After two decades 2015 is likely to see me hang up my apron from cooking at West Dean Gardens. It took me nearly a week to recover from the 20th Chilli Fiesta so I think that’s enough - but I will be at The Apple Show on both days. I will be cooking lots of delicious apple recipes, am really looking forward to it and hope to see you there.For more information go to the West Dean site.
West Dean’s events have evolved into hugely successful festivals, full of people, music and taste experiences and have introduced thousands of people to the Gardens. I have had enormous fun cooking with celebrities in recent years - well, some of them cooked and with some I cooked and they just chatted. Levi Roots was great - he was the most hands on of the celebrity guests (I mean, with the food!) and Wayne Sleep was fun, spilling the beans about Celebrity MasterChef and the fact that he really doesn’t cook much at all. I suggested we did the Big Dance from Dirty Dancing at the end of our dem - I went down the tent and he ran into my arms which was by far the safest option all round! The audience loved it!
It was also really interesting being part of Lynda Bellingham’s food tour around the UK. She turned up at West Dean and was inspired to create a lime and basil cheesecake. Well, it was probably the production team who thought of it but at least I was able to talk them out of getting her to hand churn some strawberry ice cream - hard work and potentially very messy!
The most legendary appearance at a West Dean show was when Mary Berry came to the short-lived Grow, Cook, Eat! event. Mary was already riding high as Bake Off Queen but we always have fun and she agreed to come back to West Dean, a place which she loves and where we have had a lot of laughs together. This was the time that I burnt the one ‘she’ had prepare earlier - her mincemeat frangipane tart - and we ended up cutting the top off it and smothering the remainder in apricot glaze and (rather more than usual) flaked almonds. There were hundreds in the tent to witness the fun and people still want to talk to me about it at dems and tastings to this day! Lucy, Mary’s right hand woman and assistant of many years, rang me the Monday after the show to report that Mary had said it was the funniest dem she had ever done!
On a more educational note - but still with a good seasoning of humour - I ran food courses at West Dean for a couple of years. One of these was a food lecture day exploring “How the British fell in love with Food” and I was able to bring together great names like Katie Stewart and Colin Spencer, who wrote frequently for the Guardian as well as penning his classic books, with current favourites including Xanthe Clay. Looking back at how our tastes have changed and why that has happened is fascinating. James Meers of Barfoots of Botley talked about the protocols and principles of modern large scale veg growing around the world. Barfoots have always supported me with product for West Dean and so many other events and they look set to become more involved with the Chilli Fiesta over the years to come. For another food lecture day I was able to bring together speakers as diverse as Mary Clear, one of the founders of the Incredible Edible guerrilla gardening movement based in Todmorden, Yorkshire, and food writing great Elisabeth Luard. Giles Thompson of The Earl of March at Lavant also dusted of his fine dining kitchen skills with dems at shows, and tutorials at food courses. He entertained everyone with tales of the kitchens at The Ritz during his time there as Executive Chef. Food satisfies the mind as well as the body.
How did my relationship with West Dean begin? My friend Anna Fleming and I ran a food festival in Chichester for 4 years and during the first event in 1995 we wanted to invite the Guild of Food Writers down south for a workshop of some kind at West Dean - the Walled Garden was then fairly newly restored. Sarah and Jim hosted a salad workshop for us, at a time when the bagged salads of today were yet to be mainstream and people were newly experimenting with mustard and pepper flavoured leaves. Our salad guide was Frances Smith of Appledore Salads, one of the first to sell commercial leaves to the top London chefs and the workshop was a culinary revelation to all those attending, including Caroline Holmes of the Herb Society.
After basing our first Festival in the city centre we decided to move out to West Dean, with a large marquee on the picnic lawn and this ran for 3 years. Anna and I approached Waitrose for sponsorship and, whilst they didn’t actually give us money (why do I find achieving that so hard?!) they did send Raymond Blanc to do a dem for us, on the proviso that our marquee was large enough for an audience of 200 people. Needless to say, we sold out very quickly. Raymond loved his walk around the Walled Garden with Sarah, leaping over the box hedges to taste apples, plums and anything else that caught his eye. Was West Dean the inspiration for his garden at Le Manoir? Maybe! His assistant was the fabulous Alex Mackay, subsequently linked closely with Delia's cookery school in Norwich. I remember Raymond's radio mic breaking during the dem and having to follow him about, up close and personal, with a hand mic - someone had to do it! Waitrose subsequently sponsored Sophie Grigson and Antonio Carluccio to come to the Chichester Food Festival and thus began a relationship of almost 20 years with them for me - and the way was paved for some sponsorship for West Dean events as well. I also managed to encourage both Sophie and Antonio back for future Herb and Tomato shows - West Dean’s walled garden makes such a huge impression on anyone who loves to cook.
Our Chichester Food Festival events were well supported by both audiences and suppliers - Tim Jasper put in the kitchen for us each year in the tent, and Hoad & Taylor latterly installed an Aga in the marquee for cooking. It was quite a set up! A Taste of Ulster held a reception for supermarket buyers one evening and that was the start of many companies stocking Irish soda breads, mushrooms and other produce. We also brought the great Joy Larkcom to West Dean for the first time, the gardening legend who pioneered ‘cut and come again’ salad. Joy subsequently returned for a food and gardening course. Of course I did a dem each year and Nik Westacott, the local Mushroom Man, led a mushroom hunt and showed how to cook the foraged produce afterwards. We also held lunches - the most popular guest speaker was the legendary food writer Robert Carrier. Bob was delighted with the dilapidated state of many copies of his classic Great Dishes of the World which were brought along for his signature.
No-one who loves cooking could fail to be inspired by the Walled Garden at West Dean. I have had a wonderful time there. I will still be holding my own events locally and you will find out about them on this website - as well as cooking at other places such as Parham House from time to time. Thanks to all of you who have told me how much you have enjoyed it all, and to Pam, Brenda and Sue who helped out behind the scenes in the Old Days, to Carol who has volunteered to try to keep me on the straight and narrow, to Penny and Sheila for helping at the courses, and to Bex and Glen for their back stage efforts at this year’s Chilli Fiesta and in recent years. No-one can be ‘out the front’ with confidence without a great team behind them.