Simon Richardson steps into a Christmas card and eats his way around the Harewood estate
It’s minus three outside, with a wind-chill factor of “just hibernate under six duvets until March”, yet here I am, complete with silly hat, being whisked away in the whirlwind of high-class glamour that is an Amber Cars Skoda Octavia, to the grounds of Harewood House, blissfully unaware that it would be this evening's peak of vehicular luxury...
Situated somewhere between Leeds and Harrogate, Harewood House is a day out that highlights the dramatic changes that nature brings to an outdoor landscape. From the buds escaping from the ground on a dewy Spring day, to the shimmer of light reflecting off the pond in the height of summer, or the crisp, white blanket laid carefully across every single square inch of ground in Winter, the Capability Brown-designed setting is meticulously crafted to take your breath away, in different ways, every time you visit.
No pressure then, eh?
Harewood Food & Drink Project is a recent initiative which aims to showcase the long history of food production on the Harewood estate through seasonal collaborations with chefs and local producers. This offering, the aptly-titled “Winter in the Woods” sees Ox Club’s Josh Whitehead – he of MasterChef: The Professionals fame – take on the challenge of warming my cold, shrivelled cockles, while serving up a fitting culinary tribute to the season and stunning surroundings.
The directions have told us in no uncertain terms not to go in the main entrance. The air of mystery has thickened by the panic of a taxi driver who has no idea where he is going. Good of him to get into character. Maybe we won’t even make it, and we’ll be deserted in the forest, forced to hack our way through the animals and dine on their carcasses, wading our way to safet… Oh no, we're here. It’s extremely clearly-signposted, and they’ve gone to the trouble of lighting the way to our first destination – The Hovels.
We’re greeted with a roaring fire and a hot gin cocktail full of rosemary and comfort. It’s Harewood gin – (we’ve started already!) and we also getan Autumn Golden Ale, made in collaboration with the Ilkley Brewery, to accompany two hors d’oeuvres. There’s a turkey and beetroot cracker (I didn’t realise it was turkey until I read the menu two hours later) and a sliver of raw beef on a soft, light sponge. Then, we’re told it’s the “proper start” to our meal. Crispy bread topped with whipped bone marrow - it’s like meaty cream! - Just give me ten more of these and I’ll go to sleep by the fire.
The time comes to leave the blazing fire and set off into the deep forest, and we realise the “Winter” part of the evening – a tractor and trailer arrives to take us on a twenty-minute journey through restricted paths and forests. Fortunately, the organisers have anticipated the freezing cold and provided us with all manner of blankets and distracting banter on our journey to the old hunter’s lodge. I start to imagine that we were hunter-gatherers, wandering the woods, stalking the deer, braving the elements. Ok so we've got a blanket, and there’s no sport hunting allowed in the grounds anymore, but other than that…
When we arrive at the old hunter’s lodge, it’s an impossibly beautiful building. I’m concerned. I’m utterly convinced that we’re in Hansel and Gretel. Who's this waiting for us? They’re definitely going to eat u... No, it’s ok. It’s just waiting staff, and they’re smiling. You would do though, wouldn't you? I keep some suspicion on the back-burner.
We’re ushered in to two separate rooms and are seated around a table, aptly decorated with wreaths and pinecones. I’m still refusing to look at the menu, but there’s a tidy selection of wine to go with our meal. The first course – Harewood rabbit encased in a light pork and peanut dartois - is complemented by a warm cauliflower sauce. It’s comforting, but at the same time the lemongrass adds a freshness that wakes me up.
The main is a piece of bright red Sirloin accompanied by offal curry. Not a combination I’d previously been aware of, but it is marvellous. The curry provides the highlight of the evening; offal lends itself so well to a long, slow cooking process, and it comes full of flavour and a myriad of texture. It reminds me of eating curry goat, but the chef has taken care to keep the flavours much more delicate so as not to overpower the juicy, rich taste of sirloin. The taste of lime is there again, acting as a clear theme threading its way neatly through the courses.
The dessert is a cremeux – chocolate and turmeric – with fir from the estate that gives a literal mouthful of forest. It’s fitting, having eaten our way through the wildlife of the estate, that the final course should also keep us firmly rooted outside in the hidden forests of Harewood. It’s a lovely, sweet end to a view of what a Christmas meal really ought to taste like. If only we were all professional chefs.
And just like that, it’s time to go back to the Hovels. The tractor winds us back through an illustrated Christmas card scene; forests, passing deer, icicle-covered bridges, and illuminated trees that wind their way up like long, spindly fingers, desperately trying to touch the sky. For some reason the journey seems to take much less long, the soporific effects of hot food and an impressive array of alcoholic beverages start to take hold. Once we’re back, we’re treated to petits-fours and cocktails, and the host enthusiastically cajoles me into having an Espresso Martini, but with whisky as its base. It’s a deliciously alcoholic end to an evening that has lived up to its billing of Winter Wonderland, while providing the warmth and homely touches that I seem to crave more than I ever thought possible now that I’m in my 30s.
I scarcely register the taxi ride back. I’m lost in a world of forests, fires and food. Winter in the Woods has been a triumph. Can I pre-book the Spring edition?