Growing up we usually spent the Christmas holidays in Cornwall. It was a large windy house on a beach and, on high tides, the sea came up below the cliff and past the windows. We climbed over rocks, collected mussels and went on long walks. At first we did not have a TV, which leads my son to enquire, kindly, whether I was born before or after the Second World War. Later, when we did, a favourite musical film around which we would gather when it made its seasonal reappearance was “Oliver!”
On one level this is a tough story based on a Charles Dickens novel about poverty and survival in Victorian England. On another level, it is also a fun musical with great songs and a lively cast. We would find ourselves singing “Food glorious food, hot sausage and mustard, while we’re in the mood cold jelly and custard… etc. etc.” out on walks. In Oliver’s case such delicious food was purely in the imagination, whereas for most of us memories of lovely food and family gatherings define childhood and celebrations.
Earlier this year I found myself cooking with Mary Berry as part of a programme coming out on the BBC which looks at cooking in Stately Homes; some of the stories and traditions as well as perhaps a few secrets.
Mary has led so many successful cooking programmes with her combination of skill and practicality as well as her charm and repartee in front of the camera. It was an amazing experience and I sometimes have to pinch myself when I realise that Highclere has now been lucky enough to have hosted both Mary Berry as well as Maggie Smith!
Food and cooking is at the heart of each day. I know that what to eat or how much is a matter of concern for many people, whether it is raw, juiced, spiralised, whether it should or should not involve carbohydrates or dairy. Nevertheless, I wonder sometimes what my mother or her mother would think. Running in hungry from walks on the beach it was always the same cry of “what’s for lunch?”, and we took it in turns to choose the puddings from treacle tart, to sponge puddings, rice pudding or apple charlotte. We all feel better if we eat well (but not too well) and all my dogs and horses most definitely really enjoy their food (or fodder) too.
Some weekends I plan a picnic lunch, a prospect which still utterly amazes Luis and Jorge who help us on the banqueting and butling side. They are both from Portugal which is warm and sunny, perfect for picnics rather than my version of March picnics on an English hill with thick coats and warm soup. Nevertheless the tables are covered in linen and at least the clotted cream on the scones will not move in the cold weather.
The food at Highclere starts well before the table or the kitchen. It begins in fields – either on our own farm or in others. Ultimately, agriculture might be rather scientific these days but, at bottom, it is just about food: food for friends and for the heart, whilst the mechanics of producing it helps create landscapes, in turn, food for the soul. All rather glorious!