It’s not every day that you have a police officer ask you for identification before you can go to lunch. But then it’s not every day that you’re invited to HRH Prince Charles’ private residence for a bit of munch and a stroll in the gardens (well, unless you’re William or Harry). For its recent series of Talking Food events, Highgrove welcomed a host of culinary superstars to debate hot topics and host supper clubs in the famous gardens. I was there to fanboy over Angela Hartnett MBE, who had come to talk about this country’s relationship with Italian food. She was joined by more food royalty in the form of Polpo co-founder and author Russell Norman, as well as an extra surprise guest, food critic Tom Parker Bowles.
Highgrove knows how to set the scene, and today an impressive display of winter fruit and veg decks out the events hall, reminding me very much of a harvest time school assembly (albeit with much more class and far fewer tins of tomato soup).
The trio talk about their personal Italian food journeys through the decades. Hartnett’s creativity, grasp of flavour and innate talent helped win her a Michelin star in 2014 and have been well-recognised by Gordon Ramsey (she trained at his restaurants, Aubergine, Petrus and Amaryllis). Cucina is her collection of 140 hearty, rustic recipes inspired by growing up with her Italian mother and grandmother. In the 2007 book, Hartnett’s style is presented as Mediterranean cuisine with a modern European influence, taking the form of traditional rustic dishes like rabbit pappardelle and potato gnocchi.
So where is this kind of food – the cavolo nero and ricotta tortellini – on the menus at the crowd-pleasing Italian restaurants of the British high street? You know the ones: the red and white checked tablecloths, the giant pepper grinders, the Chianti in the woven basket? Well, these eateries are a bit of a caricature of Italian kitchens, based on our tastes here in the UK, thinks Angela.
“You won’t be seeing a sloppy viscous red tomato sauce bolognese in any trattoria worth its salt,” she says. “Like chicken tikka, in authentic cooking it just doesn’t exist.”
Russell Norman’s Venetian-inspired Polpo restaurants are known for their relaxed style and interesting cicheti (Venetian snacks), like ’nduja arancini.
“We’ve been brought up on Italy’s greatest hits,” he says. “A giant menu full of pizza and garlic bread that fills our yearning for comfort food. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t represent a country with diverse, region-based tradition.”
Tom joins in – “as diners, we’ve become experts, and expect authenticity,” he says – before the trio reel off half-a-dozen London restaurants that make their own fresh pasta.
Before long, they’re waxing lyrical about the Bristol food scene too – in particular, our very own Pasta Loco.
Like a foodie version of Godwin’s Law (look it up), the conversation turns to Jamie Oliver and our high street restaurants, Harnett crediting the Naked Chef with making cooking approachable and helping shape our modern food culture.
We’re not all just here to chat, though, there’s lunch to be eaten. And made, for that matter – Hartnett has been put to work in the kitchen, crafting rows of immaculately presented canapés.
Anchovies on toast are a reminder of the ingredient-driven simplicity of Italian cooking, while arancini balls offer up perfectly gooey centres and golden crusts.
Mains come courtesy of the Highgrove kitchen team: Normandy chicken, enveloped in a thick, decadent cream sauce and cider celeriac mash. Warm pear and almond tart follows, with a Duchy Organic vintage cider crème anglaise (the organic brand founded by the Prince of Wales), the almond tart soaking up the sweet custard.
Lunch finished, the urge to snoop around the gardens before we head off is an irresistible one. Charles isn’t here today, but with nine full-time gardeners, the place is buzzing with activity. Through a series of tunnels we go, passing a selection of topiary hedges including a Christmas pudding and a toad. The gardens themselves are extensive, each individual area meticulously designed and preened, yet maintaining a rustic and organic feel.
Standing at the end of the path that leads away from the main house are two enormous ceramic pots. Sherry pots we’re told, given to his royal highness as a gift. With delivery marked for ‘The Prince of Wales, Tetbury’ they mistakenly – and rather amusingly – turned up at the village pub before being forwarded on to the rightful recipient. But who knows, maybe that’s just where you’re most likely to catch the Prince in person…?