Every two years since 2003 I have travelled out to a otherworldly, fairytale Chateau in south-west France to cook and cater for a unique and exquisite music festival. I take a wonderful team of cooks and together we spend 5 days in the medieval kitchen, chopping, stirring, cooking, baking, peeling, rolling preparing food for the Queille Festival. It is the most extraordinary 5 days, exhilarating, inspirational, gruelling but most importantly fun. The quantities are huge, at times overwhelming. The atmosphere, magical and the teamwork phenomenal. So many people come to help us in the kitchen that this year I lost count, new faces came in each day; fabulous, gorgeous bright young things, seemingly invincible, riding the crest of innocent youth. We laughed a lot, one mans laugh I would love to bottle, it was hilarious in itself, contagious and uplifting . Music played, jokes shared while all the time we cooked our hearts out.
The first ‘festival food’ actually does not get served till the friday evening. So the initial few days are spent putting together substantial canapes for that evening and preparing for the vast numbers that come thereafter. This year we kept very much to an Italian style, the inspiration after all was ‘Il Gattopardo’, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and this would be the ‘theme’ for the last night in terms of dressing up, music and food. Menu ideas for friday night were not hard to come by, after all the Italians do ‘cicchetti’ extremely well, the Venetian cuisine is famous for it. On reflection, ‘canapes’ is maybe a little too glamorous a word, these were not delicate pretty works of art, what we created was much more hearty, good, wholesome peasant food! We served everything from arrancini (deep-fried risotto balls) to individual butternut squash risotto, homemade pizza, tortellini skewers, polenta with melted gorgonzola, spicy pork and fennel seed meatballs, masses of Italian inspired croutes with toppings such as white bean puree, fennel and spicy salami, to shots of roasted red pepper and tomato soup with basil oil. My Italian friends would have been proud!
As the weekend unravels so does the pressure on us. The numbers peak at around 220 and we loosely base our catering calculations on that figure. Saturday has always been a BBQ and this year we stuck again to the Italian theme adding a very popular Macaroni cheese which was virtually inhaled. Sunday lunch was Asian inspired; we ended up popping the marinated salmon on the BBQ (faulty, dodgy French hire ovens refused to work) with stunning results, paired with huge salads and the gratefully received, addition of sunshine, it was my favourite meal.
Sunday night is a 3 course sit down dinner in the big top (see instagram shot). This is the grande finale for us and really the most challenging and difficult of all the meals we cater for. As mentioned earlier the theme for this year was ‘The Leopard’, which has the most bewitching, seductive, mouth-watering passages of banqueting I think I have ever read about. The food becomes so visual you can almost taste it. Antonio Carluccio made a wopping 90 minute documentary about it, reincarnating the mystical dishes and portraying them in the context of the time. The novel is exquisite, and the food described unforgettably beautiful, but the food is part of an era that has long since vanished. Take for example the exquisite ‘Macaroni Pie’. This astounding creation is made up of a rich pastry encasing macaroni, ‘un-born hen’s eggs’ (I kid you not), truffles, porcini, stock, chicken livers and a number of other improbable ingredients. Decadent, rich, astonishing, yet not something I thought would necessarily pander to our generations tastes. After much deliberation we sacrificed the macaroni pie, the rum jelly, the cassata and zuppa di fave and opted for a more modern-day Sicilian menu. A starter of caponata with brushetta, mozzarella and rocket, followed by Sicilian beef stew with capers, olives and rosemary, followed by Amaretti stuffed peaches. It was a shame, yet a decision we did not live to regret. ‘Macaroni Pie’ for 2oo really was pretty unfeasible.
The highlight for me was without question the Italian acrobats. Straight from the circus they performed death-defying stunts, it was all beautifully, ‘olde woldy’, no safety nets, no harness’, nothing, and much more exciting as a result. In terms of the food all of it was delicious, something about using produce that has not traveled hundreds of miles helps; the peaches were from Spain, strawberries from France. A few items stick in my mind, the ‘nectarine, fine bean and fennel salad’ was an epic masterpiece of summer lightness, all clean, crunchy and biting with flavour. The ‘lemon polenta cake’, which is a River Cafe recipe, was a super choice of pudding for 220 people on BBQ night, and just a recipe that will never be bettered, oh and it’s gluten free! And finally the ‘Amaretti stuffed peaches’ were regal naughtiness of the highest degree! So on that note I am going to leave you with the easiest and simplest of salads, the nectarine number! Perfect for summer, perfect for now and perfectly easy.
Nectarine, Fine Bean, Fennel Salad with Lime and Ginger Dressing (Serves 4 )
250 gms fine green beans topped and tailed and blanched very quickly – do not overcook
4 just ripe nectarines, segmented carefully into 8’s
1 large fennel bulb, julienned on a microplane
1 handful of fresh mint leaves lightly torn
1 1/2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
4 tablespoons ground nut oil
1 globe of preserved ginger or 1cm of freshly grated ginger
2 tbsp maple syrup 1 red chilli finely diced
1. To make the salad toss together the nectarines, fine beans, mint and fennel.
2. Make the dressing by shaking everything together really well in a jam jar. Dress the salad and serve immediately.