Today marks the start of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Through Nov. 11, food lovers visiting the park can eat and drink their way around the world. (After they get past the science-y stuff near the giant golf ball at the front.)
Things have changed drastically in the 18 years since the annual cross-cultural gorgefest began. The food at the more than two dozen marketplace kiosks has improved. So have the seminars and the hedonistic Party for the Senses weekend shindigs.
The food world has changed, too, since 1995, with the Food Network hatchery birthing new culinary celebs and giving them huge showcases in Aspen and South Beach. Also, local festivals such as this weekend’s Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival have upped their game with better grub and drinks.
It makes you wonder why you should bother going to a theme park when a restaurant such as St. Petersburg’s Red Mesa Cantina can put on a perfectly fun Big South Tequila Festival like they will Saturday evening.
The answer: Because nobody does it like Disney. And Disney never stops trying to improve.
Most festivals last a weekend. Some go for five days. Disney does it for 46 days. That they can maintain the consistency and creativity needed to serve 1.5 million plates of food — all while running a theme park around the festival — still boggles my mind.
The part I’ve tended to overlook — thank you, escargot in France and beer cheese soup in Canada — is the festival’s beverage program. For each of the bites cooked, Epcot also offers beer, wine and the occasional spirits pairing.
Marianne Hunnel, the event’s content development manager, each year has the task of making sure the right plates are matched with the perfect sips. As Epcot executive chef Jens Dahlman and his staff spin out new dishes, Hunnel and her sommeliers and tasting panels look for the best drinkable companions,
That means finding a glass bold enough to stand up to the South Korea kiosk’s hot dog made with kimchi and served with a spicy Korean mustard, Her solution: Jinro Soju, a clear, carbonated, slightly sweet spirit traditionally made of rice. As good as the dog is, the soju makes it great.
For the crispy pork belly, black beans and avocado served at the Brazil marketplace, Hunnel found a hoppy Xingu black beer that does the trick.
She also keeps an eye on new products and trends. To stay current with the exploding craft beer scene in Florida, she will feature several brews from around the state, including Cigar City Florida Cracker Ale from Tampa and two brews made specifically for Epcot by Florida Brewing Co. in Melbourne and Orlando Brewing Co.
The festival also will take advantage of changes in state law that now allow for wine to be served by keg. At the Intermissions Café in the festival welcome center, premium California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon will be on tap. Over at the Outpost next to the China pavilion, a California pinot gris and an Oregon pinot noir will be poured.
“It’s great because you don’t have the waste or cost of bottles,” Hunnel said. “You don’t have the cardboard or labeling. The wine has a little bit longer shelf life, and the wines are served at the perfect temperature.”