CheeseFest 2013 – A Day of Cheese and Wine in the Park

It is eleven o’clock in the morning, and already the temperature has risen above the estimated top for the day. The sun shines down unthreatened by cloud and the air is still and warm. There is still an hour to wait until Cheese Fest starts and yet crowds are gathered around the entry gates, people who have anticipated the warm weather and are eager for a weekend out in the sunshine. Some have arrived in large, chatty groups, and others stand waiting in quiet pairs. There are groups of elderly ladies with their hair in tight curls, a young man stands underneath a nearby tree with his arms draped over his girlfriend’s shoulders, his chin resting atop her head. A few people keep an eye on their watches, while some are too enthralled in conversation to notice the time.

When it reaches twelve o’clock, the crowd begins to move, ushered into the park by beaming volunteers in bright yellow shirts. Everyone is handed a wine glass upon entry. At this some smile excitedly at one another; a few question whether plastic would be safer.

The sight beyond the gates is a welcome one, the vast green park with its many scattered trees creating a canopy of shade above tables and chairs. Tall colourful council flags move slightly in the soft breeze. In the middle of the park is a stage, on which a band of middle-aged musicians in cowboy hats and vests play jazz and blues music. The scene is energetic and yet calm at the same time, with promises of a lazy weekend afternoon. The tall fence that surrounds the festival creates a separate little world, one right within the heart of the city but with an atmosphere of complete separation from it. Traffic can be heard from beyond the fence, but none of life’s chores or trials seem to matter within the park, at least for one weekend. Surrounding the perimeter are dozens of white stalls with large printed signs – wine, cheese, cider, tarts, gelato, burgers, coffee and beer – and everyone at once flocks to the first stall on the left, beginning their tour clockwise around the festival.

A few stragglers abandon the crowd and head in the opposite direction; others rush to find the best spot in the shade. Before long umbrellas have been opened and tartan picnic rugs laid out, their owners claiming their own piece of land to inhabit for the rest of the afternoon. The festival volunteers walk around organising tables or talking to the arriving crowds, spots of bright yellow scattered among the green grass. New colours quickly mix in with the green, yellow, and white as people begin to fill the park, the various shades of their clothes creating a palette of paint colours.

At one stall a blonde woman offers everyone a sample of her organic wine, a large heart pendant resting on her chest. Half a dozen bottles sit in a large metal ice bucket on her table, white tablecloth draped over it with vines of grapes sitting in glasses at each end. She and her two helpers work quickly, filling glasses held out to them by unknown arms that have stretched through the crowd. Next door to her, a Greek cheese making family stand smiling behind their table, platter upon platter laid out upon it, piled with small pieces of cheese there for the taking. Signs in front of the platters read out ‘baked ricotta’, ‘spiced fetta’, ‘blue cheese’, and ‘goat’s cheese’. A dozen hands reach out for the large bowl of toothpicks then reach over each other’s heads and arms to pierce a piece or two.

There are two kinds of people at the festival: the tortoises and the hares. The tortoises have come for the atmosphere, for the sun and the grass, who buy a few bottles of wine upon arrival and settle down to enjoy them, not planning on moving for a while. They are families with toddlers still napping in their strollers, parents enjoying a chance to relax. They are groups of university students sitting cross-legged in a circle, music pouring from their phones and drinks being shared. They do not mind not being the first to taste the ricotta and chocolate tarts, or to reach the last stall of food within record time. The tortoises are simply content with the chance to lie back on the ground and forget the demands of everyday life.

And there are the hares, who want a taste of everything Cheese Fest has to offer, who offer their wine glass to every stallholder and down its contents quickly so they can move on and offer it to the next. They bound from one side of the park to the other, enjoying the fast pace and the energy, ears filled with the sounds of upbeat music and calls to sample more wine. The hares are not fussed with stopping to sit down and savour something slowly, for fear they might miss out on what they have yet to try.

Among the hares are a middle-aged couple, the cheese connoisseur and his wife. He with a wide belly, and she with a wide hat, they move excitedly between each stall, she sipping her wine and he talking avidly of the cheese. Reaching the next stall, they smile at the owner, who offers them a taste of his grilled haloumi. The little cubes of cheese sit neatly on a glass plate, and the middle-aged man plucks up a piece with his short fingers. He looks to his wife while he eats it, chin wobbling as he chews, and he nods, satisfied enough for her to taste it herself. She takes a piece, and then smiles in agreement, impressed and in awe of her husband’s fine taste in food. Complimenting the chef, she laces her arm through her husband’s and they stroll the short distance to the next table of offerings, sipping from their glasses and spiritedly discussing every bite.

As the day rolls on the crowd in the festival gets larger and larger, shoulders bumping and arms brushing against one another as people try to move to the front of the stalls. The atmosphere is heavier and warmer, the sun’s heat unanticipated by many. By around two o’clock the band takes a break, letting the louder, more up-beat dance music blast through the speakers, creating vibrations through the ground; the music evolving to keep pace with the energy and volume of the people. By now the hares are on their third or fourth lap around the park, returning to their favourite stalls and buying more drinks. Glasses and bottles are starting to empty more quickly, and a few of the tortoises are moving from their shady spots to refill.
The gelato and ice cream stall, almost ignored at the beginning of the day, has now become the most popular destination as long lines of parents with screaming young children weave their way closer to a relief from the heat. The hidden away first aid tent is flooded with festivalgoers rubbing sunscreen over their reddening shoulders and fanning their faces.

