So, here it is, the beginning of August -- how did that happen? As the summer winds down (to my dismay), it's nice to know that the chefs at Walt Disney World are already prepping for my favorite time on their special events calendar -- the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.
Many details for the festival have been released over the past few days, a sure sign that this annual event, the 17th, is just around the corner. In fact, it starts in just under 60 days, on September 28, and runs through November 12 -- 46 days this year. (Turns out that last day is Veteran's Day -- so why not take advantage of an extra day off?)
In anticipation of the coming reservations "D-Day" (7 a.m. on Tuesday, August 14), Marianne Hunnel, the event's content development manager, recently took time from her rapidly dwindling countdown to talk with me about this year's Festival. I also attended a "sneak preview" of the Festival, hosted by Tables in Wonderland, this past Saturday, during which I was able to sample some of the new tastes that will be introduced at this year's International Marketplaces. I know this is all a lot to digest (if you'll pardon the pun), but bear with me -- if you love the Festival as much as I do, it's all info you'll want to know!
Hunnel notes that last year's theme, "A Passport to a World of Flavors," has evolved into this year's "Taste Your Way around the World."
"We like that travel element," she admits. "Last year's passport got you here, and this year we think we're taking you to some more adventuresome places."
I like adventure! So just what do Marianne and her team of event planners have planned for us? For starters, there will be two new International Marketplaces included in World Showcase -- one featuring the fresh cuisine of Florida, the other an all-new vegan outlet dubbed "Terra."
It's this latter addition that is creating a buzz among the Food and Wine Festival regulars I've been talking to. Terra (Latin for "earth") will highlight products from the Gardein line of vegan foods, as well as beverages that also use no animal products.
"We have heard from lots of guests over the years who were looking for vegetarian and vegan options at the marketplaces," Hunnel explains. "There were some items in previous years that were vegetarian, but we have gone to great lengths to make sure that everything in the Terra marketplace is vegan -- that is, animal products were not used to produce these items in any way."
The Terra marketplace will offer two savory vegan dishes, both specially created for the festival: Trick'n Chick'n Curry with Basmati Rice featuring Gardein Chick'n Breast, and Chili Colorado with House Made Chips & Cashew Cheese, featuring Gardein Beefless Tips.
The Chili was presented as an appetizer at the Tables in Wonderland event, paired with a vegan wine, Paul Dolan Pinot Noir.
I guess it's hard to see from this photo, but when I tell you that no one at my table could believe that the "meat" in the dish was not really beef, I am not exaggerating. Some even thought they detected a bit of "fat" as they chewed. The texture and flavor were nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.
And speaking as someone who is not ordinarily a fan of pinot, I found the wine (which I'm told is from a sustainable, organic vineyard in Mendocino County) to be an excellent pairing, offsetting the spiciness of the chili perfectly. [An aside: If being vegan means not using any animal products, how can a wine, which is essentially just grapes, NOT be vegan? Some wines use materials known as "fining agents" to fine, or clarify, the wine. They remove materials that might otherwise stay in suspension in the wine, and in some cases can alter the flavor or color. These fining agents may be derived from animal products, such as gelatin, albumen (egg white) and casein (milk protein). Wines that use these types of fining agent are therefore not vegan. The Paul Dolan wines ARE.]
This experience left me really eager to try the other savory item, the Trick’n Chick’n Curry with Basmati Rice -- here's Disney's photo of it:
The booth will also have a Chocolate Cake with Passion Fruit Sorbet and Coconut Foam that sounds fabulous, and a Berry Smoothie, made with Silk, the almond milk.
The other new marketplace, Florida Local, "focuses on the fresh and exciting things the state of Florida has to share," says Hunnel.
It was also well-represented at the preview, as both of its menu items featured as part of the buffet reception. The colorful Florida Shrimp Ceviche with Fire Roasted Vegetables, Fried Plantains and Cilantro was a treat for both the eyes and the tastebuds. Fresh, plump shrimp were tossed with a very rich red sauce, accented by the aromatic cilantro -- definitely a WIN! as I have scrawled in my notes.
I'm not quite as enthusiastic about the other Florida Local item, White Corn Arepa with Mangalitsa Pork Rilette and Zellwood Sweet Corn Salad. Two bites of the dry, heavy corn cake stuffed with a rather bland, stringy pork filling was enough for me, I'm sorry to say.
