Months ago Ian came in from his office, as we grandly call the overcrowded and chilly porch where the desktop computer lives, and said "Listen to this. You would like this." It was an email invitation to Perch Hill, home of Sarah Raven and Adam Nicolson, to a summer event, a feast, with names from the world of food such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. Visitors were to stay in tents. It was to be a weekend for wandering around the garden and eating glorious food.
I would like it. I would like it a lot. Within an hour I had established that Ian was not bothered about going himself but happy for me to go, approached a friend who is always up for doing something new and interesting, even though she is not a gardener and much more interested in eating food than cooking it, and by ten past nine the next morning we were booked in. The speed and decisiveness aren't too uncharacteristic but they don't usually get used on something which is essentially a big treat. It is sort of a birthday present. It is also a grand gesture towards looking after ourselves in a challenging year.
And so it was that on Friday 12th July I set off on the train down to London with a rucksack on wheels, catching the fast train from Holyhead that rumbles along the North Wales coast before picking up speed and whizzing down through England to Euston. It was strange, a blast from the past when this was the train that took me to work in London in my business clothes, carrying a briefcase and laptop.
I had plenty of time so I walked from Euston to Charing Cross. This, and a little further East into Fleet Street and the City, is my part of London. I know it. I know its squares to the North and its byways and alleys around the Aldwych and the Strand. The noise and the traffic buffeted me but I enjoyed the anonymity London gives you, a middle aged woman with a pull along bag, invisible through Gordon Square and down Kingsway, anonymous along the Strand and darting down to Embankment gardens.
I caught a slow stopping train which puttered down through Kent and Sussex and arrived at Stonegate station, the only passenger to emerge onto a silent platform. Amazingly all our long distance arrangements had worked and there was Erica, all the way by car from Dorset. "Did you have a plan b?" she said when we met and hugged. The answer was no. Had she not been there to meet me I would have had to have a sit down and a think.
It was grey and softly raining on Friday evening, the view hidden in misty cloud. What seemed like hordes of young people swarmed cheerfully about, arriving with wheelbarrows to move our bags from the car, smiling and chatting with the charming, easy enthusiasm of loved and loving youth. We were sleeping in bell tents set along the edges of a couple of fields, the tents looking hard for the flatter places in a land of soft hills and gentle slopes. Our slope was side to side, not head to toe, so every morning I woke up just a little closer to the tent wall. But the airbeds were deep and comfortable and it was a relief to have a duvet and a proper pillow instead of being tied up in a sleeping bag.
Here we are, just to the right of the post.
Unpacking was putting my pajamas under my pillow and then we set off up the slope to the marquee, which served as a dining room and gathering place, and the greenhouse and classroom, which provided sitting space and much more plush and acceptable loos than the portaloos in the field.
I suffered from serious greenhouse envy. It was a fabulous structure with tomatoes and herbs at one end and big tables and pots of succulents and scented leaf geraniums at the other.
I wonder why we bother with houses at all. I think I could happily live in a greenhouse.
Dinner was at nine, an Ottolenghi inspired, many flavoured and luscious meal, a real feast. When Ottolenghi talked, his confident, passionate delight in food and its capacity for infusing life with pleasure and good company spoke to something at the very heart of my life's experience. Many of the great memories of my life involve cooking in company with my mother, who loved a full table, and with my sister and my daughters, and latterly my niece, producing food to be lingered over. It made me smile to feel the connection running so strongly between a forty odd year old, male, Israeli born, academic and journalist turned restauranteur and my English, eighty year old mother who died last year, but it leapt across age and background like an electrical charge: the same generosity, the same adventurousness, a pleasure in food which is both deeply serious and utterly relaxed, about as far from Puritanism as it is possible to be. Mum would have loved it. Lovely meal, lovely man.
And that generosity was the running undercurrent of the weekend. Ottolenghi and his partner and little boy stayed the weekend in a tent and, like all the speakers and participants, wandered about and were as much part of the event as the rest of us. The gardens were open and accessible all weekend long and, while there was the opportunity to go round the garden with Sarah as part of an organised talk, it was also fine to wander in on your own and mooch about amongst the dahlias and sweetpeas.
There was abundance everywhere, in the food and the flowers and the company.
On Saturday morning I woke with no sense at all of what time it could be. The sun through the cream canvas made me feel I was sleeping in a bubble of light. I felt around for my watch and eventually made sense of what it said: half past four. I rolled over, pulling myself back from the approaching tent wall, and went back to sleep.
Breakfast too was generous, with fresh rolls and bacon and home made jam, yoghurt and granola and sweet cherries and lots of tea and coffee. Afterwards I chose to walk with a group going round the farm with Adam Nicolson, rather than those going round the garden with Sarah. If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know that my relationship with my garden has been derailed this year by my wish and need to spend time with my father and with my father in law, both failing in different ways, one at one end of the country and one at the other. There is neither time nor energy for my usual obsessive thinking and dreaming and working in the garden. Right now the garden would be like a half finished embroidery or an abandoned manuscript, set aside for another day, were it not for the fact that it keeps on growing, disappearing under a welter of weeds, not a love affair but a vast reproach of outside housework. And walking is one of my great pleasures anyway so I thought it would be safer to walk with Adam Nicolson.
