What an idea this was! To recreate a Grand Feast as might have been experienced by the 18th Century aristocratic traveller on the Grand Tour around Europe that was an essential part of any self-respecting 1700s Nobleman’s cultural education. Not only to recreate it, but to invite us to sample a range of dishes. hosted, entertained, educated and enlightened by Ivan Day, Food Historian and, I suspect, a bit of a bon viveur.
The School of Artisan Food, where the Feast was held, is without doubt one of the jewels in Nottinghamshire’s Crown. A fantastic resource in the most beautiful of settings. I have attended several courses there and, so, it was no great surprise to find myself schlepping over there last Sunday for a unique afternoon of eating and drinking. The journey to Welbeck on a slightly overcast, but warm, Sunday in July reminded me of just how magnificent the countryside around Sherwood Forest and the ancient Dukeries really is. Lush, green and verdant.
And so it was that 30 of us gathered for drinks in the beautiful cobbled courtyard of the Artisan School (where it was hoped we would be able to eat but sadly, the threat of showers – which in the end never materialised put paid to that).
We started with “Restaurant Soup” – never heard of it? no, me neither. It was clear pretty early on that the tastes and flavours we were about to experience would challenge the modern palate – not unpleasant, I might add, but certainly unusual. The recipes were as authentic as possible, drawn from Ivan’s clearly extensive knowledge and resources – and illustrated through ancient cookery books of monastic origin, rare trinkets and gadgets, moulds, spits and pasta wheels, from his private collection. Of course, I have nothing to compare the dishes to, but must assume they were as close as it is pretty much possible to get to the original flavours. This may, or may not, be a good thing! Either way, the Chefs at the School did a fantastic job.
Anyway, our starter – Restaurant Soup, a meat broth originally served as a “restorative” with alleged medicinal qualities, and, it would seem the origin of the word “restaurant”. A clear soup with croutons and chives, probably most accurately described as a mild and salty lukewarm bowl of Bovril. Not at all unpleasant in fact, but definitely a hint of the mugs of scalding hot beef stock my mother used to present me with when I had a head cold.
Next came Punch a la Romaine – an amazing palette cleanser of iced punch, made in situ by Ivan’s enthusiastic mixing of a slightly bizarre set of ingredients in an old wooden bucket. It included amongst other things, champagne and French meringue. Sold in the Punch Houses of Florence and Rome, in the summer heat, this “sorbet” was a miracle of ancient engineering, Ivan’s wooden bucket was in fact a double lined “Sorbetière” containing ice and salt to freeze the Punch mix. Ivan continued his alchemy with, I think, some more alcohol and lemon zest, until he produced this…
Now this was truly delicious, and it was at this point that I rather regretted that I had had to drive over to Welbeck, as I could have quite happily started to get pleasantly sloshed at this point. I did think how lovely this would have been if it were an evening event, somewhere with bedrooms that we could roll into after the event (not all of us together, obvs).
As the food was served and then cleared, Ivan continued to share stories, vignettes, observations and facts to illustrate the development of food, how the influences from Europe came back to England, indeed, how sophisticated and complex the food of history (at least for the nobility) really was. He is an engaging speaker and narrator, I could listen to him for hours.
The next dish, Platos de Truchas y Yervas, or Trout with Leafy Vegetables, was described by Ivan as something akin to a breakfast “fry up” for Grand Tourists as they passed through Spain. This was a truly delicious dish. I could actually see myself attempting to recreate this at home – freshwater trout, almonds, orange segments, pancetta (cured at Welbeck) and braised lettuce. A fish dish for “meat days” in the Catholic calendar. I don’t think I eat enough, indeed hardly any, freshwater fish. Must get onto that.
The Grand Dish of the Grand Feast – the suckling pig – made a rather ungallant entry on a stainless steel catering trolley – I think I’d rather fancy it being held aloft on a silver platter by two elegant young Italian chaps (sorry Ivan). Nonetheless, a whole pig is always a joy to behold and this was no exception and indeed, was a dish I have neither heard or even conceived of. A whole de-boned suckling pig stuffed with macaroni and a range of spices, herbs, and I think he said Parmesan as well.
Now whilst this looked magnificent as a whole pig, the ceremonious slicing in half through the crackled skin (what did happen to the crackling by the way guys??) to reveal a torrent of macaroni pasta gushing out of the cavity was, well, astonishing. On the one hand, something like the Cornucopia horn of mythical tales gushing forth unimaginable abundance, on the other, as if the corpse of the pig had been rendered apart to reveal a bellyful of maggots. You pays your money and you makes your choice.
As for taste, well, the pasta was moreish, but not necessarily in a good way. I felt compelled to keep nibbling at it even though I wasn’t sure I was enjoying it. The best way I can describe the pork (beautifully cooked and fall-apart moist as it was) was, “piggy”, very, very piggy.
For all we think of the modern spices and flavours we use in contemporary cooking from all over the globe, and for all we imagine that the food of European history must have been pretty bland, the flavour combinations in these dishes were extraordinary. But this was as nothing compared to what was to come.
At this point we were offered some local beer, brewed on site at the fabulous Welbeck Brewery, to help illustrate the movement of food and drink influences as the, largely beer-drinking, Grand Tourists toured the wine drinking regions of Southern Europe. Unfortunately, I could only take a sip at this point (it was delicious for all that) and once again I rued the fact that I was driving.
Well, if you want a combination of unusual flavours, look no further than the Insalata a la Reale, or Royal Salad that came up next. This “salad” and I use the term loosely, contained no less than 27 ingredients. I won’t list them all, but suffice to say, it included, fruits, zests, boiled eggs, pomegranate seeds, olives, crystallised pumpkin (I think), pine nuts, comfits, capers, pistachios, grapes, fresh fish, salted and preserved fish and roe, served on a bed of Balsamic infused bread pin wheels. Yep. A magnificent looking dish and strangely moreish, a bit like eating a bag of old-fashioned raspberry sours, it hurts your mouth but somehow you can’t stop yourself eating more. Whatever else I take from eating this amazing dish, I will at least feel that when I present my family with a “anything I can find in the fridge salad surprise”, I will be following in a strong tradition of European culinary history.
Finally, we finished our Feast with Spongata and Parmesan Ice-Cream. Just goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun, Basil, Lavender and Parsnip have been just a few of the ice-creams I have been served, clearly savoury ices also have a long heritage. The Spongata, a kind of sweet mincemeat pie, with a pastry casing (made in a beautiful wooden mould that Ivan helpfully illustrated the dish with) contained, I think, pine nuts, walnuts, pepper, honey, egg and breadcrumbs, a recipe possibly dating back to Roman times. It has to be said the pastry (was it just flour and water?) defeated me, and indeed reminded my of mother’s pastry (sorry mum).
And with this dish we took our leave.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, if I have one observation, it would be that the setting inside didn’t do the fantastic feast as much justice as I think it deserved, outside, or in an older or grander room much would have been added to the spectacle. But this is a minor point in the scheme of things.
The Feast is a part of the brilliantly conceived Grand Tour of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire put together by Nottingham Contemporary, Chatsworth House, Derby Museums, the Harley Gallery, Experience Nottinghamshire and Visit Peak District and Derbyshire. It compliments a range of exhibitions and events showcasing the art, culture and landscapes of these ancient counties. Congratulations to you all for putting this together, and to the brilliant School of Artisan Food (and their chefs) for their fabulous efforts and for Ivan Day for being a great host and a knowledgable and fascinating speaker. I really hope you can repeat the experience and this was the first but not the last of such Feasts.