The first weekend in July always holds a special treat for me in store... it is an event I await with much anticipation, because I really treasure how a single occasion epitomises everything that is "very British, indeed". There are a few such events that the Brits do like no other nation: the tennis at Wimbledon, the horse-racing at Ascot, a polo match at the Ham Polo Club, a picnic concert here or here and having High Tea at one of the prestigious London hotels (last enjoyed in the company of my friend Pille at Brown's hotel). I have been to the tennis finals and I've seen a few picnic concerts, but the Regatta is the one event I keep coming back to.
It is difficult to describe, really, you must be there to experience these events in their full glory, but they have a truly unique atmosphere. You feel like the whole affair, from the venue to the sometimes impossible codes of conduct, are orchestrated by a greatly gifted master of ceremony... everybody knows just what to wear, what to say when, and there are these unspoken rules that are sometimes difficult to grasp for an outsider - as a foreigner, unless you have good friends who give you a thorough briefing before you go, you are immediately spotted as the odd one out.
This past weekend, I had another chance to be part of the very pleasant and rather sophisticated crowd that gathers each year for the Royal Regatta in Henley on Thames. There are many ways to experience this exclusive rowing event: apart from being in a large party at one of the corporate tents, you can spread your picnic blanket on board of the Thames (in which case no dress code applies), you might consider paying for a parking at Remenham Farm with a space adjacent to the river path, and have your lunch served from the boot of your car (some families will bring their butler so they are not incommodated by having to get up for a refill of their champagne flute from the fridge in their Bentley or Ranger Rover) or, if you're incredibly lucky, you will know someone with connections and find your way into the Leander Club, the world's oldest and most renowned rowing club. This is were I was fortunate enough to experience my first regatta four years ago and it got me completely hooked.
There's no way to fool those in the know: if you arrive in denims and polo or wear a skirt above the knee, you're immediately spotted as being part of the plebs. But even if you dress up in hat and fancy dress, there is a prominent distinguishing mark in the form of badges giving you access to different areas of the racing facilities: the Leander Club itself and the Steward's enclosure being the most prestigious ones. If you're in the company of rowers, they will most likely also be wearing their club's colours in a jacket or tie (and some of them sport colours that I wouldn't even wear if they paid me). Funnily enough, despite the dress code being very strict on the men wearing a lounge suit and tie (many will wear their club's blazer and there's an impressive blazer hierarchy which I still haven't learnt to decipher) and the women wearing an elegant dress below the knee, it is completely acceptable and regarded as sensible and knowledgable to show up in wellies (yes, that's the English word for rubber boots: the grounds can get very muddy) - you'll have to find another occasion to wear those Jimmy Choo's that cost you an arm and a leg in last season's sale!
This year, of course, I still didn't fit any of my dresses (and I had no intention of buying one given how far I am from having reached my pre-pregnancy weight... not that I am trying, mind you, I find any kind of food just too good to resist and the last time I knowingly broke into a sweat were the intense moments of hitting the re-dial button to secure a table at The Fat Duck), so I arrived in plain clothes. And, after texting Jeanne to inquire about the state of the grounds, flipflops. But I had my new wellies in the car to be safe.
(from left to right: yours truly, Jeanne, Rachel, Andrew and Bill)
I needn't have worried about the weather for our mini foodblogger get-together at all (mini because Xochitl, Bonnie, Anne-Sophie, Jenni and Joanna dropped out at the last minute) - we had glorious sunshine all day, even if it was a bit nippy in the morning. And soon enough, after gaining some strength by way of a bottle of bubbly (Allan Scott Methode Traditionelle £12.99 from surf4wine) and copious jugs of Pimm's, we laid out the picnic blankets and on them a spread that would distract many a team of rowers! With Andrew providing the alcohol (and baked some chocolate chip and hazelnut cookies which i failed to taste), the girls and our resident brew-meister were left to cater for our hungry bellies.
And despite Jeanne's very strict rule of only one dish per person, we had lots left over at the end of the day: new amongst us was Rachel of Yumchia who brought a delightful pasta salad with tomatoes, feta & olives as well as hoisin duck rolls (just how did she sneak those past the Cook Sister!?), Bill spoilt us with an utterly moreish roquefort quiche (homemade pastry, no less), Jeanne had her peppadew and parmesan muffins which are as much of an institution as the salmon & cream cheese roly-polies she didn't allow me to bring ;-) And she made a mackerel paté, thus breaking the very rule she established. In her defense, her husband Nick was present, too, and I guess he can therefore account for the smoked fish spread.
As for myself, I had had a busy week and opted for super-swift treats (yes, treats, I also broke the rule!): rhubarb & white chocolate buttermilk cupcakes and a lovely salad of couscous, flaked grilled salmon, thin asparagus stalks and a marinade with plenty of mint and lemon zest... this is a recipe out of the latest Waitrose "Seasons" magazine which my Mum always asks me to send her and it worked a treat. It's such a doddle to make, the salmon needs just 10 minutes under the grill, the asparagus and couscous can be made in the same time span and seeing that you're multi-tasking already, why not whip up the dressing instead of staring into your oven as if you were watching paint dry. So that's a glorious salad for a lunch, dinner or a bowl of picnic fare in under 15 minutes - how impressive is that!
I can't wait for next year's Regatta... and while I wait, I might organise a gathering at a polo match (Germany is playing England on the 15th of September) and maybe I'll even buy myself a ridiculous hat and show up at Ascot next year!
For more picnic food on thepassionatecook, browse here.
Salmon & asparagus couscous with lemon & mint*
(serves 4 as a light meal)
400 ml vegetable stock
375 g thin asparagus stalks
200 g couscous
500 g salmon fillets
1 large clove garlic
3 tbsp capers (drained)
40 g fresh mint (chopped)
1 lemon (grate zest & juice)
50 ml olive oil
Bring the stock to a boil and blanch the asparagus in it for 2 minutes. Lift out with a slotted spoon and refresh immediately. Add the couscous to the stock and leave to swell up and cool down.
in the meantime, season the salmon fillets with salt & pepper and place under the hot grill for 10 minutes.
Make the marinade by mixing up the lemon juice with the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then stir in the mint and lemon zest.
Flake the salmon and stir into the couscous. Add the asparagus, then drizzle with the dressing and combine well, but gently.
You can leave this to stand overnight for the flavours to infuse. You might want to adjust the seasoning just before serving, adding more olive oil and lemon juice as necessary.
* Adapted from Waitrose Seasons magazine July/August 2007