It often seems like I travel a lot. When I’m not traveling as part of my day-job at Microsoft, I’m traveling for my “night-job” as a Cocktail Evangelist. I enjoy both of these occupations a lot, so it really doesn’t seem so much like work. It shouldn’t be surprising then to learn that I really don’t make it a habit of taking time off for “vacation” trips.
I did just get back however, from an honest to goodness vacation. It was, as you might expect however, slightly related to my involvement in the world of mixology and cuisine.
Some good friends of mine, Anistatia Miller, and Jared Brown, who are cohorts in my cocktail adventures, annually take a vacation in the United Kingdom where they rent out property that is part of the Landmark Trust. This is an organization which buys up old (and often in heavy need of repair) buildings of historic importance. They then fix them up and turn them into vacation houses which people can rent out and stay in. Landmark Trust shouldn’t be confused with the National Trust, which is an organization which similarly purchases historic buildings, but they open them up for tours instead.
This year, the property they chose was the Old Campden House, in Chipping Campden. The property once was home to a very grand house, which was built in the early 1600’s only to be burned to the ground in 1645 by the Royalists during England’s civil war. All that remained on the property were some of the ancillary buildings, which over the centuries fell into sad shape. The Landmark Trust purchased these buildings and after a lot of renovation opened them up for use.
There apparently is a strange “mystery” surrounding the Campden House property, which has been come to be known as the “Campden Wonder”. It occurred in 1660, when William Harrison, the estate manager headed out for Charingworth. When he failed to return, a search began, and eventually turned up a hat, shirt, collar, and comb which apparently belonged to Mr. Harrison. The worst was feared. Eventually John Perry, who worked for Mr. Harrison came forward and confessed to having killed Mr. Harrison. He later also implicated his mother and brother in the deed as well. They eventually were tried, and found guilty, and later hung. The “wonder” however, comes in the fact that two years later, Mr. Harrison walked into town, claiming that he had been abducted by three men and shipped to Turkey and into slavery. Why John Perry would have confessed to a crime he obviously never committed, was never discovered.
The buildings on the property include the East and West Banquet Hall, the Almonry, and the North Lodge. The Banquet Halls are the two most impressive buildings, although still relatively small. They were apparently designed for diners to have their repast while looking back onto the main house, which would have candles lit in every window, presenting a beautiful and elegant spectacle.
With the rooms available, we had sleeping for up to 10 people maximum, and by renting a couple of additional rooms at the 8 Bells Restaurant and Pub, we could get up to 12. The core group consisted of just myself, along with Jared and Anistatia. During the course of the week however, we had a rotating group of additional visitors who participated in our festivities. These consisted of Nick Strangeway (from the “Hawksmoor” restaurant in London), along with his girlfriend Claudia; Dre Masso from the Worldwide Cocktail Club; Nick Blacknell, from Beefeater gin; Sasha Petraske, from Milk & Honey in New York (and London); Simon Ford, from Plymouth gin; and Adrian Hodgkins, a beer aficionado and good friend of Anistatia’s from Oxford, along with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. Essentially we had a group of folks where every single one of them was either directly associated to food, drink, or both, so it should be no surprise that we had a wonderful time.
We started out in London for two nights, where we had a chance to watch the extremely exciting darts finals (trust me, it was indeed exciting!). On the drive up to Chipping Campden, we made a stopover in Oxford, where we met up with Adrian for a couple pints at the Turf Tavern, which dates back at least to the 1200’s. From there, we continued on to Chipping Campden, and the Old Campden House. After figuring out who would stay where (I in the West Banquet Hall, Anistatia and Jared in the East Banquet Hall), we struck out onto the town to see what it had to offer, finishing off with dinner and a couple of pints at the Eight Bells.
The next day, we started prepping some of the food that we would be cooking over the course of the week, including a brace of four ducks which Anistatia marinated in a honey glaze and then hung in the fireplace to age for a couple of days before we would cook it. We eventually discovered that the Lygon Arms had wireless internet, and so we had to briefly stop in so we could do a quick checkup on e-mail and such. The only downside of this was that in order to get access to the wireless, you had to buy a pint of beer. Did I say downside? What was I thinking!
On an adjoining property, there was a small flock of sheep that were grazing, and on one occasion they discovered a hole in the fence around our property which allowed them to get over to our property and into the fenced in area that surrounded the East Banquet Hall. It was then up to Jared and myself to figure out how to properly motivate the sheep into heading back down a narrow stone stairway, and through the hole in the fence back to their own pasture. In the process they decided that they liked the little terrace that was alongside the building.
When Nick Strangeway showed up (along with Claudia and Dre), he brought with him a huge goose, as well as a bone-in brisket which was absolutely fabulous. When Nick Blacknell and the Hodgkins arrived, we kicked things into full gear and started pulling out some of the various spirits and such, and started doing some experiments with various cocktails. Pomegranates, quince jelly, blood oranges, oak infused gin, various scotches, tequilas, and vodkas, homemade rhubarb syrup, and a broad assortment of bitters would be brought to bear as we tried one drink and then another… unfortunately, I think we were too busy tweaking the various libations and so nobody remembered to actually takes notes on what we ended up with.
Sasha then showed up, in his typically dramatic fashion, by knocking on the door of the East Banquet Hall just as we were finishing our main course. It should be noted here that the property is surrounded by a tall wall, which is designed to keep out trespassers, and Sasha really didn’t know exactly how to find us. As luck would have it, when his train arrived in another town, and he called for a driver, he just happened to get a driver who not only knew exactly where Old Campden House was, but he also owned the sheep which often grazed on the property, so he knew exactly how to get into the property, and which building we would probably all be in. Leave it to Sasha.
Many of the pubs in Chipping Campden appeared to carry Hook Norton beers, usually their “Hooky Bitters” and their “Double Stout”. We were also right in the middle of where Donnington Brewery distributed their beers, and so part of our adventures were to seek out a few of their pubs to try this special brew. One of the places we found was the Farmers Arms, where we not only had several pints, but some great food and conversation as well.
At the close of our visit, Simon Ford finally made it in, but unfortunately after all of the rest of the group had taken off. By this time however we welcomed the more relaxed pace which this afforded. We then headed back to London Heathrow, where I boarded my flight back to Seattle, while Anistatia and Jared stayed on for a couple days before they would head back to New York. All in all, a great trip.
Now with a houseful of mixologists, it should be no surprise that we not only spent a lot of experimenting with cocktails, but also in discussing the state of cocktails and spirits in London, America, and the world. Many of us are involved in the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Worldwide Cocktail Club, as well as various bars and restaurants. Sharing information at this level, and in this sort of environment proves to be extremely useful for helping us all get a better understanding of where things are going, as well as who is going there. The fact that we also had some representatives from both Beefeater and Plymouth in attendance allowed us to also discuss how and where these spirits could and should fit into the overall equation. It was interesting to hear about their various marketing and distribution approaches, as well as where they felt they needed to go in the future. Anistatia and Jared say that each year their little “vacations” move closer and closer to turning into an “industry” event… I can only imagine what next years will be like!