in a new location, the Festival Center, while its previous home undergoes renovations. The new surroundings have done nothing to do erode the charms of this presentation, which allows you to taste various Grand Marnier products, followed by a few desserts inspired and infused with the orange-flavored cognac. This program is only offered once more during the on October 21. I'll have a full review of my experience on AllEars.Net soon.
Culinary Demos/Beverage Seminars -- Although these short presentations (usually under an hour) have increased in price by a dollar ($11 and $14 this year, with some discounts for Disney Vacation Club and Tables in Wonderland members), they remain one of the best bargains of the festival. Where else do you have the opportunity to soak up wisdom from fantastic chefs and winemakers from around the world (and in some cases visiting celebrities like Iron Chef Cat Cora) while sampling the wares? I had the opportunity to attend several of these demos and came away feeling that I'd gotten my money's worth while learning some valuable tips. You can book these sessions online as well as by phone, and sometimes even the day of at the information desk in the Festival Center. If you're on a budget and aren't sure some of the big-ticket festival events are for you, I highly recommend trying at least one of these programs.
Mixology Sessions -- A new program last year, I am happy to report that the Mixology Sessions have returned to their 6 p.m. nightly slot in the Festival Center. I was only able to make one Mixology class during this trip (they feature the same liqueur and presenter three or four days at a time), but Lindsay Skillman, a mixologist from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, made it worth my while. With her easy manner, Skillman both entertained and informed as she concocted three mixed drinks for the audience, which we then had the chance to sample. Thanks to her, I'll be shopping for a caraway-flavored spirit called Helbing Kummel for the holidays this year.
Food and Wine Pairings -- Way back when, I was lucky enough to enjoy Food and Wine Pairings at restaurants like Le Cellier and Coral Reef, but always missed the mid-week offerings at some of the other restaurants. This year, I was finally able to make it to the Food and Wine Pairing at Restaurant Marrakesh in Morocco. Am I ever glad that I did! Chef M'Barek presented us with some amazing Middle Eastern flavors over three courses, which were paired with a range of wines from Moroccan to Californian to French. I'll be writing a review for this experience for AllEars.Net this week.
Eat to the Beat Concert Series -- I have to admit that Night Ranger and Sugar Ray (the two acts appearing on stage for this concert series during my stay) are not my favorite bands, but you certainly can't complain about these mini-concerts held nightly at the America Gardens Theater. Even when the acts are not my speed, I always make time to stop and listen for a few minutes -- just for a taste, if you will. You can't beat live entertainment, and I'm grateful that the festival organizers continue to bring such a great variety every fall.
So let's see. So far, I brought you along as I tasted my way around the World Showcase promenade, as well as in the pavilions and the Festival Center... I haven't even gotten to the Signature Dinners and lots of the other programs!
If you want to read more about these and the other special culinary events that are a part of the Food and Wine Festival, remember to check AllEars.Net later this week, and throughout the festival's 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.
About the Author: Debra Martin Koma, AllEars.Net's Senior Editor, fell in love with Walt Disney World on her first visit there -- when she was 35! She's lost count of how often she's returned to her Laughing Place in the ensuing years, but knows that she still isn't tired of it. (And doubts she ever will be.)
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Epcot's 17th Annual International Food and Wine Festival runs daily through November 12, 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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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.
Kristin Ford shares ideas for kids and families at the festival:
Alice Miller shares tweens and teens tips for the Food and Wine festival:
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.
Remember to rate the items you've tried at the International Marketplaces in our survey:
For an updated photo gallery of some of this year's International Marketplace food items:
For photos taken around Epcot:
For additional coverage of this year's Food and Wine Festival, be sure to visit our friends over at the Disney Food Blog.