St John Banquet at Wilderness Festival

680pxl st john

When Thomas and I got married earlier this year, my brother voiced two fears. Firstly that we’d suddenly become really middle-aged. And secondly, that we’d become really comfortable with each other, and contentedly flabby.

Poor Greg pondered the problem long and hard. Then he had a brainwave. A lightning bolt idea for a wedding present, which would slow our inevitable descent down this slippery slope: Festival Tickets. That’d keep us young and hip, right? Down with the kids…

Now, dear reader, the only glitch in his logic, the only bit which really made me chortle was his choice of festival: Wilderness . Dubbed by Time Out magazine: “The biggest middle-class love-in of the year.”

Wilderness is set in the grounds of Lord and Lady Roherwick’s Cotswald estate, Cornbury Park. The rolling hills provide the backdrop for horse riding safaris, fly fishing classes and a lake side spa during the festival. Last year, Bank of England governor Mark Carney was seen chillaxing at Wilderness. This year, Burt Bacharach was headlining, for goodness sake!

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If the festival tickets were supposed to slow mine and Thomas’ inevitable descent into middle agedom, they failed. If anything, I crept one step closer over the course of the weekend. I went to an absolutely brilliant lecture by Ramita Navai  (City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran), and a talk by Eddie Gillespie, who asked the audience to reconsider their notion of ‘travel’ and ‘adventure’. I relished a morning swim in the lake, I chuckled along to the commentary at the festival’s cricket match, and was up bright and early to attend The Sunday Assembly.

If Wilderness tickets slightly failed on the middle aged front, they epically failed on the flabbiness front though. There was a raclette hut, a thali cafe, a churros and chocolate stall, trucks selling tea and crumpets, fish ‘n chip vans and mountains of pulled pork. Aside from all the ‘fast food’ joints, Wilderness hosts ‘banquets’, which can be booked in advance. And they draw serious names. This year, Hix, Moro, St John, Simon Rogan and Angela Hartnett were all at Wilderness – and we were lucky enough to procure four tickets for the St John banquet.

St John Smithfield is my favourite place to eat in all of London. For those of you who don’t know the restaurant, a brief synopsis: It was founded by 1994 by Fergus Henderson, who is often cited as being the father of the British food revival. He spearheaded ‘nose to tail’ eating, made offal cool, and brought traditional pastry puddings back into fashion. His menus are so exciting, the food is exquisite  and the restaurant’s French wines are consistently delicious and great value.

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Despite decamping to a field kitchen in The Cotswolds, and despite us being the second sitting (1pm/2pm), the banquet exceeded all expectations. Henderson’s food isn’t for the faint-hearted. Luckily I love a challenge. And I managed to dispel the image of fat, black horseflies perched on top of piles of tripe at Britxon market, enough to devour the pickled tripe salad to start. Who knew that pickled tripe could be so sweet and so delicate? The chicory and shallot salad combined two of my favourite bitter-sweet vegetables, and the pigeon terrine was rich and gamey and delicious.

The absolute highlight of the meal though was the ox tongue with beetroot and aioli. In the classic St John style, it was served simply so all the attention was on the whopping, half-foot tongue. Simple, but beautiful. The roasted beetroot was earthy and sweet and well-seasoned. A totally different vegetable to vinegary, vaccy-packed supermarket beetroots.  And crikey, that aioli was garliccy and glossy and rich. The happiest trio of ingredients I can remember sitting alongside each other on a plate.

The best way of describing how utterly divine the puddings were, is to tell you that one of Thomas’ great nemeses is trifle, (traumatised by school trifles, I imagine). But after wolfing down a spoonful of the peach and sherry trifle, he declared that “if all trifles tasted like this, then I’d eat them the whole time“. Probably a good job they don’t. The sponge was so light though, delicately laced with a flash of sherry … not sodden with a ten-year old oloroso, as is the way with trifles of people’s nightmares.

The rich chocolate terrine was perfectly offset by some sharp blackberries and cream, and the raspberry Eton mess was a summery dream. The unexpected joy though was the powerful northern duo of Eccles cakes and Lancashire Poacher. Not many people appreciate quite how well a lump of crumbly cheese goes with glossy sweet currents. Take my my word for it though, mince pies and Christmas cakes are both vastly improved by a little nubbin of mature cheddar. And this Lancashire combination of pie and poacher was the perfect way to end a really memorable meal.

£40 for three-course meal, including a Kamm & Sons cocktail

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