12 July 2011

Henley Regatta & Festival June-July 2011

The very end of June every year sees the five day festival of rowing that is Henley Royal Regatta, followed a week later by Henley Festival of Music and Art. These two wonderfully diverse events constitute the pinnacle of the Henley season. One, with high class competitive action on the water, accompanied by astonishing bouts of gluttony and inebriation off it; the other boasts elegance, charm, music and art in a truly unique setting. The Festival too has its fair share of gluttony and inebriation, but somehow when it's middle class and in a black tie or evening dress it seems charming rather than offensive.

Thoughts about the food on offer at Henley Royal Regatta.

The Stewards Enclosure is the exclusive area reserved for members and their guests. It covers the last 300 metres or so of the rowing course, with immaculate lawns, bars and dining opportunities, all under acres of white canvas.

Taking up a good 100 metres on its own is the Stewards Luncheon & Tea tent. It must have capacity for well over 1,000 people and has two sittings for lunch every day of the 5 day Regatta, followed by 2 sittings for tea. In fact it would be quite easy never to leave the Luncheon tent! Unfortunately the catering and seating arrangements reflect the public school and university refectories where the majority of members spent their youths. Seated at enormously long benches, albeit ones with white linen, the service on the first day of the Regatta for our party of 6 was slow and disorganised while the food was disappointing. A dull terrine, unexceptional smoked salmon, overcooked cold roast beef and a paltry portion of strawberries & cream just didn't work. They all smacked of the mass catering kitchen they had come out of, which at £36 per head before wine, was underwhelming. Worse than this tap water was not offered and when asked for led to an unpleasant exchange in which the caterer insisted we couldn't have any. Of course we did in the end.

Another day and Fish & Chips from The Codfather, a mobile chippy parked a further 500 metres down river alongside Upper Thames Rowing Club, and very definitely outside any enclosure. Hot and crunchy, but no discernible evidence of fish in the batter. Still it had fine alcohol absorbing qualities. And talking of Upper Thames, the club made a valiant attempt to do something new this year to attract more rowers in to use the bars. This was a great idea executed badly, principally because the bars were badly stocked and run, while the beautiful new clubhouse was left empty. Upper Thames can do better than this and if it wants to profit from HRR should seriously examine its planning and operations.

While broadcasting on Regatta Radio there wasn't much time to eat, however I would like to mention the quality of the bacon baps at Cafe Regatta, incredibly welcome before a four hour stint of hangover laden commentary, and very well done.

The other catering facility that stands out for praise this year is in Remenham Club. Similar to the luncheon tent in the Stewards Enclosure but without so much of the pompousness, the caterers HH Clarke show how it should be done. A club for members of 7 of the metropolitan rowing clubs, Remenham has used Clarke's for many years and their experience shows, at just £32 per head. Duck Parfait, Braised Rump Steak and Lemon Posset all worked well, without betraying their origins in a tented kitchen. To cap it all, their wine list though necessarily short showed flare and imagination, especially an exceptional value Raoul Collet NV Champagne at £33 a bottle.

Henley Festival: has it fallen on the sword of populism?

Henley Festival is an awkward animal, a pushmepullyou of an event. Claiming on the one hand to bring world class music to Henley yet on the other giving into the blatantly commercial in order to turn a profit. Now in its 26th year the Festival started as a way of giving something back to the town after the hectic week of regatta. And to begin with it had the relaxed garden party atmosphere, accompanied by popular classics and reasonable prices that the town was looking for. As the festival grew so did the calibre of artist. Jose Carreras, Kiri te Kanawa, Willard White, Bryn Terfel & Nigel Kennedy have all performed from the stage built into the river. These artists are of course expensive to book so ticket prices have grown. As prices have risen more bars and catering outlets have appeared, none cheap and with this the charm has faded as the corporate sponsors have moved in. This year the Festival didn't even bother to pretend it was about classical music. Gone are the days of Beethoven recitals, Porgy & Bess and Vaughn Williams. Welcome Tom Jones, Jools Holland, Abba tribute and an X-factor winner (more of her later). As someone who has been going to the Festival for nigh on 20 years I find it sad that the organisers have succumbed to the overtly commercial and in doing so have become just another festival (albeit a posh one with black tie and a Roux Brothers restaurant).

The catering offering is now uniformly good. In the big tent deemed to be Cafe le Soir, 3 types of salmon, cold beef and lemon tart hit the right buttons, with the beef being exceptionally good even if the pastry in the tart had gone soggy. The best catering however is homemade, while the best part of the festival is being on the river. This is where it still has magic as hundreds of boats of all sizes and vintages moor up alongside one another to listen to the music, gossip and share food & wine prior to enjoying an exceptional firework display.

Back to the main stage. On the final day of the Festival I was invited to join one of the sponsors to see Rumer & Alexandra Burke. Unfortunately Rumer cried off with a sore throat to be replaced by Mica Paris. Always be wary of an artist who is available at the last minute. She has a great soul voice, with which she murdered Summertime prior to belting out her hit...My One Temptation from 1988. She was good in her own way but her set was entirely wrong for a crowd of middle class, middle aged, black tied, slightly pissed, Sunday night hedonists. I had the impression she was a bit desperate to please, as though she couldn't see where the next booking was coming from.

The X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke could and should be the British answer to Beyonce. If only she had the songs, she's certainly got the looks, the moves and the dancers. But performing to backing tapes is just wrong and continuing to ruin Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah should be made a criminal offence. The crowd seemed to love her but I got the feeling that far from being on her way to Beyonce like superstardom she is our next Mica Paris!

One small lunch in London

Amongst all this i found the time for lunch in Arbutus in Frith Street. Now well established and part of the group that runs Wild Honey and Les Deux Salons I was not particularly impressed. The food was Ok but no better than that, perhaps the winner being slow cooked lamb breast with minted spinach. Soft and falling apart, packed with flavour, a very good dish. However I wasn't thrilled. Go to Les Deux Salons its where all the energy and imagination seems to be.

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