AFTER months of preparation and planning, the biggest ever Bolton Food and Drink Festival is now under way.

Thousands of visitors flocked to the town centre for a feast of stalls, entertainment and cookery shows yesterday.

Double Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines, of Abode, in Manchester, officially launched the sixth annual event in Victoria Square.

He said: “I’m so impressed with the festival this year, it’s just phenomenal.

“There are lots of regional producers and it’s a great location in the heart of the town.

“And as always, you get a warm welcome when you come to Bolton and I haven’t stopped smiling since I got here.

“The demonstrations are a bit hectic but I want to make them fun and engaging, and hopefully people will go away and buy some ingredients and have a go at the recipes themselves.”

The chef showed off his culinary skills to audiences during two free demonstrations in the AGA Rangemaster cookery theatre.

He cooked three dishes of vegetable and herb soup; roasted curried monkfish with mussel and saffron sauce; and honey-glazed crispy duck breast with mushroom sauce.

His sous-chef for the day was Neil O’Connell, aged 29, from Swinton, who was attending the festival for the first time He said: “I have worked for Michael for about three years and he’s a brilliant chef, one of the best I have ever worked with, and watching him is mesmerising. The festival is a great event and maybe one day it will be me up there on stage giving a demonstration.”

Also helping launch the four-day festival was BBC fusion chef of the year, Aazam Ahmad, who entertained the crowds at Bolton Market.

He cooked three separate dishes of salmon and sweet chilli with pineapple and tagliatelle pasta; roast chicken with homemade plum sauce; and tuna steak with pomegranate and mango salsa.

Aazam was helped by Paris Hall, aged 16, who was visiting the market, and Elliott Macdonald, who works on one of the market stalls.

He said: “All three recipes are cooked with ingredients which can be bought at Bolton Market. “I think the demo kitchen is an excellent facility and other markets should take a leaf out of Bolton’s book.

“It encourages people to buy the produce and cook great meals, and creates a good buzz in the market.”

More than 80 stallholders from across the UK are in Bolton for the event, including a specialist garlic farmer from the Isle of Wight and an award-winning French artisan baker.

Other stalls include: Occasion Cakes from Bolton, Green Olives from Leeds, Gobbled Up cupcakes from Warrington; Turton Wines; Bank Top Brewery, a traditional pancake house and an authentic German swing grill.

This year the markets have been extended to Deansgate and Oxford Street, from 10am until 5am, after last year’s event attracted more than 75,000 visitors.