Newent Tracy Spiers tack­les a raw onion on your be­half

Never one to turn down a chal­lenge, Tracy Spiers at­tempts to munch her way through an onion the size of a grape­fruit in the mar­ket town of Newent

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE -

“If you bring an onion with you, I might just have a go at eat­ing it,” I jest.

You don’t joke about onions in Newent. And I don’t mean here that the peo­ple in this quaint small mar­ket town aren’t play­ful or fun-lov­ing. Far from it. In fact, it is be­cause they have a sense of hu­mour, that when I meet five mem­bers of the core com­mit­tee who help put to­gether the in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous Newent Onion Fayre – of­fi­cially Glouces­ter­shire’s last fes­ti­val of the sum­mer on Satur­day, Septem­ber 8 – they give me a whop­per of an onion, the size of a grape­fruit.

“That is so un­fair,” I cry as David Sass who is charge of ad­ver­tis­ing and PR puts the peeled of­fer­ing in front of me. I may not know my onions, but I have done my re­search and that isn’t five ounces – the weight given to lady con­tes­tants who on the day, race against each other to chomp through the al­lium lay­ers in the fastest time. It isn’t even 7ozs, the ap­ple-size weight the men have to gob­ble. My large of­fer­ing is 16 and a half ounces,

but I still have a valiant at­tempt at munch­ing it, much to amuse­ment of fel­low cus­tomers in The Ital­ian Kitchen, a de­light­ful 17th­cen­tury warm and friendly café/ restau­rant.

Onion doesn’t mix well with cap­puc­cino I find out very quickly. In fact, eat­ing a whole onion doesn’t go with many things and is most def­i­nitely a pas­sion killer, as chair­man Andy Of­ford ad­mits.

“The first time I en­tered the com­pe­ti­tion, I did not have a kiss from my wife for three days as I still smelt of onions. The myth of eat­ing mints to get rid of the taste is not true, be­cause the com­bi­na­tion is vile. Pep­per­mint and onions do not go well to­gether,” says Andy.

“I guess you could al­ways eat more gar­lic, eat a lemon or try drink­ing milk to bal­ance out the acids, but it doesn’t take the smell away. How­ever, many do have to down a pint or two of cider be­fore they em­bark on the onion-eat­ing chal­lenge.”

Now why would any­one want to eat a raw onion you may well ask? Well there’s noth­ing stranger than folk and this eye-wa­ter­ing chal­lenge has be­come the nov­elty or quirky fac­tor of Newent Onion Fayre that has drawn enor­mous me­dia at­ten­tion over the years. To watch grown men and women, with eyes stream­ing, munch­ing onions as fast as they can, does draw the crowds. In Septem­ber I am told a crew from the BBC’S Out & About chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion pro­gramme may be tak­ing part.

“You should join them and have a go on stage,” David tells me. To be hon­est, I am one of those rare peo­ple who don’t cry when peel­ing an onion and I do in fact like raw onion – but just in small doses. Know­ing my love for the pur­ple kind, my hus­band kindly de­votes part of his al­lot­ment for my per­sonal home-grown col­lec­tion. But I am not sure my mar­riage would sur­vive eat­ing a whole one raw ev­ery day!

THE ONION EAT­ING CON­TEST

This part of Newent Onion Fayre takes place at 1pm on the main stage, with com­peti­tors from all over the coun­try tak­ing part.

The first round is the ladies’ event. Ten con­tes­tants only are given a 5oz peeled raw onion to con­sume in the fastest pos­si­ble time. Then the men, spilt into two heats of 10 com­pete against each other and chomp their way through a 7oz onion as if it is an ap­ple. Once the onion is con­sumed the con­tes­tant holds their arms out­stretched with mouth wide open be­fore the judges de­clare them the win­ner. Last year’s win­ners were Leanne Wright, win­ner of the Ladies’ event with her time of 1 minute 14 sec­onds; and Alex Navari, the men’s cham­pion with his win­ning time of 1 minute 16 sec­onds.

