When an invitation arrives for Local Food Britain to attend a Cook & Book Culture Club with best-selling author Adele Parks, we don’t have to think twice. Hosted by experiential dining platform WeFiFo, this is going to be good.
Yet, when the day dawns, severe weather warnings are being issued. Travel peril is predicted. So, what to do? Toss a shovel into the backseat in case of snow drifts and head to Sussex to take our place at the table, of course.
Steering down the dark farm track leading to the venue near Horsham – the WeFiFo HQ and home of the company’s founder Seni Glaister and her husband Jon Stefani, with whom she runs the company – it’s a heart-warming sight to see a flaming brazier marking the entrance. It may be freezing cold outside, but that’s all forgotten on entering the converted farm building where the first part of the evening is hosted. It’s a library, lined with hundreds, maybe thousands, of books. Our surroundings are hardly surprising, when you consider that Seni is a novelist. She also co-founded the highly-successful bookseller, The Book People, in 1988, and went on to head up the company for the next 28 years.
At tonight’s event, the ambience is friendly and informal. As people arrive and drinks are poured, we discuss Horsham District Year of Culture and its connection to the Global Gruffalo project (when one of your fellow guests is clutching a stuffed gruffalo, one has to ask!) and, of course, the weather.
Shortly, with glasses in hand, we take our seats as Seni introduces Adele, who chats about her life, her writing and her latest bestseller, I Invited Her In. There is a copy of the book on everyone’s seat, and we’re encouraged to have Adele personalise and sign it.
Not only that, but the author, who has sold over three-and-a-half million UK edition copies of her novels and whose books have been translated into more than 26 languages, is going to join us for further conversation over dinner.
It’s all rather delightful. As we listen to the humourous and engaging Adele while nibbling mackerel ceviche canapés, the freezing night is firmly shut outside. (If you’re wondering what ‘ceviche’ is – so were we. Not that it mattered; it was simply delicious. But it’s good to be curious, and it turns out it’s a Latin American recipe for raw fish marinated in citrus juice. Oh, and if you’re wondering, it’s pronounced ‘seh-VEE-chay’.) Alongside the mackerel, there are little bites of char-grilled skirt steak, toasted corn bread and burnt salsa and crisp charcoal crackers topped with carrot humous.
After the talk and questions from the audience, it’s time to head across to the nearby barn for supper. This is another inspiring space strung with fairly lights, its walls adorned with intriguing artworks, many no doubt connected with the world of books and publishing. The layout is shared tables, with bench seating, fresh flowers and twinkling tea lights. Everyone is friendly. One of the many great things about WeFiFo’s social dining occasions is that it doesn’t matter if you go by yourself, with a friend, a partner or in a group. No-one feels like a stranger for more than a moment.
There is never any doubt that the food, prepared by Christian and Beckie of The Salt Box, will be extremely good indeed. This energetic young catering duo, who specialise in farm-to-table feasting experiences cooked over open fire, have been making quite a name for themselves since The Salt Box came into being some 18 months ago.
First of all, bowls of crispy crackling with a layer of soft, sweet fat are handed around, and we crunch away whilst the rest of the meal arrives. It turns out that the chilli, fennel and orange Hayes Grange pork belly comes from a pig reared right here on the farm – this really is local food at its best. The meat melts like butter in the mouth and is a triumph. It is accompanied by squashed garlic and thyme potatoes, sautéed sprout tops, hay-baked carrots and burnt apple sauce. Dishes and platters are passed around and everyone tucks in while easy conversation flows happily.
Shared eating is fabulous. We chat about all things – from houses (building and renovation of, with a bit of subsidence thrown in for good measure); websites (development of); families and travel, to wine, old age, art and, of course, writing.
The dessert of spiced poached pears with orange crumble and cardamom custard is delivered to our table by chef Christian himself, and we later hear from Beckie about tonight’s meal and their shared love of all things local. The round of applause the talented pair receives is well-earned.
Soon it’s time to don our coats and head off into the night, waving cheery goodbyes. Somehow, although it’s now snowing, the January air doesn’t seem so cold anymore.