What a great thing to do! I knew him as a writer. I particularly enjoyed "Sea Room", about the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides. His writing is thoughtful, moving, passionate, knowledgeable. What I didn't know was that the man himself is funny, one of those charismatic, witty raconteurs who make you laugh with every second sentence even while they are telling you serious stuff about how often you have to move your sheep from field to field. Every two or three weeks. Who knew? So we walked across sheep filled fields, along muddy paths, down under trees, past Batemans, where Rudyard Kipling lived and back up a long slow hill and it was good.
Lunch was another plateful of total deliciousness. There were various options in the afternoon but I decided I was not going to open a restaurant in this life so chose instead to wander about the garden and to retire to the tent for a snooze. I had made a pact with Erica that while we were at Perch Hill we would not talk about illness and decline. I would simply be where I was, in a field in Sussex in summer.
Before dinner Jackson Boxer talked to us about making cocktails. Like all the speakers he was deeply knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. I don't even drink cocktails but I came away convinced I needed some Fernet Branca.
The cider tasting the following morning converted me to cider. The bread making session, where I thought I knew a great deal, taught me even more. We have been making all our own bread for twenty years or more but I didn't know what I didn't know.
More demonstrations from Gill Meller and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall from River Cottage and another feast-like meal in the evening. This is Gill in the tent showing us how to make salads to accompany mackerel with gooseberries. I loved the mackerel but this for me was the least successful meal, judged against the astonshingly high standard of the weekend, principally because I was unpersuaded by the use of strawberries rather than tomatoes in a panzanella. Too sweet, too mushy with none of the tang that tomatoes bring. The meal did however include probably the best dish of the whole feasting, a starter made with fresh lamb's liver. I had no idea a lamb's liver in its whole state was so big nor that it could produce a starter of such extraordinary, savoury creaminess.
We chatted to people at our table, all brought together by a love of food or gardening or both (and the not so little matter of having the time and the money to spare to be there). I had wondered if those attending would be predominantly the privileged: middle aged and middle class women from the Home Counties. The audience though was more mixed than that, men as well as women, younger people as well as the middle aged, and from all over the UK and beyond. I talked to a woman from Switzerland who had very enterprisingly come on her own and we drifted across to the bar, bought another glass of wine and sat by a fire pit, listening to live music which led to probably my favourite moment of the whole evening, when one of the young men serving at the bar proved to know all the words to "American Pie" and the whole bar sang along.
By Sunday morning we had got into the rhythm of things. A question and answer session, chaired by Adam and involving Sarah, Yotam, Valentine Warner and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, was funny and inspiring and challenging by turns. One of my absolute favourite sessions of the weekend, the bread making session led by Elizabeth Weisburg of the Lighthouse bakery went by far too quickly.
Here is Elizabeth, deftly, wryly, amusingly, making me feel I should branch out with our bread.
Valentine Warner demonstrated some dishes before lunch and was so unaffectedly funny, passionate and expert that I surprised myself by deciding to buy his latest book, "What to Eat Next", from the many possibilities in the shop, having originally intended to buy an Ottolenghi. I also bought Adam's "The Mighty Dead:Why Homer Matters". I have been reading this every night since I came home, torn between wanting to keep reading and gobble it all up and wanting it to last, not wanting it to finish. It is part literary commentary, part history, part archaeology, part philosophy, part personal treatise. It is years since I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and then only in translation. I remember loving them, particularly the Odyssey, as a teenager but I would have been hard put to remember why. Will I go back and read them again? Probably, particularly the Fagle translation which I am pretty sure I have never seen, but it is also likely that I will read Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad". As a woman I am ready for a change from all that rampaging violent masculinity in Homer.
The Perch Hill feast wound to a close at about three o' clock in the afternoon. We packed the car and said our goodbyes and made ready for the drive to Dorset where Erica was kindly giving me a bed for the night before I carried on to Devon to see my father. The whole weekend had seemed a very long way from North Wales where I live. Perhaps that sense of being away had been what I needed. It reminded me of the fact that I too am passionate about things other than my family, even if family is my core and for now family fills most of my view. Gardens, food, literature are all things which make up who I am. If all I do with that reminder immediately is to commit to cooking a different thing in a different way for the lovely jolt of the new I will have taken a lasting benefit away, along with the reminder that it is possible to snooze in the afternoon and to make a floral headdress. So thank you to Perch Hill, to Adam and to Sarah and all the presenters and all the other guests I talked to and wandered about with. Thank you to all the people who worked so hard to make the feasting happen. Thank you to Erica for her cheerful, open minded witty company and hospitality. Thank you to Ian whose idea it was. I had a great time.