ONION FAYRE HIS­TORY

The re­la­tion­ship with onions and the town of Newent (or Noent as it was orig­i­nally known) goes back cen­turies. Peter Pain, who has been in­volved in the modern-day fes­ti­val ever since it was rein­tro­duced 23 years ago, presents me with notes on the ori­gins of Newent’s pas­sion for its al­li­ums. Newent was men­tioned in the Domes­day Book as a size­able town and had al­ready been a set­tle­ment for many cen­turies. By the 13th cen­tury it was part of a manor be­long­ing to the Abbey of Cormeilles in Nor­mandy and King Henry III granted the town a mar­ket and two an­nual fayres by char­ter. Two more an­nual fairs were granted by James 1 so

by the end of 17th cen­tury, the well-es­tab­lished thriv­ing town of Newent had a weekly mar­ket and four an­nual fairs.

Orig­i­nally, the Septem­ber fair dealt mostly in sheep, but by the end of the 18th cen­tury this fair was the only one of the an­nual fairs to have sur­vived and was now trad­ing onions. At this time, there were onion fairs hap­pen­ing all over the coun­try but Newent Onion Fayre be­came of such im­por­tance that the price of onions here was used to set the onion price over a wide area, in­clud­ing South Wales, Glouces­ter and even Birm­ing­ham, which then had the largest onion fayre.

By 1910, the Fayre was run by the Peters fam­ily, a trav­el­ling show­man fam­ily who ran fairs through­out Glouces­ter­shire and sur­round­ing coun­ties. The fair cen­tred around the Mar­ket Square with swing boats, round­abouts and gal­lop­ers, many of which were elec­tri­cally driven from power gen­er­ated by a trac­tion en­gine.

“While re­search­ing past is­sues of the lo­cal news­pa­pers there has been the abil­ity to trace the ex­is­tence of the Newent Onion Fair back to 1878, through court re­ports of petty crime on the day and ad­ver­tise­ments. There has only been one re­port found about the event and there is only one know pic­ture of the Onion Fayre in its orig­i­nal for­mat,” says Peter.

The Newent Onion Fayre ex­isted in its orig­i­nal for­mat un­til the war years brought it to an end in the early part of the 20th cen­tury.

TO­DAY’S FOR­MAT

Fast for­ward to 1996 and group of lo­cal peo­ple set to work to re­vive this fes­ti­val with the first modern Newent Onion Fayre tak­ing place in the Septem­ber of that year to cel­e­brate lo­cal food and drink. Bear­ing in mind this town is still one of, if not the small­est mar­ket town of its kind, with no more than 5,500 peo­ple, it now triples in size on the sec­ond Satur­day of Septem­ber ev­ery year. The fun-packed fes­ti­val now at­tracts al­most 15,000 vis­i­tors each year and is a fan­tas­tic crowd-

‘The first time I en­tered the com­pe­ti­tion, I did not have a kiss from my wife for three days’

pulling na­tional event. It may look very dif­fer­ent to the past, but the pas­sion for the al­lium re­mains. To­day, vis­i­tors will find three stages of live mu­sic, street en­ter­tain­ers, danc­ing, fair­ground rides, ex­hi­bi­tions, lakeside events and over 150 stands with arts, crafts and plants. A Food Vil­lage, rep­re­sent­ing in­ter­na­tional cui­sine from the likes of Mex­ico, the Caribbean, Amer­ica and Spain as well as lo­cal breads, cakes and ice cream, will be set up in the Co-op car park.

“Newent Onion Fayre has changed dra­mat­i­cally since the first year we put it on. Round about the fifth year, Blue Peter heard about it. They in­vited the town crier and the Mor­ris dancers up to Lon­don for the day and ded­i­cated a whole pro­gramme on onions. It has grown from strength to strength as it at­tracted more and more me­dia at­ten­tion. Pixie Mckenna, a doc­tor who fea­tures on Em­bar­rass­ing Bod­ies, ate a 5oz onion in the women’s con­test for a Chan­nel 4 pro­gramme Food Hos­pi­tal which con­sid­ered the sci­ence be­hind re­search, in­di­cat­ing that onions con­tain a chem­i­cal with blood thin­ning prop­er­ties. And celebri­ties Rory Mcgrath of They Think It’s All Over fame and Will Mel­lor, known as Gaz in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps have also tried break­ing a new world onion eat­ing record at the Newent event. In 2013 an Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion crew at­tended the fes­ti­val.

