Cooking in Living History

As I type this, I am on a work trip to France, where I am trying my best to disguise the fact that, when it comes to speaking the language, I am about as useful as a glass trampoline. Last night, I found myself positively ravenous, and ended up in a quaint back street restaurant. Not wanting to appear to be an idiotic British tourist, I amazed myself by confidently ordering a duck dish. The most amazing thing was that a deliciously cooked portion of duck arrived on my plate – the waiter had understood my mangled voyeelles françaises, after all.

But that’s by the by. I could be anywhere as I type this. I was in Germany two days ago, but now I am in France. I should be outside, exploring the web of streets, meeting the people and soaking up the culture (along with the wine), but instead I’m in my hotel room, typing away on my computer.

I’ll write about all this in a later blog, but for now, a catch-up. Back in Blighty, I was invited to a soiree at Belvoir Castle, where I would dine with, among other prestigious luminaries, Their Graces The Duke and Duchess of Rutland and my good friend, Mrs. Moneypenny. Regular readers will recognise her name from previous blogs, where I prattled on about her namedropping me in her regular column in The Financial Times. Not only is she very good at her job, she is also great fun to be around.

Belvoir Castle

Belvoir Castle

I have seen some pretty impressive sights in my time, not least of which a pair of my university flatmate’s frozen underpants hanging precariously from a telegraph line, but nothing could have prepared me for the grandeur of the Norman palace, situated just outside the village of Grantham. As I approached the main entrance, I feared that I had come to the wrong place: were they really going to let a chancer like me come in? I expected to be confronted by a stern doorman, who quickly would look me up and down, sniff archly, and then politely ask that I return to my car.

This didn’t happen. Instead, I was ushered inside the castle, which made me feel quite like Bertie Wooster. Or perhaps like Jeeves.

I was immediately struck by its majesty. The building has existed in one form or another for nearly eight centuries, and has been home to the Manners family for five hundred of those, so the vast network of corridors breathed and buzzed with living, breathing history. It was if I was a tiny speck floating about a human body, dotting towards the lungs at its centre. As my shoes clacked against the floor, I took in the ornate coats of arms and priceless paintings adorning the walls. The most stunning canvas depicted Henry VIII, captured in one of his trademark foul moods. Gazing upon it, it was difficult to comprehend that this painting came into being around half a millennium ago. It sharply put so many things into perspective. I very much doubt that somebody will be reading my cookbooks in that length of time.

It was a fantastic day all round. I got to see the castle’s food systems, the kitchen command centre where I cooked the sumptuous meal which we devoured that evening. I stayed in the room in which the Duke of Wellington once slept, an echoing chamber around four times the size of my London flat, which made me think that I had fallen inside a vast bell-jar.

Maybe one day visitors will come to Belvoir, and the tour guide will say, “Yes, many famous historical figures have holidayed in this very building: Henry VIII, The Duke Of Wellington, James McIntosh… all the greats.”

I can but dream…

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