This started with an unusual request from the Editor. Enthusing about how, with the advent of online shopping, the delights of Fortnum’s Food Hall are no longer the reserve of city dwellers or those within the lunching-in-London periphery, he said he had an idea: ‘I want you to show our readers how living in the countryside no longer means missing out on anything’. And then and this caught me somewhat unawares he elaborated: ‘So, we’re going to parachute you into the countryside, naked with a tent and a laptop. You can start organising everything from there’.
Swiftly spotting a (very welcome) flaw in this plan (what retailer would be prepared to deliver anything to a set of co-ordinates from an Ordnance Survey map, much less if the recipient were scantily clad?), I set about tweaking (read: upgrading) the idea. A few friends and I would rent a house for the weekend (complete with a postcode crucial for ordering anything online) and I would pre-order everything we needed from my desk in London.
The gaps I would fill in from my laptop when we arrived there. To my relief (and, no doubt, that of any farmers, sheep or cows that I might have descended on), he agreed. When employed advantageously, the internet does make living in the countryside easier. Not only does it mean that a Spaniard staying in a Highland glen can still have his fix of El País, but when it comes to food shopping, you are no longer held to ransom by the local outlet of Somerfield. My family returned from the East in the late 1980s, and my mother would trek valiantly into Chinatown when she was in London to pick up supplies of sambal blacan (a Malay fermented fish concoction it sounds odious, but is, in fact, delicious). Now there’s no need, as far-flung ingredients can be couriered courtesy of Wing Yip Online or other ethnic retailers.
And so to find a property that would suit for a house party, but that also had broadband. The latter request still rules out a large number of places, but fortunately a few forays into Google landed me on the Blandings homepage. For the past 20 years, they have been hosting house parties not unlike the one I had planned, it says. A quick email fired off revealed that some of their properties did indeed have broadband. Main mission accomplished, or so I thought.
There is something unwholesome and lazy about sitting at your laptop doing all your shopping online, but the consolation is that it is easier to be worthy about where you spend your cash. Anyone who bristles over the fact that Tesco receives £1 for every £8 spent in this country can shop elsewhere. Having recently listened to the endeavours of a South African wine maker trying to appeal to supermarket wine buyers, I felt an independent wine merchant was essential. A truffle around newspaper websites for recommendations unearthed Stone, Vine & Sun, who specialise in supplying wine to private clients via the Internet. An order for a ‘doorstep dozen’ a mixed selection of wines specially picked for a summer weekend was duly dispatched.
An editor friend of mine swears by a cocktail of ingredients that make up the perfect house party: ‘floorboards that creak, a boiler room like the Titanic only able to last longer, a croquet lawn and an inappropriately dressed London girl’ are some of the more mentionable items on his checklist. Rectory Park ticks the necessary boxes and, more importantly, is equipped with the sort of things that inevitably fail to make it onto the shopping list. As it takes at least a day or more if ordered on a weekend for anything to arrive from an online order, the welcome breakfast hamper of Duchy Originals and other organic goodies not to mention the large supply of matches and charcoal for the barbecue and shower gel (Floris, no less) in the bathrooms was very much appreciated.
Supper was one Kilner jar of Forman & Field fish pie filling decanted and topped with potatoes and flung in the Aga. Very good it was, too. However, having cleared up breakfast the following morning, one thing became abundantly clear: the boys, as usual, were incapable of doing much more than turning a page of their newspapers. And so with visions of spending the rest of the weekend by the sink, it was time to find whether the internet could come to the rescue. Entering terms such as ‘washing-up help’ into search engines proved fruitless, ‘butlers’ was more promising, even if the first site in the list was www.butlersinthebuff.co.uk. An outfit which specialises in providing ‘the pair of hands you haven’t got’ sounded tempting. Could they send someone out immediately? ‘No, madam, I’m afraid we can’t.’
There was still one last piece of bait with which to lure the boys into action: the arrival on Saturday of a large barbecue box from Donald Russell. With the promise of steaks, pork loins, sausages and beefburgers and the opportunity to tick the ‘I’ve been helpful’ box, they set to. Needless to say, this was short-lived. The 2pm kick-off and the flat-screen television were enough to ensure that the clearing up was left to the girls.
Finally, a last-minute search online was conducted once we were installed to find out if anything of interest was going on locally. Although not every village has (yet) got into the habit of posting up details of its fêtes on websites, the larger festivals, fairs and shows are easier to find. Enter the Longborough Festival Opera, a country-house opera which has just opened its summer season, born off the back of a couple of charity performances. Martin and Lizzie Graham now host 20 operas a year. Although it’s not Glyndebourne (and purposely so they ‘don’t want anyone to be put off from coming to an opera’), the setting is a cleverly converted Dutch barn which looks across the Evenlode Valley. We had Don Giovanni and his sidekick, Leporello, robustly singing about pleasant pheasants: the perfect summer’s evening in the countryside.
Caught in the Web
Blandings www.blandings.co.uk has a selection of ‘the finest private houses in the United Kingdom and Southern Europe’ on its books. Rectory Park, my ‘tent’ for the weekend, is a very comfortable seven-bedroom house in the Vale of Berkeleywww.rectorypark.co.uk
Longborough Festival Opera near Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, is in the middle of its 2006 season. Black tie is optional. Tickets for Don Giovanni, Rigoletto and Carmen are still available. Visitwww.longboroughopera.com
Stone, Vine & Sun buy from independent, family-owned vineyards whose wines are rarely available from larger retailers. We particularly liked the vin doux naturels, a fortified wine from Rousillon on the Spanish border. Visitwww.stonevine.co.uk
The Donald Russell BBQ box is made up of sausages, burgers and mini-steaks. All responsibly reared and delicious. The polystyrene boxes and freezer bags used to keep food cool in transit can double up as cooler boxes for picnics over the weekend when you fail to remember to bring your own. Visit www.donaldrusselldirect.co.ukwww.donaldrusselldirect.co.uk
Forman & Field is known for its London-cure smoked salmon (milder than the traditional Scottish cure) and they also make an unbeatable filling for fish pie. No one wants to do much in the way of supper preparation after taking on the M4 on a Friday night, do they? Visitwww.formanandfield.com