We were kindly invited to dine at Sally Clarke's restaurant in London, by our good friend Johnny Grey, the famous kitchen designer. The occasion was not only the celebration of 30 year's work in the Kitchen design field, but the launching of a new book of Elizabeth David recipes, At Elizabeth David's Table: Her Very Best Everyday Recipes, published by Jill Norman, in order to bring her recipes to a newer, younger audience.
After dinner, pheasant with apples, pears in red wine and spices, perfect madeleines and chocolate truffles, Jill Norman spoke of her friendship and years working with Elizabeth David, and I spoke, perhaps more flippantly about the early days, when Johnny and I met in that deeply mystical rural idyll which were the South Downs on the Hampshire/West Sussex border in those days of the early 70's.
Here's a short exerpt to give you a flavour of the place then.....there was something akin to a Withnail and I atmosphere to the cottage:
"In late 1970, I was lucky enough to be allowed to rent for a peppercorn, a knapped flint cottage which was hidden away in a secret fold of the Downs, near South Harting.
Except for a few alarming and boozy dinners with an angry cousin of Samuel Beckett who lived on the next hill, and carried with him a miasma of Soho drinking dens, it was very quiet on my side of the hill.
On spring days there was the silence of the bluebell woods and on winter nights the wind whispered it’s sinister Cold Comfort Farm type message through the kale fields which rose darkly to the horizon.
There was also a ghost apparently; a baby which cried in the cupboard from time to time, but it could only be heard by women so I wasn’t bothered.
After a quiet month or two I began to wonder where the action was. In spite of importing guests from London every few weeks, writers, photographers, art students and debutantes who veered towards hippiness, silence reigned supreme for 90% of the time. I could almost hear the weeds growing.
Over the busier weekends, my cooking skills improved; road-kill venison, arrived in the back of the police van and was butchered in the bathtub by the village bobby; it was cooked with cream and coffee and apple jelly; to be followed by wild plums stewed with vanilla, the juice thickened with egg yolks,and the whites beaten to a meringue with sugar, the whole, baked in the oven. Thick yellow raw Jersey cream came from a mad hatter of a woman down the road towards Nywood.
She took to bringing me cream and staying for a cocktail, her muddy boots leaving good clods of heavy clay down the passage to the living room. Undoubtedly these hills were filled with loons and strange passions."
So much for 1970-71 in an ancient cottage in West Sussex, now back to the Sierra de Aracena 2010.
This month is the month when HelpX saves our lives. We have the chestnut harvest to cope with, hills to clear of scrub, and now that the first rains have fallen we are allowed to have bonfires to get rid of the heaps of Cistus, Gorse, and Broom which have been uprooted from the damp earth. If allowed to run riot, these plants can take over the hillsides, grow to a height of almost two meters and become a dangerous fire hazard. Today we let out the sheep onto the cleared hillside, so that they can benefit from the chestnuts overlooked by the gatherers.
First arrivals were three graduates of Sewanee, the University of the South. Patrick, Matt and John were with us for a couple of weeks and worked hard on picking chestnuts during the early stage of the harvest, when the first nuts fell to the ground. Then came Mark and Melanie Slagle from Buffalo New York, both with great restaurant experience and an easy manner.IThey got down into the stream to find some of the biggest and roundest nuts, and are surely responsible for improving the overall quality of the pick! In Early November, the Dunphy family, Ed, Brenda, Jacob and Rebecca arrived from Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island they pretty much finished up the harvest, bringing the total to about 2 metric tonnes. Now we have Daniel and Adam, from Birmingham, Alabama, taking huge pride in the beautiful clear chestnut forest. This morning the smoke of their fires was wafting down the valley.
The chestnut trees have turned from yellow to red, and leaves are falling rapidly. The poplars along the stream bed are now bare of leaves. Nights are getting cold, and soon frost will put an end to what has been one of our best wild mushroom seasons. Boletus Edulis (Porcini), Caesar's Mushroom (Amanita Caesaria) and Saffron Milkcaps (Lactarius deliciosus) have been plentiful, and if the frost keeps away over the next two weeks, we should start finding chanterelles.
In early November we hosted a five day cookery holiday with Sue Clark and Joanie Ott from Denver, and Judy Lozier from St. Louis.
The weather was wet and windy, and the swollen River Guadalquivir ran greyish brown with silt,where it emerges into the Atlantic Ocean.
Still we had a bright moment and were able to take some snaps in front of Restaurante Poma, where we had an excellent fish lunch. Gambas Blancas de Huelva, Sepia en su Tinto, Salmonetes a la Parilla, Puntillitas, all washed down with that fresh Cadiz white wine, Tierra Blanca, in which the Palomino grape is blended with Riesling, to give it a helping hand.
We also had a morning visit to Juan Mateos Arizón at Sanchez Romero Carvajal, in Jabugo. Here is a picture of him checking over the Jamón in the cellars.
25th-28th November 2010 we are expecting the arrival of London Chef and food and travel writer, Nick Balfe who is bringing a group of cooks for a long weekend of Spanish cooking using amongst other things, the local Jamón Iberico de Bellota.
For 2011 we are planning a new series of week-long workshops on food photography and styling. The courses will be run in spring and Autumn under the title Natural Light, Natural Food, and will be an extension to the courses already run in Gascony, France by well-known photographer Tim Clinch
at Kate Hill's Gascony farmhouse the centre for working with La Cuisine du Sud Ouest. This is the region for Agen Prunes, wonderful orchard fruits, Classic sweet wines such as Monbazillac, and pork and duck rillettes, various duck and goose products, such as foie gras, and confit....Heaven!
Our Natural Food, Natural Light courses will concentrate on the products of Andalucia and Southern Extremadura, which is very close to Finca Buenvino.
Dates for these courses and four our own cookery weeks or long weekends, will be published in this blog and our website shortly www.fincabuenvino.com