The Florida Local marketplace will also offer some locally produced beverages, including Florida Beer Company's Florida Lager and Key West Southernmost Wheat, as well as Florida Orange Grove Key Limen wine. Yes, a lime-flavored wine, which Hunnel says is very refreshing, and pairs perfectly with the shrimp. It's also great with a splash of club soda as a wine spritzer, she notes. I didn't get to sample it at the Tables in Wonderland preview, but I might give it a try come September.
Other new food items that will be debuting at the International Marketplaces that I had the chance to sample at the preview:
-- Lamb Meatballs with Spicy Tomato Chutney -- These tasty morsels are a great replacement for the popular lamb slider the New Zealand marketplace has been featuring the past few years. They have that whole spicy/tangy/sweet/savory thing going on and I think that everyone is going to literally "eat them up!"
-- Seared Mahi Mahi with Jasmine Rice and "Singa" Sauce -- I guess this is an improvement over the Shrimp Cake that last year's Singapore booth featured. But still, my piece of this usually succulent white fish was dry, oversalted and chewy. The jasmine rice was outstanding, however.
-- "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce -- This is something new for the Canada marketplace, taking the spot of the perennial favorite, Maple-Glazed Salmon. To me, there's no contest -- the beef is better. Tender and juicy, with just the right hint of truffle -- not overpowering at all.
-- Yogurt Panna Cotta with Orange Cake, Raspberries and Pomegranate, Lemon Custard Verrine with Blueberry Compote, and Dark Chocolate Mousse with Chili and Salted Caramel -- This mini dessert trio represented the three new items that will be offered at the Desserts and Champagne marketplace. Of the three, the Yogurt Panna Cotta was my favorite -- light, creamy, and not too sweet, with just a hint of orange and luscious red raspberries on top. My only complaint was that the bottom of the dessert cup was so narrow I couldn't dig my spoon into it to get at much of the orangy cake goodness.
The Lemon Custard Verrine was also good, but VERY intense. I heard some complaints from the other diners around me that they had too much blueberry and not enough custard, but in my case, I had plenty of lemon -- in fact, the dessert didn't just whisper "lemon" to you, it SHOUTED it, in all caps!
As for the chocolate mousse -- well, I must admit I was a little disappointed. Everyone around me was raving about it, and marveling at the little kick the chili gave it, but for me it tasted just like an ordinary chocolate mousse. Which is to say that it was delicious, but not unusually so. Maybe I didn't get enough spice in my portion? All the more reason for me to try it again during the actual festival!
There are a few other little tweaks to the food around the marketplaces -- the Black Pepper Shrimp are going to be replaced by Mongolian Beef with Chinese Steamed Bun at the China booth, the Mussels at the Belgium kiosk will be prepared slightly differently -- but the majority of the items are returning unchanged.
So what about other NEW offerings at the festival? Here are what I feel are the highlights:
-- Some of the biggest news surrounding the festival this year is the implementation of a three-tiered pricing structure for the popular Party for the Senses tasting offered most Saturday evenings during the event. For years one of the biggest complaints about this eating extravaganza has been the shortage of seating -- diners are expected to graze on their tapas-sized dishes without a designated place to sit, and are forced to float from table to table, noshing and conversing with strangers. The ensuing juggling act -- plate, wine glass, napkin, utensils -- has resulted in many disgruntled diners.
The festival tried to address that issue by introducing the Wine View Lounge a few years ago -- it's an exclusive area within the World Showcase venue that guarantees you your own table, along with a number of other amenities, all at an additional fee. This year, the Party takes that one step further and is offering a mid-range tier that guarantees you a seat in a special area, without all the bells and whistles of the Wine View Lounge. Pricing for the Party events is now: General Admission $145/person + tax; Reserved Seating $170/person + tax; Wine View Lounge $270/person + tax.
-- One of the most enticing new offerings, to me at least, is the introduction of Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tours. Held on Wednesday mornings at 10:30, you'll get the chance to wander around World Showcase for two hours before it officially opens to guests with a chef, visiting five marketplaces and sampling their food and beverages. "What a great opportunity for the chefs to share their stories and insights with their guests," says Hunnel. "You generally wouldn't get this kind of experience, so we're really excited to be able to offer it."
