Tim Harvey, Jim Whewell and Joanne Vidler, the organisers of the Wildnerness Festival ( 12th – 14th August 2011) at Cornbury Park, the ancestral home of the Rotherwick family, near Charlbury in Oxfordshire, saw the 1700 acre site seven and a half years ago, and this is how they describe that moment:
“It had a sense of untouched grandeur, pastoral charm and an effortless beauty that we all instantly fell for.”
Indeed seven and a half years ago festivals were not the big commercial ventures they have now become, attracting thousands of new acolytes who, quite frankly, would never have dreamed of camping out under the stars, listening to folk music, having their fortune told and eating street food out of a camper van all whilst wearing fancy dress a few years ago. So why have these festivals become the dominant calendar fixtures for food, music and countryside lovers alike? A visit to Wilderness will give you the answer.
The moment you enter through the security barriers and into the wide grass expanse of the camping fields of Cornbury you will immediately feel a sense of fun, communality and escapism. A man dressed as a woodland elf on stilts asks the passers by what they are doing in his wood, and hopes they will not be doing mischievous things. Another actor, dressed like Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, jumps up and down in front of the revellers as they pitch tents, park gipsy caravans, set up camp and find their bearings. “Have a great time! Enjoy! I hope you love it!” he chants.
Thank-goodness that the organisers have created a very handsome 60 page booklet that tells you where all the attractions are as the site is enormous, covering many acres, and as well as food stalls, cider bars, clothing emporia, banqueting halls and tea parlours there are also a myriad of “wilderness” inspired shops, from bushcraft, to pottery, coppice crafts, blascksmiths, jewellery making and wood carving.
We arrived just as the site opened, on Friday afternoon, and went straight to meet Thomas Hunt, the Chef responsible for the Friday night feast. In a makeshift tent kitchen a brigade of half a dozen sous-chefs were working hard, preparing tonight’s menu:
Summer Plenty Garden Soup with Rye Bread, Heritage Tomatoes and Field-made Ricotta
Cornbury Park Fallow Deer slow roasted with Bay and Juniper for 16 hours, Seared Loin dressed with Capers, Summer Leaves and Wood Fired Baked Potatoes.
Vegetarian Main Course
Roasted Artichoke Hearts with Chive Flower Dressing, Capers, Grilled Cherry Tomatoes and Spring Onions, Summer Leaves and Wood Fired Baked Potatoes.
Roasted Plum, Kirche Frangipan with Vanilla Ice-cream
He looks so young that it is hard to believe that Thomas Hunt has been cooking for 13 years and opened his first business Fino Catering seven years ago (www.finocatering.co.uk). He began his career with Ben and Jake Hodges, of The River Cafe, and one of the founders of Moro. He then worked as head chef at Aqua Italia in Bristol before taking a year off in Latin America documenting dishes and compiling recipes. Thomas then returned to Dorset where he worked alongside Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall as sous-chef and food demonstrator for River Cottage, and also worked behind the scenes as food stylist on their cook books and Keo films.
He seems quite unfazed about preparing dinner for 800 people, all to be seated in the Banqueting Hall, where preparations are well underway. The long marquee has been festooned to resemble a magical forest, with trees, tea-light holders, lanterns, hay bale seating and wild garden murals. The atmosphere is buzzing with front-of-house manager Jenna Ansell laying out places, florists creating wild and garden flower table arrangements and chefs chopping, slicing, baking, grilling and frying. There is not much time to go before dinner is served and the smell of sizzling garlic, homemade breads and roasting venison fill the summer air.
The sky is overcast and dull, but it does not seem to dent the party spirit. A papal purple Wilderness Stage has been erected for the headline acts that are going to perform in the following three nights, from soul, to punk to jazz and rock and roll. There will be talks from The Idler Academy about Socrates and Plato, Secret Emporium and Toast will sell their festival inspired designs and a Midnight Masked Ball invites visitors to dance beneath the moon and stars.
You will be quite overwhelmed when it comes to choosing a food stall. In this bohemian, bacchanalian magic kingdom there is a surprisingly large number of excellent “street food” vendors. From homemade cakes at Lulabelles, to steak sandwiches at La Vache, meat and vegetable pastry treats at Pure Pies, salads at Wholefood Heaven or sweets from Candy Camper, you will find fresh, local produce sourced and cooked well and beautifully presented. Some like Jeff’s Ice Cream are selling their wares from a bicycle, whilst others are in VW Camper Vans, shepherd’s huts and yurts. We do recommend going on a walkabout in the first instance, before deciding whether you fancy an ostrich steak or a Jamie Oliver Fabulous Feast fusion meal, or even a selection of homemade cakes from the mothers of Charlbury Primary School.
On Saturday 13th August Moro husband and wife team, Sam and Sam Clarke take over the Banquetting Hall for a Spanish – Moorish inspired feast:
Tapas and Mezze
Flat Bread, labneh with crudites, olives, Padron peppers,
Boquerones with garlic and parsely,
Prawn ceviche, Walnut kofte
Chicharrones de Cadiz – Slow roast pork belly with lemon and cumin.
Patatas mojo – Wrinkled potatoes with green chilli and coriander salsa.
Chiparones – Baby squids with sumac.
Charcoal grilled lamb
Grilled aubergine and red pepper salad with seasoned yoghurt, caramelized butter and chilli flakes
Chopped radish and rocket salad
Vegetarian Main Course
Turlu Turlu – Turkish spiced roast vegetables
Aubergine and pepper salad with seasoned yoghurt, caramelized butter and chilli flakes
Chopped radish and rocket salad
Yoghurt cake with pistachios and cherries
Then, on the Sunday evening, Michelin starred Skye Gyngell, of Petersham Nursery Café in Richmond, prepares the following:
Grilled Wild Sea Bass with Aioli
BBQ Quail with Spices & Salmoriglio
Heirloom Tomatoes with Goats Curd, Black Olives & Oregano
Buffalo Mozzarella, Finely Sliced Courgettes & Dried Chilli
San Daniele, Orange Fleshed Melons, Sheep’s Milk Ricotta & Rose Syrup
Bruschetta with Saporos, BBQ Scallops, Radicchio, Sour Dough Bread
Crumbs Anchovy Dressing
Frozen peaches, Plums, Greengages, Strawberries, Raspberries
There is even a spa, yoga workshops, photography courses, fly fishing lessons, a travelling observatory for moon watching and a boutique babysitting service and kids club.
It is important that you come fully equipped with stout walking shoes, rain-proof clothing, lots of cash to hand and an open mind. Think Glastonbury meets Woodstock, circus artiste costumes of the 1920’s, your local village fair and a food festival all rolled into one. Wilderness is an outdoor extravaganza like no other, celebrating all that is good, eccentric and theatrical about the British festival music scene, summer, camping, alfresco food and live performance. Come prepared to discuss, debate, dance and dine amongst artisans, actors, artists and adventurers. You won’t forget it in a hurry.
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