Henley Show is held in the gently lovely valley of Hambleden; rolling fields and ancient woodland cupped like relaxed hands around a clutch of traditional Chilterns brick and flint cottages, the river Thames dawdling through at its own sweet pace. On this picture perfect September day, ideal for a little country gala, the field-cum-car park was helpfully firm underfoot and thoughtfully spaced clouds shield man and beast from a surprisingly warm autumn sun.
So, in then, past the softly drumming ponies’ hooves as they obediently (mostly), skimmed over jumps in the show ring, past the marquees of tweed hacking jackets and cashmere sweaters, past the firemen lifting little boys on and off their blindingly bright red truck, past the long-lashed sleeping bulls, jostling Jacobs sheep and idly chewing husbands, past the unruffled falconry and owl display, the whittling and weaving tents, and on into the thick of the action; burly, belted and be-wellied farmers and their daughters and sons deep in beer and conversation at the bar – difficult to see where this area of the show started and ended, it was so popular. Truly a wholesome picture of serene rural charm to make any country dweller proud.
A whole clutch of pinnied ladies spun the woolly booty produced by an entertaining Aussie sheep shearer, who joked and cajoled us through the practicalities and economics of getting the furry stuff off his stagehand’s back and off to market. The sheep he was shearing, he explained, had obviously suffered a period of stress during its life, when it was forced to concentrate on conserving muscle rather than conditioning its coat, causing the hair to break rather than form long sturdy strands, and therefore depleting the already paltry value of the whole fleece to a mere 60 pence. The shearer himself is paid £1 for each sheep shorn, so by anyone’s calculation that’s not a healthy return for the farmer.
Wandering away from that whiff of reality, a mighty old-fashioned carousel packed with dads and squealing kids and a proper helter-skelter (for the narrow of girth only) offered a slightly surreal candy coloured sight against the bucolic green outlook beyond the showground, and from there it was on past the wood chopping competition, vintage cars, pampered poultry, more pedigree dogs than you could throw a stick at (soon to be packed off in all those pedigree cars across the lane) and off to the magnificent produce tent.
How I love this spectacle. Row upon row of considered fruit and vegetables, sweating in threes on paper plates, the favoured few bumptiously displaying winning cards from the judging a few minutes earlier. Vases of statuesque dahlias, jars of pickled onions – that’s the class to pick if you are new to the game, it seems, very little competition – lemon curd in every hue of sunshine and then on to trestles of cakes. Lumbering Victoria sponges slid jammily in the heat, critiques displayed for all to read, humiliating those who hadn’t precisely followed the recipe, daring instead to add a little buttercream. Actually, what I loved most was that much of the produce looked somewhat casually attended to, a little mismatched, smudged and scuffed and obviously winging it, and all the more appealing for that somehow, as if the fun of entering really was the point, without the slightest expectation of producing a winning entry. One or two take it seriously, of course, and their names pop up time and again on the red first prize cards as you peruse the runner beans, cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, heirloom potatoes and grapes. Yes, grapes! In big beautiful bunches. Well, okay, one bunch was big and beautiful. The others were of the more casual, country style. Wonderful.
Mad about food as I am, I dive into the food tent with purpose and high expectation. Right inside the entrance Zannis Bakery (from Prestwood and therefore reasonably local) are showing off towers of floured and fissured golden hummocks of yeasty-scented sourdough goodness. What a great start! Mr Zanni is Greek, but still, his fabulous bread is here at Henley so we’re not splitting hairs over how local he really is. Next stall of note is Couture Treats, from Marlow, so very local. We get talking about her lines of neat, bright, plumply filled macarons which are being much admired and devoured. Turns out she is French and trained in Paris. That nice man John Thornber from Surrey Fine Foods (he told me to say that) presides over a glistening table of delicious olive oil – from Italy, Sicily and Spain. Naturally, there’s nothing local happening in the olive oil category. I move on to a delightful reserve Malbec from a boutique winery in Argentina. As I sniff, swig and nibble my way down one side of the marquee and back up the other, Chiltern Valley Winery couldn’t be closer, based right here in Hambleden, and Malt, The Brewery, is also from Prestwood (didn’t sample their ales since the crowd was three deep – will visit them another day). However, among the few genuinely local food and drink makers, there were way too many buckets of olives, vac-packs of smoked salmon, slabs of seriously unappetising traybakes, sticky fudges from Yorkshire and mountains of jarred pickle from goodness knows where.
I exit the food tent in lower spirits than I entered it. Beautiful British countryside is laid out spectacularly all around the showground, perfectly designed to produce food for us in abundance, and hundreds of people are cleverly crafting stuff all around me, and yet most of us are eating food that was produced miles, if not continents, away by someone we don’t know.
Of course, this green and pleasant land of ours does produce some of the best – if not THE best – meat and cereal crops in the world, some of the finest restaurants and some great drinks. Massively grateful we are for them, too. Still, when it comes to the average man and woman on the street, there is a disconnect between what we eat and the land we live on. Most Brits tend to view what’s on our plates casually, as if what we nourish our bodies with is of little consequence, as if the properly good food is the preserve of experts. Food as a spectator sport, i.e. eating out and watching cookery programs, is all the rage, but actually getting down and dirty with the farmers, cheese makers and self-sufficient households of a mere generation or so ago seems for many a step too far away from convenience, and a virtually dead art.
Can we close the gap between the local produce tent and the international food tent and rediscover the simple enjoyment of growing and cooking our own food? If the average dinner in this country was presented on a paper plate for a bunch of food-loving judges to critique, the report would surely come back, ‘Has great potential. Needs to tap into it.’
Still, we know how to put on a show and enjoy ourselves, in that quiet, rural way of ours.