Wild game bonfire feast – a supper club with a difference
As November chills the wind and the full moon, hunters moon, starts to wane, autumn begins its decline. Harvest is complete and the seasonal wheel turns, marked by the flickering of candles and the licking flames of bonfire light. This is the twilight of the year: short days, dark hours of evening. Our desire to flood the shadows with light is directly linked to the loss of daylight as the evenings draw in. Highlights of flame, joys, deeply felt, shared and celebrated. This is how our autumn ended, in a brightness of bonfire, a celebration, a slowness, a noticing of seasonality.
I had been hungry all week, knowing we had booked tickets to a supper club on Friday evening. We had reserved our seats at least a month or more before, and the event was written boldly on the calendar, hanging in the future like a beacon, something to look forward and to warming my heart with the warm fuzziness of a secret joy.
Friday morning dawned bright, clear and frosty. The second day of November, and it was as though all of autumn preceding it had been a first draft for this day. I steered my mind away from the evening’s activities, wanting when it came, to be immersed in the moment, not filtered by expectations. Other jobs called before we could think about festivities; there were autumnal tasks to do on the allotment.
The drive to the allotment plots takes us out of the village nestled in the Lavant Valley, up and over Cocking Down, and to the edge of Midhurst. The home-move and other commitments had kept us away from the allotment for a few weeks, and I was torn between an ache to get back on the plot, and a wariness of the results of our neglect. Nature and gardens it seems however, are forgiving of absence. Of course, there is a long to-do-list, but we have all winter to achieve it. Frost was crisp in the shade, but soaked into the hem of our trousers at the faintest caress of the mid-morning sun. The frost had blackened the dahlias; time to cut them to the ground and pile thick mounds of rich dark compost across them. Living in the south east and gardening on sandy soils, I can leave my dahlias in the ground over winter. I tried lifting them once, and lost more than I saved due to mould. As long as we don’t have a winter that is too long and waterlogged, the tubers are safer underground, tucked up warm beneath a 3inch layer of mulch.
The first proper frost of the year is also my signal to prepare a bed for another important job of the autumn. In antipode to the cutting down, composting and putting to bed, I had planting to do. Garlic is an essential ingredient in our kitchen, and something I have been keen to grow. I have made attempts in previous growing seasons but have yet to see a significant success. Year one the ground wasn’t right, too compacted and hungry. Last year, the crop looked promising until mid summer when the garlic rust struck. This year the garlic has a new home in one of the raised beds of the kitchen garden plot where the soil is free draining and fertile, and the plants will get plenty of sun throughout the day. Four bulbs of two varieties were broken into individual cloves and nestled into the compost, Carcassonne Wight and Provence Wight. Fingers crossed for third year lucky.
Driving home I noted how the crowns of all the woodland and roadside trees were significantly more golden than green, and the ash trees have lost most of their leaves already.
Under the orchard trees that stand about on the green outside our front window, a ring of apples draws in half a dozen male pheasants. Individually they crouch low, their plumage the bronze and copper of autumn leaves providing little camouflage in the long green dew-drenched grass. When emboldened by numbers, they delight in bullying the neighbourhood cats, a slow elongated game of tag neither side really wants to win. I habitually scan the windfalls and trees each time I walk along the path in front of the cottages, looking for the familiar flick of redwing or fieldfare. These winter migrant thrushes haven’t arrived here yet, but they soon will and leftover apples are a favourite feast.
It was time for us to head off to our own feast. Dusk was falling, the sky darkening to an inky blue, as though leaking from a fountain pen nib. Over the course of an hours drive the countryside around us began to change shape and meld into the gloom and the heavens were increasingly pinpricked with stars. The satnav guided us off the dual carriageway onto a narrow lane, but it was a hand written blackboard that directed us off the lane and into the woods. By now it was fully dark, and anything beyond the reach of the headlight beams was obscure and shadowed.
A deer materialised at the track side, paused, then melted into the tree shadows.
Grass down the centre of the track, half-visible presence of barns and gateways, and finally a friendly face in torchlight.
Flaming torches marked the route across field, down slope, over a bridge of railway sleepers that spans the ditch, through a kissing gate at the edge of a wood. Garlands of lights were strung from coppiced hazel and field maples, great oak trunks stout and strong. I knew the maple leaves would be yellow, and oaks bronze, but all was either shadow or gold in the glow of the lights. The woodland was transformed; long tables with candles and bracken fronds, berries and bowls.
I commented that I don’t think I would be able to find the place in the daytime, so different does the world appear at night. And nor would I want to I thought, for to bring this evening into the stark normality of daylight, into the mundane of the everyday, would be to deny it of its magic. Time and place and atmosphere combined to exist in the heartbeat between fearful dark and welcome flame.
We were greeted by smiles, friendly welcomes, and a hot delicious toddy of warm apple, rich orange, and spiced gin. The evening passed in a murmur of conversation, laughter, and crackle of bonfire. Food arrived, challenged, amazed. Rabbit, venison, trout, pigeon, pear; seasonal and local, wild and fresh. No humble poachers’ pot these game dishes, but wood fired treats of tantalising tastes and textures cooked by chefs with a huge respect of the ingredients. We ate slowly, pausing often, savouring the flavours and the atmosphere. It was nearly a new moon, and the remnants of the autumn-torn canopy obscured many of the stars we knew were slowly turning over our heads, making the darkness beyond the reach of the log candles and fire pit, all the more complete. The five courses of the meal each had elements that were new to me, or challenged preconceptions or past experiences. Venison ragu with coal-baked gnocchi was a delight, planked trout a discovery. Eventually the seasonal flavour of pears that were the star of the final course, began to fade, and the blankets on our laps or shoulders began to struggle to keep the cold at bay. Even though we were still under the spell of the lights and flames, thoughts of home started to creep in on chills of night air; time to say goodnight.
In the sub zero temperatures of the deep dark wood, shadows closing around us and our breath-steam recoiling from the chilled air, we basked in the glow of the flames and food and friendship; a moment as old as thought. In the breath-space between chill and fire-heat, our hearts said goodbye to autumn and we set our minds to winter.
Find out more
The Salt Box “Award-winning sustainably minded nomadic cooks dedicated to curating unforgettable open-fire events in unique venues.” https://wearethesaltbox.co.uk/
Wild Sussex. Conservation, catering, wood products. “You can find us in our beautiful oak-framed barn in a working wood yard, just near the old Stopham bridge and within the South Downs National Park.” http://wildsussex.co.uk/
Daylands Farm, Steyning, West Sussex. “Daylands Farm is surrounded by woodland; we have one boundary along the Honeybridge Stream, fields in Wiston and the house in Ashurst.” http://www.daylandsfarm.co.uk/