Rosalind Sack discovers spirited Sicilian food in a very special setting at Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s pop-up dining experience at Wasing Park, Berkshire
It isn’t often you find yourself tucking into a Sicilian feast deep in the grounds of a quintessentially English 18th century country estate set in picturesque parkland in Berkshire. Nor, for that matter, stumbling across what is proclaimed to be the largest bed in the county, before hunkering down under the eaves of a former dovecote.
I was at Wasing Park near Aldermaston, Berkshire, at Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s pop-up restaurant to mark the launch of their 10th recipe book, Sicily. Those who know this formidable foodie due will no doubt be enamoured not only by the exceptional dishes they create, but also by their passion and spirit.
The evening began in the homely Stables Lodge where we found a large lounge room with a crackling fire flanked by snug armchairs and sofas. At one end of the room was a giant wall of books, at the other a bar tended by an affable host. Here we tucked into sesame seed Sfincione – the most unctuous focaccia loaded with sun-dried tomatoes and anchovies – accompanied by a light, citrusy Sicilian cocktail.
Once seated at long communal tables – a lovely, sociable way to dine – we were transported to Italian shores with antipasto intriguingly named ‘Five Tastes of Sicily’. The dish comprised a crispy coated arancine ball, a delicious Sardine pattie, zingy caponata, lemon and parsley couscous and melanzane parmigiana; a full-flavoured sliced aubergine dish. All of which was divine.
‘Eating is entertainment,’ proclaimed Giancarlo to earnest nods of agreement as we delved into the primo of Risotto all’arancia – a beautifully fragrant orange and basil risotto, which sang with the clean and sunny flavours of its dazzling Mediterranean homeland.
Secondo came in the form of Farsumagru; rolled beef stuffed with layers of ham, egg, cheese and rich ragu cooked in full-bodied Nero d’Avola red wine, served with creamy oregano and olive potato puree and broccoli.
Dolce of Torta di Ricotta followed. This ricotta and almond cake flavoured with marsala was a particular treat for the sweet-toothed diners around the table (myself included!), and proved a deliciously light end to the meal.
No visitor to Wasing Park should go without a peek inside the honeymoon suite – this is predominantly a wedding venue after all – and so, after dinner, we merrily made our way upstairs to the former stable’s hay loft. This breathtaking room retains many of its original features, including magnificent beams and pretty arched windows. Yet it’s the giant bed that sits beneath a sheer white canopy that takes some beating – my guess is that it could comfortably fit four snoozers!
Wedding ceremonies at Wasing Park either take place in the impossibly pretty 15th century St Nicholas Church just across the lawn, in the glass-walled Garden Room, or outside in the Victorian Summerhouse, while receptions are usually housed in the 18th century Castle Barn, with its crenellated stone walls and grand archway. A picturesque collection of Old Estate Rooms – including The Smithy, The Coach House and The Granary which perches proudly on staddle stones – together house 25 en-suite guest bedrooms.
Among them is the circular dovecote with its grand freestanding copper bath, illuminated dove holes and triangular shaped bed (yes, really!) on the mezzanine level – where I spent the night. Restored sympathetically, yet with discreet modern touches such as underfloor heating and a motorised window high in the eaves, this is a particularly special building to wake up in. The only caveat being that the bed may not be suitable for especially tall guests!
On first glance, this privately-owned old English estate couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the sunny Sicilian dining experience it hosted. Yet the similarities were to be found on a more subtle level, and it soon became clear that this inviting and special setting perfectly mirrored Katie and Giancarlo’s enthusiasm and warmth.