Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A Festival of Food

The Henley Festival, a five-day music and arts festival, is held annually at Henley-on-Thames in early July. It follows on from the famous Henley Regatta and is part of the iconic London “season”. Unlike many outdoor summer music festivals, the dress code is black tie and the mood is glamour. Leading performers from the music world, from classical opera singers to modern bands, perform on both the floating stage and in other venues on site. Along the water’s edge you will find huge tents housing displays from local art galleries alongside outdoor sculpture gardens (this year two original Salvador Dali sculptures were featured). Performance artists wander amongst the crowd, minstrels brushing shoulders with wandering actors, and performers on stilts tower above one’s head. But although it is billed as The Henley Festival of Music and the Arts, I believe the Henley Festival is also a festival of food and drink.

Perhaps it is because I love food so much that I feel this way, but I maintain that eating really is a huge part of the experience at Henley. The Henley Festival boasts three major restaurants with Michelin starred chefs. There are also a myriad of smaller cafes and restaurants. And of course, like at so many summer events in the United Kingdom, you can picnic. Although you cannot picnic in the grounds of the festival, it is positively encouraged before the festival opens in the car park. This may sound like the less than glamorous option, but it definitely isn’t. The Henley car park is actually a green field without an inch of tarmac in sight, and if you get there early you will see examples of British picnicking at its finest. Guests set up small canopies, cloth gazebos, tables and chairs and dine from china plates, drinking champagne from crystal glasses. You can bring your own picnic, but if you prefer they are available to order from Carluccio’s, a wonderful restaurant in the town centre. Carluccio’s provide a gourmet offering that is about as far from the picnics of my childhood as I could possibly imagine. Antipasti Misti, including chilli stuffed olives and balsamic onions, sits alongside Insalata alla Caprese, the classic Italian salad. A delicious chicken liver pate is served on toasted Italian bread. Pan fried breaded lamb cutlets with lemon are accompanied by char-grilled vegetables in a balsamic marinade. Dessert is a beautiful lemon cake, Dolce di Limone . There is even a cheese course and wine is included. There is a vegetarian option to the picnic as well which includes Caponata, a Sicilian aubergine (egg plant), pine nut and olive stew. It’s gourmet picnicking at its best.

If you would rather eat after you have entered the festival grounds, there is a huge choice of venues available. The most luxurious options (which of course require reservations in advance) are the “Roux at the Riverside” restaurant run by Michel and Albert Roux (both Michelin starred chefs) or La Scala (Michel Roux is also the chef here). Roux at the Riverside features a four course Menu Gastronomique and speaking from past experience, it is delicious. The menu changes year to year and this year featured choices including Roast duck, tomato and basil fondant with baby artichokes, rack of new season lamb roasted with preserved lemon and ginger marinade, fillet of halibut and supreme of guinea fowl. I remember the desserts being especially tempting. This year the selection included white chocolate mousse with raspberries and apricot and amaretto almond cream baked with puff pastry. The other luxury option, La Scala, is housed in a beautiful marquee decorated with amazing flower arrangements. They offer hospitality packages, some of which even include a personal appearance by the famous chef. On arrival you are greeted with canapés and champagne. This is followed by a four-course gourmet dinner with fine wines, all finishing in time for the first musical performance on the floating stage at half past eight.

Also requiring reservations in advance, but slightly more casual and relaxed than Roux at the Riverside or La Scala, is The Terrace Restaurant. We dined there this year and it is indeed a terrace, not at all accessible by anyone who cannot manage its many stairs, but offering lovely views over the River Thames. (Outside of London the Thames is very beautiful indeed, running through miles of gorgeous countryside.) The menu at The Terrace is three courses and offers wide choice of both hot and cold dishes. I have to say our experience there this year was faintly disappointing, however they had a good choice of dishes - five starters (entrées), three hot main courses and two cold ones, plus a choice of three desserts or cheese. My husband and I had lobster bisque to start and my son had a Parma ham and melon dish served alongside a cold pea soup. I’m not sure of the wisdom of serving pea soup cold – it resulted in a fair amount of nose wrinkling from my son, who is normally not a fussy eater at all. For the main course, my husband had lamb with fluffy mash potatoes and beautifully cooked green beans. This was the best dish of all those we ordered and he thoroughly enjoyed it. Sadly, my son and I had ordered the fillet of beef. We both like our steak cooked medium, but this was far too close to the rare side of medium for either of us to really enjoy. Sadly the side dishes were disappointing as well. For dessert, we all chose Apple and Sultana Crumble with clotted cream. It was beautiful in appearance (it’s in the photograph above), but it was served stone cold. Had it been warmed, I think it would have been delicious. I’d visit the Terrace again though; I think they were just having a bad night. The variety on the menu is good and the view is wonderful. Performance artists wander by (we were treated to a mini performance of Swan Lake by ballerinas on stilts!) and you can watch the boats on the river, which range from small launches to large yachts.

If you want a more casual dining experience still, there is the Italian Garden restaurant serving Italian specialties, a Tapas garden offering traditional Spanish fare or the Busker’s Bar offering sandwiches and salads alongside champagne and the traditional long British summer drink, Pimms. Should you want something slightly more exotic, the Chinese Garden offers dishes featuring flavors of the East. There is also a Tex-Mex bar and small kiosks offering everything from toasted sandwiches to crêpes. Chairs and tables scattered here and there so you can sit and watch the world go by as you eat, or you can wander along the river eating or sipping champagne.

Wherever you go at the Henley Festival, you will see people enjoying every manner of gourmet fare and partaking of fine wines and champagne. There really is a lot more to it than just music and arts – the Henley Festival is a great place for food lovers too!

(The next Henley Festival of Music and the Arts takes place in July 2010.

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