A baroque beanfeast in an Oxfordshire manor house
Today’s exquisitely antique was the 18th-century’s McMansion. In 1615, the Cartwright family built a house at Aynhoe, near Banbury, which was knocked about in the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby. After the Restoration the Cartwrights commissioned improvements: first from Charles II’s master of masonry, Edward Marshall, and in 1707 from the architect Thomas Archer, whose style was influenced by the late Italian baroque. The result — a pedimented central block flanked by two exquisite low pavilions — might now be considered one of the prettiest houses in England, but one can imagine the county sneering at Aynhoe’s new façade from the discomfort of their dark, smoky Jacobean drawing rooms. So light, so airy, so terribly common. Perhaps, then, the future ought to decide on the present décor of the house, whose beautiful spare lines are somewhat compromised by the addition of vast plaster reproductions of classical statues and some rather alarming taxidermy. A polar bear in a jaunty cap greeted me in the hall, and there was a unicorn (well, a stuffed horse with a narwhal’s horn stuck on) reclining in the dining-room. As the sun set over the Cherwell valley, a lady dressed as Pierrette was doing some seriously advanced pole dancing on a ten-metre high hoop next to the firebowls, and a herd of white deer — real ones — strolled up the lawn.
I was down for a very grand evening hosted by Rolls-Royce to introduce a collaboration between Aynhoe and Brett Graham, the two-Michelin-starred chef at The Ledbury in Notting Hill. Brett is raising deer in the park, though you don’t get to eat the white ones. He took me outside with the binoculars so we could watch some tiny new fauns gangling by the ha-ha, then for a pre-service tasting of their ancestors in the kitchen.
The maxim that we eat with our eyes usually holds good, but venison, like baroque architecture, can be tricksy. “The thing is with deer, you need that rush of warm blood in your mouth,” Brett explained.
As venison is so lean, achieving this is far more complicated that with, say, rib-eye steak. Fat retains heat longer than protein, so a deer fillet cooked rare may become unpleasantly chilly and gelatinous at the centre after the meat has been rested. Brett’s assistant presented three morsels, sliced and sprinkled with salt, and the one which I would have chosen on sight as the correct cuisson, still dark red in the middle, proved to be just that, too smooth and ungiving. High temperature, longer rest than you think, and don’t be put off if you think it looks medium, I learned. We also tasted the freshly-churned goats’ butter and I managed to scarf down a Blyton-sized slice of lemon drizzle cake at the highly genteel tea-party in the library, so I was perfectly set up for the eight courses Brett’s team were serenely preparing for the Roller beano.
We began with a Chantilly oyster with ceviche of sea bream and frozen horseradish, which looked as purely exotic as something Lady Mary Wortley Montague might have worn in her turban and tasted even more rare and delicate than it looked, then a bauble of candied beetroot baked in clay, with English caviar and volcanic salt. I don’t usually hold with native caviar: go Beluga or go home. And I’ve never had much truck with beetroot either, unless it’s borscht — too reminiscent of horrible school salads. But somehow the dark, oily confetti of the eggs elevated the sculpted shards of purple tuber into something crisply sweet, almost apple-y, which made me aware of the prejudiced old curmudgeon I am. And then a roast lobster with slices of shiitake snuggling between the joints of pink flesh, flavoured with dried kelp, which unified the contrasting flavours of earth and sea so perfectly that one could practically see the ghostly noses of the envious Cartwright neighbours pressed to the orangery windows. We followed with a gesture to the current East End hipster trend for savoury doughnuts, interpreted as a pigeon dumpling with cherry mustard. I had thirds. And then the venison, a fillet of roe with hen of the woods mushrooms harvested from the trees around the estate and smoked outdoors with rosemary. At which point, maybe it was the ostrich-feather palm trees or the giant disco balls depending from the ceiling, I felt so gleeful with greed that I began to think Clarissa would have been a much shorter book if Richardson had made Mr Lovelace a chef. Something about the combination of the gloriously-bonkers décor and the disciplined aesthetic of such perfect food . . . but Mr Graham is a married man and this is a restaurant review.
Puddings were served as a pair — surely the best way to approach them — a passion fruit custard and a “chocolate rock” with mint and grué de cacao. And then Brett handed round the cigarettes — in this case rolls of cinnamon pastry filled with gin jelly which were so precious I forgot to go out for an actual fag. There’s nothing niminy-piminy about Brett’s food, it’s robust and massive on flavour, but what makes his cooking such a joy to eat is, first, its lightness — even after that marathon I was quite enthusiastic about dancing in the secret cellar below stairs — and second, its playfulness, the joy that comes from imagination married to superlative technical skill. Baroque describes it well, the unifying of disparate elements to create overall harmony. As for the similarly exuberant environment of Aynhoe, it’s worth renting the house to eat such food in such an environment. As de Quincey put it: opinionum commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat — time erases the fictions of opinion, but it confirms the judgments of nature.