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Eating for a good cause at St Edmunds Dining Club

PUBLISHED: 11:09 06 December 2016 | UPDATED: 11:09 06 December 2016

Honor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham Hall

Honor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham Hall

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Tessa Allingham joins St Edmunds Dining Club, the fundraising brainwave of St Nicholas Hospice Care. Photos: Lucy Kayne

Honor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham HallHonor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham Hall

It’s one of those special, lingeringly warm September days. The kitchen garden at Chippenham Park seems to have captured the last of the summer heat inside its red-brick walls, coaxing the fruit and vegetables in the neatly ranged raised beds to ripeness. The abundance of early autumn is apparent in places – branches arching heavily with jewel-like raspberries, deep green crimped clouds of brassicas, stately ranks of silky-tasselled corn. Nearer the Potting Shed Tearoom, a gnarly old apple tree is just about ready to present its first fruit of yet another season.

Chippenham Park’s owners, Becca and Hugo Nicolle, have generously opened the garden this September lunchtime to members of the fledgling St Edmund’s Dining Club, the latest of the St Nicholas Hospice Care charity’s fundraising initiatives. It’s been the Nicolles’ home since 2010, and belonged before that to Becca’s mother, garden designer Ann Crawley. Becca and her husband, also a renowned garden designer, are used to receiving admiring visitors, of course. Chippenham Park is known in particular for its breathtaking February displays of snowdrops and winter aconites, and is a popular wedding venue throughout the year.

“I’ve always been very keen on supporting the hospice,” says Becca. “They are a truly amazing charity. I used them first hand with my dear mother and they were so kind and gentle.” She didn’t need to think hard when asked if she might host an event.

And so we find ourselves – a gathering of 24 or so – in the Potting Shed Tearoom. It’s a spacious, comfortable, stylish barn conversion – a world away from the spider-ridden outhouse the name suggests – and the perfect place to enjoy an Italian-inspired autumnal feast prepared by local chef, Honor Townsend.

Honor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham HallHonor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham Hall

“We wanted to tap into the popularity of ‘supper clubs’,” explains St Nicholas’ major gifts manager, Claire Butler. “People love eating out, but more and more they like to enjoy good food in a less formal setting, maybe somewhere original or quirky. What better than to ask private home-owners in Suffolk – most of them with an existing connection with St Nicholas Hospice Care – to host one-off lunches or dinners? The idea is that they prepare and host the meal themselves, or we pair them with a chef who gives their time and expertise. Guests pay a ticket price set by the host, and all proceeds come straight to the Hospice.”

The response to the St Edmund’s Dining Club has been enthusiastic, with over 130 people already signed up. Members have been able to enjoy the food of renowned Suffolk caterers Nicky Bidwell and Nicky Swinburn, the former preparing dinner for 12 at a private home in Long Melford with wines paired by Baythorne Hall wine merchants, the latter celebrating the game season with venison from Denham Estate at a dinner (and some very fine wines) hosted by David Barclay at his home in Higham. A sumptuous Sunday roast lunch went down a storm at Barningham House in July, as did a Provençal themed dinner at a private home in Rougham Green. It goes without saying that the opportunity to have a peek inside some of Suffolk’s most lovely houses and historic buildings is a big draw.

“We’ve had a fantastic variety of lunches and dinners already,” says Claire. “Some people have hosted simple dinner parties for eight guests, or a Sunday lunch, others have organised things on a grand scale. People are so generous, and we are incredibly grateful.” As for Becca, she’s won over.

“I think the Dining Club is a fantastic idea. It’s fascinating to go to new and wonderful places, and such a great way of meeting people. All the guests at the Potting Shed were so interesting. I didn’t know Honor before, but wow, can she cook!”

Honor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham HallHonor Townsend's sumptuous Italian lunch, hosted at Chippenham Hall

Claire Butler and her team are drawing up a tempting menu of Dining Club events for early 2017. If you would like to host a gastronomic event for eight guests or more, or become a member of the St Edmund’s Dining Club, email Claire at stedmundsdiningclub@stnh.org.uk or call 01284 715581.

Chippenham Park gardens are open on select dates throughout the year www.chippenhamparkgardens.info. Contact Honor Townsend, private chef, at www.honorsflavours.com.

The food

Honor warned us to come hungry. She is the sort of chef who overflows with generosity, warmth, and a desire – a need, even – to nourish. She probably gets it from her mother, Sarah, who welcomes guests warmly, generously pours prosecco (supplied by Nicholas Corke of Thomas Peatling wine merchants), and encourages us to dive into the antipasti. Slices of sweet-salty Parma ham curling around rich figs – one of the most sublime food partnerships – garlicky crumbed mushrooms and fresh salads are sharing starters that break the ice. There follows a moreishly rich lasagne made with deeply-flavoursome slow-cooked game – pigeon, venison, grouse – and generous with the Parmesan. Then a risotto, creamy but still with bite, laden with Italy’s ultimate autumnal ingredient, porcini mushrooms, these from local supplier, Fisher and Woods.

Honor uses free-range poultry from Felsham farmer Phill Truin to make chicken cacciatore, serving it with silky mash and spinach stripped of worthy connotations thanks to a quantity of olive oil. This precedes Honor’s signature dish, her ‘truly Italian’ tiramisu, a pudding so indulgent it’s almost obscene. Somehow, we find space for spoonfuls of homemade fig jam served with slivers of Tuscan pecorino and – another match made in heaven – fresh pear.

All in a good cause

St Nicholas Hospice Care was set up in 1984 to provide care for people in West Suffolk and Thetford suffering long-term or life-threatening illnesses. It gives practical and emotional help to the patients, their friends and families 24/7. And that, of course, costs money.

“Did you know, it costs £11,000 a day to run St Nicholas Hospice Care?” says Claire Butler, the charity’s major gifts manager. “That’s £11,000 every single day of the year, year in, year out. It doesn’t stop at weekends or Christmas. We are constantly fundraising, looking for fresh ways to keep this essential service running and available to local people the moment they need it.”

The biggest fundraising event of the year is the Girls’ Night Out, a sponsored moonlight walk round Bury St Edmunds, which last year raised a staggering £190,000. Other regular events include Paws in the Park, a dog show and community event in May, and Light Up a Life, a series of remembrance events held in the run-up to Christmas. There are numerous one-off events, and several high street charity shops and online stores that support St Nicholas Hospice Care.

https://stnicholashospice.org.

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