Travel: Grog on the Tyne is all mine!
Did you know that Newcastle is carving out a reputation as a gastronomic destination?
Laura Wurzal works up an appetite to find out more.
Twenty years ago, when I was last in Newcastle, the idea of taking a holiday in this proud city would have appealed only to football fanatics, stag night masochists and all-night clubbers who never know when they are beaten.
Today, the same city is buzzing with style, excitement and activity. Its vibrant new face appeals to all age groups and classes - including royalty.
Princess Eugenie is probably the best-known student among the thousands who throng the pubs and bars of the central area and waterfront every night of the week, though she probably won’t be wearing one of her Philip Treacy hats!
As my train crosses the Tyne on its way into the city centre I note that the derelict warehouses and offices which once obscured the riverside have been swept away and replaced by the revamped Quayside with the Millennium Bridge and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, brilliantly salvaged from a former shabby flour mill.
The Sage Gateshead, home of two concert halls designed by Sir Norman Foster, is glinting in the bright sunlight.
Newcastle’s cultural renaissance has been driven largely by the Newcastle-Gateshead Initiative, formed in 2000 by the adjoining councils to promote the two River Tyne neighbours as one single tourist and cultural destination.
The project has been a brilliant success. Although it lost out to Liverpool to become 2008 European Capital of Culture, it has boldly directed millions of pounds into artistic and leisure activities at a time when these sectors are haemorrhaging cash in other areas of Britain.
Recent projects include the £4.9m restoration of the 175-year-old Theatre Royal building, the opening of a new £40.2m Newcastle City Library and the award-winning Centre for Life containing the North’s largest planetarium.
Major festivals have brought new excitement to this corner of the North East, among them the EAT! Festival. Now in its seventh year, and running from August 23 to September 8, it describes itself as a festival of adventures in food and it’s certainly an innovative way to experience North East fare.
For 16 days, there’s a variety of eclectic foodie events bringing together local businesses and restaurants, the best amateur and professional chefs, experts, artisans and drink mixologists.
This year the festival is taking over the buildings where Robert Stephenson changed the course of history with his steam locomotives to create a special EAT! Street with The Boiler Shop Steamer.
Here you’ll find street food from North East restaurants and traders, plus three food zones - chilli, chocolate and cider - with tastings and workshops, plus pop-up restaurants and live entertainment.
The EAT! fringe is a selection of events arranged by local foodie experts and includes cosmos-inspired cocktails, a medieval banquet and a series of secret dinners (called paladares).
Then there’s the Cake City event in which teams of amateur and professional bakers make cakes shaped like local landmark buildings and create a giant edible map of Newcastle and Gateshead. After judging is finished, everyone descends on the map - and eats the cakes!
Visitors should also try to track down the EAT! Speakeasy - hidden in a “secret” location, as it might have been in the Prohibition era. As well as being the coolest drinking den during the festival, it has cocktail and tasting masterclasses during the day, food workshops, demonstrations and movie screenings in the evening.
I went to a bourbon masterclass which chronicled the history of this American spirit from 18th century “moonshine” to glamorous Hollywood cocktails in the 1940s. We made a variety of cocktails and in the spirit of Prohibition, they were served in teacups.
The festival ends with the Big EAT! Weekend on September 5-8 which includes an awards ceremony, family barbecue, wine festival and chilli-eating contest.
Of course, visitors to Newcastle for the festival mustn’t think only about filling their stomachs. This is a great time to explore the city too, with food and drink-themed walking tours laid on daily.
My food tour with guide Jan Williams covered three miles and proved a great way to get my bearings in the city centre.
We walked up Grey Street and Grainger Town, built in the 1830s by Richard Grainger, and visited the fabulous Victorian Grainger Market, home of the original Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar, where we tried a ham and pease pudding stottie sandwich, a North East delicacy which is reputedly delivered to pop star Bryan Ferry whenever he is touring in the UK.
Then it was on to the Castle Keep, a fine Norman stone keep dating back to 1178 and the original “new castle” from which the city takes its name.
Walking along the Quayside with its view of the iconic Seven Bridges, we crossed the newest one, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, to see the art exhibitions in the Baltic Centre and visit the Sage Gateshead.
If you’re in Newcastle on a Sunday, don’t miss the Quayside Sunday Market on the banks of the Tyne which provides a vibrant showcase for local produce and goods including art, jewellery, fashion and photography.
Over a weekend exploring the city on foot, you’ll build up quite an appetite. We tried two superb restaurants - both big supporters of EAT!
The Blackfriars Restaurant and Banquet Hall was established in 1239 as a Dominican Friary and is the oldest dining room in the UK. All its food is sourced from local farms and producers, and during the festival it hosts events including a six-course whisky dinner and cookery club for children.
The new Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill is in Hotel Indigo, in the heart of the city, with a big emphasis on local delicacies: Craster Kipper Pate, Northumbrian Rare Breed Lamb and Admiral Collingwood Cheese, all served with the hotel’s special “Neighbourhood” cocktail made from local Grainger Ale.
Travel facts - Newcastle
:: Laura Wurzal was a guest of the Newcastle-Gateshead Initiative which produces the annual EAT! Festival. For full details of the 2013 event, go to www.newcastlegateshead.com/eat-festival
:: Direct rail services run from across the UK to Newcastle Central Station, including East Coast trains from London King’s Cross, Northern Rail from Carlisle, Teesside and beyond, and the TransPennine Express from Manchester, Liverpool and stations across Yorkshire.