AL­LIUM CHAM­PI­ONSHIPS

Amidst the fun, there is some se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion amongst the onion grow­ers. Af­fil­i­ated to the Na­tional Veg­etable So­ci­ety (NVS), Newent Onion Fayre’s Al­lium Cham­pi­onships, which takes place in the Me­mo­rial Hall, now in­cludes leeks, chives, gar­lic and shal­lots. The NVS motto is: ‘if you can’t eat it, don’t show it.” Chris Comer who is Newent Onion Show Man­ager has had ex­pe­ri­ence on both sides – as an award-win­ning grower, who has won many an Onion Fayre tro­phy, and man­ager of the show. He’s a man who does know his onions. In Septem­ber 1996, there were just seven classes; to­day there are more than 30. Sev­en­teen of these are open classes – in­clud­ing the heav­i­est qual­ity onion; six are for the lo­cal post­code only and four for Newent Al­lot­ment hold­ers. There is also an open-for-all cook­ery sec­tion, judged by Pippa Palmer from Newent Com­mu­nity School, which con­sists of a cheese and onion pasty, a quiche con­tain­ing onions, a loaf of onion bread fol­low­ing a spe­cific recipe, a scone based pizza which in­cludes onion and a pound sized jar of caramelized onion rel­ish or chut­ney.

“We also have a veg­etable char­ac­ter class for the chil­dren, which is one of the favourite classes. They have to make a char­ac­ter us­ing veg­eta­bles in­clud­ing mem­bers of the onion fam­ily and we al­ways have some amaz­ing en­tries,” says Chris. “Some of the pupils at Newent Com­mu­nity School have an in-

house com­pe­ti­tion grow­ing gar­lic and onions which is judged at the Newent Onion Show. Last year more than 30 pupils took part.”

ONION ED & MU­SIC

One char­ac­ter who won’t be on a plate, is Onion Ed, the fes­ti­val’s 7ft mas­cot, who takes part in the pa­rade through the streets and min­gles with the crowd. Andy tells me Onion Ed, whose lan­guage is ‘on­ish’ by the way, is quite the party an­i­mal and has met the likes of Chris Evans, Alex Jones, Doc­tor and The Medics and had a hug from the Cheeky Girls. And on the theme of mu­sic, Newent Onion Fayre cel­e­brates this big time. On the main stage in Mar­ket Square will be Who’s Next, The Who tribute band, and The Rov­ing Crows, an award win­ning orig­i­nal Celtic folk fu­sion band. Ten lo­cal acts will also be per­form­ing dur­ing the day.

As you can imag­ine, whilst chat­ting with the Newent Onion Fayre or­gan­is­ers, we ex­plore ev­ery onion pun in the book from peely great event to cry­ing out loud and sow­ing the seeds.

Hav­ing eaten the last mouth­ful of my whop­per of an onion, I open my mouth wide and raise my hands be­fore my spec­ta­tors de­clare that the task is com­plete. I like to have a taste of the events I write about and I cer­tainly do on this oc­ca­sion. I leave Newent not smelling as sweet as when I ar­rived. My hus­band flew off to In­dia at three o’clock the next morn­ing, no doubt to get away from his onion-breath wife in favour of a land filled with curry and spice. How­ever, I did lov­ingly wa­ter his beloved red onions in his ab­sence. Maybe I can per­suade him to en­ter them in the open classes? Onion lover or not, this fes­ti­val billed as Glouces­ter­shire’s largest free one-day event and of­fi­cially the last fes­ti­val of sum­mer, is well worth at­tend­ing. It is a day which will def­i­nitely make your eyes wa­ter. And if I sneak­ily slip in prob­a­bly the worst onion pun of all to fin­ish, that’s shal­lot! www.newen­to­nion­fayre.net

The pic­turesque lake at Newent

Newent Onion Fayre chair­man Andy Of­ford in onion eat­ing ac­tion at last year’s fayre

Gra­ham Bar­ret, who won the Onion Fayre Com­mit­tee Cup for the largest onion

ABOVE: Newent Onion Fayre Al­lium Cham­pi­onships

ABOVE: Onion char­ac­ters at Newent Onion Fayre

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