-- Remember last year's cranberry bog, situated in Future World as you approached World Showcase Plaza? It's returning, but more than that, there's also going to be a watermelon patch! Sponsored by The National Watermelon Promotion Board, the patch will have actual live watermelon plants where you can learn about growing them and get tips from affable TV personality Mr. Food ("Oooh, it's so good!")
-- From the Bean to the Bar Hosted by Ghirardelli Chocolate Company -- "We've been wanting to do something like this for many years," Hunnel notes. "This is going to be located in the back of the Festival Center -- Walt Disney Imagineering is helping us create a space that will be perfect for this decadent chocolate experience!"
According to Hunnel, guests will have the chance to not only sample gourmet chocolates, but will be able to DRINK it -- the exhibit will be featuring a drinking chocolate that's like a liquid candy bar. There will also be chocolate sculptures created by Disney pastry chefs and informative displays on about the food's origins. From the Bean to the Bar will be open daily from 9 a.m. through park close.
-- Wine Sampling in the Wine Shop -- This is something I've often wondered why they DIDN'T have! Now, you can visit the Festival Center Wine Shop for daily wine samples provided by participating beverages companies. Open daily at 11 a.m., and 1, 3 and 5 p.m.
Now that I've told you what's new, I want to fill you in on who and what are returning.
"It's such an honor for us that these people choose to be a part of our festival," Hunnel notes. "They could go to any festival in the country, but they come to ours. And for many of them, it's a sort of homecoming -- so many of them have been coming here for years."
Among those returning celebrity chefs is a veritable "Who's Who?" of personalities you might find currently on your television, on the Food Network, Bravo or even the Travel Channel: Keegan Gerhard, Robert Irvine, Andrew Zimmern, Bryan Voltaggio, Art Smith, Cat Cora, and Buddy Valastro (the Cake Boss, who this year will be expanding his repertoire from sweets to savory, presenting at a Kitchen Memories session).
Other returning offerings are the wildly popular Mixology sessions, presented every evening at the Festival Center at 6 p.m. A certified Mixologist talks about a specific spirit, then shows you how to mix it up into three lively cocktails -- a presentation that is practical AND potable, not to mention highly entertaining and a bargain at $16.
Last year, the festival tried an experiment with its signature dinners, and offered, instead of wine dinner, a BEER dinner. Apparently that was so popular it is returning, presented again by Chef Jens Dahlmann (below), this year on November 9.
What's missing this year? Well, most notably there will NOT be a First Bites Reception the night before the official start of the festival. There also will not be a Party for the Senses tasting on the first or last Saturday of the festival. Bummer.
Hunnel also notes that they've retired the "Authors without Borders" program, which allowed guests to visit with cookbook and other authors, and have instead increased the number of Authentic Tastes they'll be offering. "These will be presented by people responsible for finding this special ingredients," Hunnel explains. "Ingredients like oils, mustards, vanilla, sugars, different gingers... you'll have the chance to get know more about these ingredients."
The beloved French Regional Lunches at Bistro de Paris are on hiatus this year, also, due to the renovations that will be taking place at that location. Instead Italian Regional Food and Wine Luncheons will be held at the new Tutto Gusto in the Italy pavilion. They'll be Wednesdays and Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m. and will be $75 per person. (Also due to the work at the Bistro, the super-fun Grand Marnier tasting is relocated to the Festival Center this year. So glad that's not going away altogether!)
As the August 14 reservations date nears, Hunnel admits that she's starting to get anxious. "Everything starts to resonate now," she laughs. "It's like a Broadway opening, and the ticket sales are like our review, our report card. Did we do good? Are guests interested in what we're offering?"
"We want to make sure our guests are happy," Hunnel adds. "We listen to what our guests say, and I think that's one of the reasons we're so successful. I think our guests' expectations are so much higher here, than they are at other similar festivals, because people know we also offer the Disney experience."
I know that's part of the draw for me -- not just the amazing culinary delights I know await me, but that they will be presented with the quality and care I've come to expect from Disney. That's why I've already set the alarm on my iPhone for 6:45 a.m. EDT on August 14 -- I don't want to miss the chance to make my reservations!
What looks good to you? What will you be booking this year, as you Taste Your Way around the World?