The classic impression of pre-war life in big houses like Highclere is of drifts of long days where gilded people dwell on idle dinners, make desultory conversations perched on deep red sofas or lob the occasional tennis ball across a grass court, facing few troubles except those they created for themselves. It was a world described brilliantly by the novelist Evelyn Waugh, particularly in his novel “Brideshead Revisited”. Curiously, Waugh married into the Carnarvon family – first (briefly) to “She-Evelyn” the daughter of the 5th Earl’s elder sister, Winifred and secondly, to Laura, Carnarvon’s brother Aubrey’s daughter.
Reading biographies of Evelyn Waugh, you get the feeling he was searching for a sense of family in real life as well as in fiction. He knew Highclere well and, in letters to Nancy Mitford, would use the phrase “very Highclere” when describing a particularly good weekend or piece of entertaining. Living in the 21st century, entertaining is still a part of our private life but also part of the business that is the modern Highclere.
Our recent filming with the delightful Mary Berry was just such “entertaining”. We had an enormous amount of fun, hosted a fabulous dinner party with good food, good company and old friends but also got to look at the more “business” side of Highclere. Sheep and lambs have grazed the park and land here for centuries and are one of the principle mainstays of our farming, so lamb was an entirely appropriate choice of Mary’s for the main course. In turn, I have always loved gooseberry fool, grow the fruit in our kitchen garden and included the recipe in my own cook book. My mother used to make it and I wish I had paid more attention to her! Mary added elderflower cordial (mine – very flattering!). At the end of the dinner in the Dining Room, Kit Hesketh Harvey stood up sang a song about how much we all love Mary Berry, it was most amusing although viewers did not get to hear it. I thought I might ask him for a reprise here that I could video.
As usual, quite a lot of the filming remained on the cutting room floor. One item that didn’t make it to the screen was Mary and me cooking together in my kitchen amongst my spaniels. There is not enough time in filming to worry about much, as you are just following directions and aware that each day has a deadline.
However, in retrospect I feel both honoured and more than a little nervous to think I was trying to cook with Mary. Amusingly, one of the first cook books I ever owned was one of Mary’s, given to me by a girlfriend Smiles, who was an excellent cook herself. I learnt a huge amount from cooking with her when we shared a flat at university although I did sometimes abandon her to change for supper to be ready to greet our guests. Even then it was all about entertaining… she usually needed a large glass of something to stop being so cross with me as I relaxed whilst she was performing a miracle with pears in red wine, for example.
The weather during filming of the plane hunt and picnic (which did appear on screen) was very cold. Mary had made some yummy warm tomato tarts and I had made potted shrimps (also rather yummy even if I do say so myself) but Steve, Paul and Robert were freezing on the picnic rug without Mary’s plentiful supply of hot water bottles, but I still think they appreciated them. I do genuinely take hot soup and sandwiches when we go on our plane hunts as it takes ages to find the crash sites and sitting and talking over lunch is so constructive, but we usually sit in the cars where it is warmer.
Food is a great leveller and I think the TV show gave a sense of us all sitting down to eat together at different times. I gather John G our Castle manager has had several emails offering him fish and chips and this evening my husband asked me when we had it and why he knew nothing about it. I think the answer there is because he would try and eat my chips.