The love the mob feels for Raymond Blanc is remarkable. He emerges from the back of the Banqueting Tent at the Wilderness Festival looking, as usual, eerily like Dudley Moore but in chef whites and the crowd immediately goes bananas.
He becomes the epicentre of a horde, dare we say a swarm, of phone-toting fans keen to get selfies with the grinning Raymond. As many of horde are young girls and women scantily dressed to allow for the day’s heat, his grin becomes even wider. My wife grabs her phone and disappears into the crush as fast as anyone else and eventually emerges triumphant with her own personal memento of what has been a very memorable occasion.
The Wilderness Festival is a rather unique festival that takes the bits that are usually peripheral to music festivals; spirituality, art, theatre, workshops, intellectualism etc and makes them center stage. And then there is the food.
The people that come to this festival in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside are fond of their food and the festival makes sure they get a bellyful. Of course there are a few spots selling the kind of food that you rather regret eating almost immediately, but even they are of a higher standard than usual.
Over forty food stalls are dotted about in the gently undulating landscape, so even over four days it’s possible to not have to eat at the same place twice if you don’t want to And if that wasn’t enough choice there are the larger food experiences.
The Dining Room is a collection of restaurants, representing the hipper side of the London restaurant scene with Rawduck, Maze Sushi, Duck & Waffle, London House , The Quality Chop House and Patty & Bun all here this year.
If that doesn’t appeal then there’s The Chef’s Table – a tiny restaurant under a canopy looking out across the Cornbury lakes.Here you sit at a hand-made bar watching the chefs cook and you can chat to them too if you like, they don’t bite.
Each day is hosted by a chef of the moment preparing a tasting menu for everyone at the Table. This year it was Nuno Mendes (Bacchus, Viajante). Scott Hallsworth (Kurobuta, Nobu) Neil Borthwick (The Connaught, Merchant’s Tavern) and James Knappett (Kitchen Table, ex-Noma).
Not convinced? Okay how about one of the long table feasts – Moro, Hix and Petersham Nurseries, all bookable in advance – a big advantage.
And then there’s where we started this story ,The Banquets; large-scale communal dining in a giant canvas banqueting hall. Lunch is a four course job and dinner is five courses. As of last year, Angela Hartnett held one first with Niklas Ekstedt of Stockholm-based restaurant Ekstedt, who used only Scandinavian wood to cook Michelin-starred food, next.
And then there was Raymond Blanc, and that was the banquet we went to on the final day, Sunday. We’d wandered around all the food stalls, trying not to eat anything but had succumbed earlier to croquetas and toasted cheese sandwiches, as well as numerous pints of beer (the sun was scorching down all day) but at 4pm our gastro patience was rewarded as we sat down with 300 others to feast.
The long benches sit everyone in elbow jostling proximity so there’s no point in standing on ceremony, Sit down and talk to your neighbours and hear how their days and nights have gone. My neighbour and his girlfriend told me they had saved all year to attend and have enough money to indulge in everything and they didn’t regret a penny of it. This feast was to be their highlight before heading home.
We cracked open the wines, supplied by Berry Bros, checked the menu and sweated a bit in the heat. Luckily the first course, brought by regiments of servers led by people with walkie-talkie headsets, was a clear cold tomato soup of remarkable pure intensity. The whole banquet was to be based around what maman used to make fils Raymond and this was one of his favourites back in the Jura.
Then came a selection of cold picknicky items. The celeriac rave, one of my favourite French things, was here even better. No clammy mayonnaise but bright mustardy flavours over crispy celeriac. It went oh so well with oh so coarse pate, tiny vinegary cornichons and fresh-baked rolls. Heads of roasted garlic, split in half, had succulent cloves to be squeezed like toothpaste onto the plate.
And as for the vegetable escabeche, well it was a masterclass in how to deal with vegetables with marvellous simplicity and bring out the very best in them. A dressing of perfection was all they needed.
Mains was hay smoked lamb shoulder, served on giant platters and partnered with heritage carrot and barley risotto and sides of classic baby gem braised with peas, a dish so simple it hides how hard it is to get it right. Needless to say it was right, wonderfully so.
And as the dancers paraded around the tent and the people became very boisterous, the dessert of meringue, marshmallow, basil jelly and strawberry sorbet rolled out. I was stuffed, we all were stuffed,, it had been a banquet of epic and yet manageable proportions served with remarkable efficiency especially under the field conditions.
As Raymond brought out his team to take a well-deserved bow, his modesty insisting that they take all the credit, we slumped back and drank more wine. Outside dusk was beginning to fall and the stage lights were coming up.
The main act for Sunday was Ben Howard, trying to top Bjork and George Clinton from the previous nights, and we were mellow enough to be ready to wander down to watch him. And probably to eat some more food, because full as we were we weren’t going to miss the chance to try even more of the incredible cornucopia of choice that only the Wilderness Festival provides.