BERRY SWEET: Florida Strawberry Festival food
Thursday marks the launch of the Florida Strawberry Festival, an annual paean to this state's favorite berry. Just looking for the unvarnished fruit? On the south side of the festival you can pick up a flat from Parkesdale Farms and on the northeast corner Wish Farms is selling its stuff. But then you have an array of strawberry shortcakes; strawberry milkshakes from Brandon Farms, Polar Bear Ice Cream and Fruit and Cream Hut; chocolate-dipped strawberries from Chocolate Strawberry Express and Mavric's Chocolate Barn; plus strawberry jam, strawberry hamburgers (why?), strawberry pie, crepes, fritters, cheesecake and pizza (okay, this is where I draw the line). But you get the idea.
Each day of the festival has a theme (Saturday is kids' free day, Friday if you bring a Publix-brand nonperishable food item you get $5 off a ride coupon book). Through March 12, regular admission is $10 for adults, children 6 to 12 are $5. flstrawberryfestival.com.
MORE FOOD & MUSIC: Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival
For some folks, the central draw for the Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival is the concert lineup. This year there's Daughtry, the Goo Goo Dolls, Grammy award-winning trio the Band Perry, country superstar Hunter Hayes, "Merengue Queen" Milly Quezada and Latin chart-toppers Bachata Heightz and Justin Quiles to cover most of the genres. But really, we know it's about the food.
Starting Saturday, the festival takes place every weekend through April 30 and is included with admission. Head over the Gwazi Park and get the lay of the land, with 13 cabins and tents set up purveying a range of snackables. This year at the Gourmet Lodge, you'll find a new mango shrimp ceviche as well as smoked beef brisket on a spiced corn waffle, whereas at Chef's Plantation you'll encounter pan-seared salmon, Korean-style ribs and brown sugar-rubbed pork belly. At Comfort Kitchen there's the expected bacon mac & cheese, but the Coast to Coast booth showcases Latin cuisine like chimichurri hangar steak, new vegetable arepas and a flourless chocolate torte.
Now match these up with 65 wine offerings and more than 70 craft beer and cocktail options and Busch Gardens is throwing a pretty good party. Sample-sized food tastings are $4 to $7, wine is $7.50, and beer and cider are $8.50. Sample packages available. 10165 N McKinley Drive, Tampa. (813) 884-4386. buschgardenstampa.com.
Save the dates: More food fests
On April 1 and 2, the Lowry Park Zoo's dine-around event formerly known as Zoofari becomes Feast With the Beasts, with what they are calling "elevated culinary experiences." At the separate-ticket event, "feasters" 21 and older have reserved access to the zoo's private party yard and can indulge in unlimited samplings from some of Tampa Bay's top restaurants, accented with wine pairings, specialty brews and craft cocktails. All this dining under the stars and mingling with 1,300 animals (plus life-sized dinosaurs) is for a good cause: Proceeds support animal care, education programs and wildlife conservation efforts. 4 to 9 p.m. both evenings. Tickets start at $39.95 for zoo members. l owryparkzoo.org/events.
And from March 29 to April 1 head to Sarasota for the fifth annual Whiskey Obsession Festival. I attended several years back and learned a ton (okay, and drank some great whiskey) at what has become the largest world whiskey festival in the United States, with four days of classes, tastings, lunch and dinner pairings, panel discussion, cigars, VIP pours, live music and a grand tasting with 250 whiskeys to sample. Dozens of distillers and professional brand ambassadors are present to share their knowledge. whiskeyobsessionfestival.com.
March 29: The Glenmorangie Experience Grain vs. Grape Dinner, 6:30 to 10 p.m. at the Sarasota Yacht Club. $125.
March 30: Panel of Whiskey Experts Interactive Tasting and Discussion, 7 to 10:30 p.m. at the Francis. $75.
March 31: Lunch Master Classes, noon to 2 p.m. at State Street Eatery and Bijou Cafe. $35 per person includes lunch and whiskies. Then the Grand Tasting and Master Classes, times and prices vary.
April 1: Bourbon Rock & Blues Bash Powered by Woodford Reserve, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., street party between Lemon and State streets. Free admission, cocktails extra.