A preview of Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Food and Wine Festival
Written by Russell Meyer
Busch Gardens Williamsburg has been known for serving a variety of foods authentic to the park's European theme. The Virginia theme park integrates its food into the guest experience, and any trip to Busch Gardens is not complete without a taste. However, in 2013, Busch Gardens is taking on quite a challenge by launching a Food and Wine Festival. The event has been rumored for a number of years, and there's no doubt that the increasing success of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World provided some level of inspiration for this inaugural event. The park announced the event at March's Passholder Preview Day, and the anticipation for the event has been growing ever since. Information has been slowly released through the park's website, and festival booths have been popping up around the park over the past few weeks. In advance of the May 31, 2013 official opening of the event (which runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through June 23), I was invited to represent Theme Park Insider at the park's media preview of the festival.
The preview presented a select sampling of the dishes that will be available at kiosks scattered around the park. The dishes were presented as a multi-course menu by Resident Chef Justin Watson, who is the culinary driver behind most of the dishes that guests will be able to sample during the festival. Much like the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, dishes and beverages will be served at kiosks/booths scattered throughout the park theme to a specific European country: Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Canada, Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Germany, along with Crepes & Coffee and German Beer kiosks. The food will range in price from $3 - $7. I was not provided with a full price list, but an example menu at the Crepes & Coffee kiosk indicated a price of $4.99 for three different varieties of crepe. Alcoholic beverages on the menu were listed in the $6 to $9 range, and include beers, wines, mixed drinks, and liquors appropriate to each country.
Chef Watson prepared six dishes for the preview event which demonstrated the wide range of cuisines guests can expect from the Festival. The menu
This dish consists of a serving of paprika-roasted Marcona Almonds, a marinated olive medley, and a wedge of Manchego Cheese topped with Membrillo (quince paste). I'm not a huge olive fan, but really enjoyed the ones presented on this plate. Chef Watson noted that he really enjoys making Mediterranean cuisine, and the presence of Spain and Greece along with the obvious inclusions of Italy and France on the Festival Menu plays right into his wheelhouse. The cheese on the Tapas Platter was relatively mild but creamy, and very interesting combined with the sweet Membrillo. The almonds were simply amazing, and reminded me of some flavored Macadamia nuts I sampled a few years ago in Hawaii.
The second course of our preview menu was a Chilled Pea Soup, which can be found at the Scotland kiosk.
Chef Watson explained that typically pea soup in Scotland is served warm, but because of the timing of the Festival in early summer, he chose to put a spin on the recipe by creating a cold soup. The soup not only contains peas, but also spinach, which is pureed into the soup and gives it its distinctive color. The soup is topped with a minted cream that accented the dish very well. However, I was expecting a soup that was a little thicker. The flavors were all nice, but the texture wasn't quite what I expected.
The third course was a simple Greek Salad, which will be served at the Greece kiosk.
This dish was pretty simple with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, Kalamata olives, and green peppers marinated in lemon oregano vinaigrette before being tossed with lettuce. The salad is finished with feta cheese crumbles and a really tasty crispy pita chip. This was the one dish previewed that I wondered how it would work in a festival environment. It's a really simple dish, and I'm not sure if theme park guests will be willing to pay for a little salad that doesn't contain any unique ingredients (perhaps some pepperoncinis or fancier olives would elevate the dish).
The fourth course was a spin on a traditional mussel dish. Chef Watson explained that they had originally envisioned serving a traditional Belgian-style mussel dish with butter cream sauce, but the decision was made to take a more classical French approach to a mussel dish by presenting the shellfish simmered in a tomato fennel broth. The Moules Provencales avec Rouille will be available in the France kiosk.
The New Zealand mussels, which are much larger than east coast or Pacific Northwest varieties, soak up the broth like a sponge. The mussels are accompanied by a crouton covered with a lemon saffron mayonnaise. The flavors in this dish were well developed, but I would have preferred the dish served in a bowl with a little more of the broth.
The fifth course, a traditional Austrian Paprikash, was the highlight of the preview menu for me.
The dish is a sweet paprika chicken stew that features predominantly dark meat, which increases the tenderness and absorbs the delectable flavors in the stew. The plate is topped with a sour cream sauce that cuts the acidity of the stew perfectly. Of all the dishes sampled during the preview event, this was the dish that I would definitely try again after the Festival starts next week.
The menu was completed with a home-style Tiramisu that will be served out of the Italy kiosk.
There was nothing earth-shattering about this dessert, but it was well executed with plenty of espresso flavor in the lady fingers and a subtly sweet mascarpone cheese mixture. The dish was a fine ending to a well-executed menu, and demonstrates what guests can put together touring around Busch Gardens on June weekends.
Following the preview menu, we were invited to participate in an interesting wine tasting. The park has recently installed wine tasting stations around the park in Italy, France, and Germany, and during the festival, they will feature blind taste comparisons between European wines and their Virginia counterparts. Busch Gardens worked with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and a number of Virginia wineries to offer their wines, as well as presentations by their winemakers on select days throughout the Festival. The Festival will feature other special events including: cooking demonstrations, lessons, VIP tours, a Wine cruise on the Rhine River, and a new interactive grape stomping show in San Marco.
For an inaugural event, Busch Gardens is shooting for the moon. The logistics of an event like this are extremely complicated. The park is utilizing many of their existing kitchen facilities to prepare dishes that are finished by expeditors in each kiosk. Chef Watson noted that the saucier that developed many of the sauces and broths for the dishes would likely be arriving at the park between 2 and 4 AM to begin preparations for the day, since regular park chefs would be using most of the kitchen equipment during normal park hours. Anyone who has attended the Epcot Food and Wine Festival could probably appreciate the amount of effort and planning that goes into the event, and that is in a park that already has world-class chefs, ample kitchen staff, and facilities and equipment spread all over the park and backstage areas.
For theme park guests that have experienced Epcot's Food and Wine Festival, I think they will see a lot of similarities between Walt Disney World's extremely successful event and what Busch Gardens is attempting. The scale of Busch Gardens' event is not quite as expansive as what Epcot puts on every fall, but for a first time event, I think the park is really putting on something special. Park officials are putting on a grand event that is spread across the entire park with foods of varying complexity. The vision is quite grand, and it will be interesting to see if they find success, because if guests support and gravitate to this event, it can be a successful annual event for many years to come.
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