An invisible fence runs in an uneven circle around each cluster of trees, a boundary in line with the edge of the shade cast down by the tall trees whose thick branches filter the harsh afternoon sun. People are huddled underneath the canopy, cramming close to one another in order to possess a piece of shaded sanctuary, no matter how small. Every now and again a pair of legs will stretch out over the line between shade and bright sunlight, enjoying the instant warmth, while others sit neatly with their knees under their chins. The heat of the sun has rendered personal space almost non-existent, except for the groups who earlier claimed their territory with their spread out picnic blankets and camping chairs.

The only tortoises who do not seem concerned about the sun are the beer and cider drinkers, who are splayed out on the warm grass or sit closely around an umbrella-less table. The heat does not bother them; they are young and carefree. They have their sunglasses and their tans, cold pints of golden liquid in their hands. Drinks tend to disappear more quickly among this group, who are constantly laughing. They are more than happy to let the sun darken their shoulders and lighten their hair.

Those drinking white wine are a little bit more reserved. Scattered around the park in pairs or small groups, they either lie back or walk around, observing what goes on around them. There is an old woman who sits at a shaded table, drinking white wine as she waits for her husband to return. He finally does, carrying two plates of Indian curries, and she pours him another glass as they begin to eat together. The watchful parents of children who have long since awakened from their naps try to keep their kids amused with toys or snacks, a mother with her hands full pulling a bottle of wine out of her baby’s arms with a laugh while the rest of their party coos over him.

A father lies on his back in the grass, wine glass resting on his chest, while his wife sits with one child eating ice cream in her lap, the other eyeing off the face painting stall and pleading with his father to take him there. He eventually gives in, heaving himself off of the ground, and chasing his son down the hill. He picks up speed and tells him to wait as the little boy darts between longer limbs and out of sight. Finally catching up, the father takes hold of his hand, eyeing off the long line of tired parents waiting to have their child’s face painted. The father asks his son what he wants to be; the child replies enthusiastically that he wants to be Spiderman.

Hidden away along the line of the fence are a young couple out on a date. Lying together on the side of the hill in a secluded area, away from the stalls and the liveliness of the festival. They watch from afar the frantic scurrying of the hares still travelling between breweries and dairy farmers, determined not to miss out on anything. The couple entwine their fingers together, in a world of their own, content with only each other’s company. They silently watch the world spin around them, bottle of wine lying half empty in the grass besides them.

Seemingly the most sophisticated are those drinking red wine. Small groups of ladies sitting together at a table, their bodies covered in bright floral blouses and kaftans with wide-brimmed floppy sun hats, the red on their lips matching the red in their glass. They tell stories and laugh loudly; completely comfortable with one another, as if they all grew up together and giggled the same way they did when they were young schoolgirls gossiping after class. Nibbling away at platters of cheese, biscuits and berries, they swirl the contents of their glasses around as they tell their stories.

Similar groups of younger women travel in their small groups, dressed up in race-day dresses, their hair in curls and makeup heavy on their faces. Though their heels cause them to move more cautiously than anyone else, they still make their way across the grass to experience all the stalls, sipping at different varieties and waiting for each other’s reaction, undecided in which red to buy a few bottles of.

Late afternoon, and the dance music dies down. So used to the vibrations of it throughout the park, everyone notices its sudden absence. Left over is a kind of empty humming that is quickly camouflaged by the loud and rowdy voices of certain groups. The band returns to the stage, vests unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up, to start playing more acoustic jazz and blues music, the mood of the songs reflecting the lowering sun and the slowing down of the hares as they join the tortoises under shade sails and tree trunks. The sample cheese platters at stalls are almost empty, ice buckets melting and recycling bins full of empty bottles. The crowds quieten down, most having indulged in too much cheese, alcohol and sun, their eyes squinting in the light and their faces pink from the heat.

Children have fallen asleep once more, either strapped back into their prams or slung over their father’s shoulders; arms dangling down his back and small head nestled in his neck. Large family groups are packing up their campsites, tartan blankets rolled and backpack’s filled with children’s toys or leftover food. Grandparents call out to the older children who had taken advantage of the thinning crowd to take turns rolling down the hill, grass sticking to their clothes and hair. The band has once again stopped playing, packing up their instruments and chatting with a few of the beer drinking group who are still carefree and sipping from freshly filled cups.

The whole environment has become quieter and slower, and people call out to each other with softer voices, as if a hush has blanketed over the entire park. While most try to leave with the same vigour as they did when entering that morning, pushing and moving together as a large crowd back out into the growing city and the world, some don’t mind hanging back and making one last round over the stalls, though a few have long since begun to clean up. Funnily enough it is the hares who relax and take their time in leaving, content to sit back in the late afternoon sun and wait for the crowds heading back to the car parks to disperse. The tortoises, however, who had lounged about in the shade are the first to make a move towards the exit, parents hurrying up their children in order to make it to the car before everyone else. Groups of younger people, including the beer and cider drinkers and the dressed up ladies, leave the park but stay huddled in circles, eagerly deciding on where to head to next to continue their Saturday drinks. The heat that seems to have left others with headaches and exhaustion has had no effect on these groups, who are already making their way to the nearest pub, although the girls in heels wince a bit while they walk, result of spending the entire day in their shoes.

The Cheese Fest volunteers in their yellow shirts say goodbye to the crowds before heading back inside the gates to begin the clean up. Stallholders pack their leftover fetta cheese, Shiraz, pear cider and veggie burgers back into the fridges and freezers, and check they have enough food and drink for day two tomorrow, which will bring even more groups of fresh-faced foodies eager to spend a sunny day eating gourmet cheese and drinking wine in the park.

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