by Silvana de Soissons•14th September 2011
The summer sees the welcome return of the Gifford Circus and its alfresco eatery, Circus Sauce restaurant. It is one of those old fashioned, family entertainment events that will make you want to embrace the outdoors, buy a caravan and trailer, pitch a marquee or sleep under the stars. Its history is as fascinating as the stories that are acted out within its travelling sets.
After Nell Gifford finished her English Literature degree at Oxford University she began her circus career in America. Over a decade ago, along with her husband, the landscape designer Toti Gifford, she created an all singing, all dancing, juggling, trapeze, acrobatic, mime, storytelling and music troupe that tours twelve different locations in and around the Cotswolds over a four month period, starting in the middle of May in Frampton on Severn and ending in September in Cirencester.
The rest of the time they live on a small farm in Gloucestershire with their two young children, Red and Cecil, where they grow the food that is served in Sauce Restaurant during the summer months. They find, recruit and train all the different singers, musicians and performance artistes that make up the troupe as well as travelling all over Europe working with other circuses and producers. Over many hundreds of hours of practice and repetition they fine tune and hone every single act to perfection, before loading up the caravans and setting off on the road at the start of the tour.
The Giffords Circus travels in handsome burgundy and cream retro caravans and trucks that are all parked in a circle around the big top tent that sits in the middle of the site. When you arrive you will see the restaurant tent and kitchen caravan where Chef Shane Bagley, from San Diego, California, and Sous Chef Mirco Antoniazzi, from Verona, Italy, are hard at work in the smallest kitchen I have ever visited. There is a tiny washing up and sink area and a very compact cooking station, with a bottled gas stove and oven and stainless steel preparation sections.
You will immediately realise just how organised, efficient and streamlined the ergonomics of this kitchen are: all the utensils and accessories are either arranged on the walls, or on hooks at the side, all the dry goods are lined up neatly on racks and side shelves and every single inch of the caravan is used to maximum productivity. No space is wasted.
Tonight’s menu is ambitious: a salad of roasted beetroot, hazelnuts, orange, fennel and goats cheese; a twice baked butternut squash soufflé; honey roast chicken cooked with lemons and fresh garden herbs, served with grilled courgettes, green beans and puy lentils and for pudding a soft chocolate brownie served with Cotswold ice cream.
Many chefs would have difficulty cooking this menu to timed perfection in a normal kitchen, let alone within the confines of this cramped workspace, but Shane and Mirco are completely serene and calm. “You get used to it,” Shane told me, “and by the time you have done the tea and cake interval and cooked and served dinner for forty two people after every evening show, you get the hang of it!”
All of the staff employed on the tour sleep in caravans and use the facilities provided at base camp. I ask Shane and Mirco if after so many weeks of everyone travelling together relentlessly, tempers get frayed and friends fall out. “To be honest, we work such long hours, or we are on the road travelling, so there is never any time for friction,” Shane explained.
He is busy writing the recipes that he has created for Circus Sauce restaurant, and the Gifford Circus team hope to publish the collective repertoire from all the years of Circus Sauce in a cook book to be released next year.
The Head waiter, Daniel Hilary-Jones, is busy setting out the table placements and arranging the tables for the interval. On the restaurant shelves are dotted teapots, cups, plates and bowls by ceramics designer Emma Bridgewater, who is Nell’s sister. There are fresh garden flowers, coloured candles, bright stacking chairs, big, scrubbed wooden tables and cheery lights, all housed under a square white marquee that is attached to the kitchen caravan. Grass is your floor, canvas is your ceiling and laughter and music fill the air.
Beside the restaurant there is another caravan from which Shane’s wife, Maisie Rose McArthur, is the resident pizzaiola. She turns and flips the millimetre thin pizza dough circles on outstretched fists and she cooks them on amazing pizza ovens, called Chadwick Ovens (www.chadwickoven.com), which are gas fired and can sit on your kitchen top. The smell is so delicious that long queues form at half time. There is a multi-coloured electric organ playing in the distance, right next to the candy floss stall, and the hunger begins to assail you.
Tonight’s theme is “War and Peace” Tolstoy’s classic, epic tale of war, love and patriotism, told in the vaudeville narrative and extravaganza imagery of the circus. A knife throwing Napoleon struts his arrogance on a sawdust dance floor; empire dressed aristocratic belles dance and sing their men off to war; a tap dancing, headstand balancing gentleman, dressed in Russian 18th Century Cossack costume, descends a wooden staircase on one hand; a silk sheet entwined gymnast plays a violin as she is spun perilously head down by a rope drawn by six burly men and two Ethiopian jugglers send fiery batons swirling in the air, catching them behind their backs, all to the captivating rhythm of a brass band ensemble.
From the clever lyrics, to the bright costumes, the complex choreography, the meticulous directorial control and even the skill of the handlers of the horses, doves, goose, hawk and chickens, you will be stunned and overcome as to how meticulously everything is designed and executed. Make sure you read the programme booklet in detail as it tells the story of how the show is created and developed.
After rapturous applause we all file out of the big tent, into the warm, twinkling, starlit night and through to dinner. We sit, supper club style, next to total strangers on long tables, chatting and gossiping how brilliant the show has been. We serve ourselves salads with tongs, carve our own whole roasted chicken, pour out gravy for one another, offer each other wines brought from home (the restaurant is not licensed) and spoon out ice cream from bowls and chocolate brownies from “Gifford Circus” hand painted platters. The atmosphere is like a very jolly, loud, exuberant family gathering.
The cooking is impressive and the timing is au point: the butternut squash soufflé was very fluffy and flavoursome, the chicken was well seasoned, moist and succulent, all the vegetables very crisp and green and the chocolate brownie was meltingly soft, oozy and rich on the inside. The ingredients are very well sourced, the portions huge and the dinner is incredibly good value at just £25 per adult and £12.50 per child.
The Giffords Circus and Circus Sauce restaurant are a once a year treat for my family. I make sure I book tickets as soon as the new dates are announced on Twitter, and I look forward longingly to entering this fantasy, toy box world, where time stops still and the dreamscape of theatre, music and adventure sweep us all away into another land. We can’t all run away to join the circus, but for one night a year we can be part of all its magical allure.
Follow the team on Twitter: @giffordscircus