Food & Drink: Wild oats in a country kitchen garden: She has spent time in jail and at Buckingham Palace, but Lady Carlisle now runs a restaurant, says Emily Green

In November 1970, a nice, middle-class, college-educated girl named Carla Heffner found herself in Alemeida County Jail in Oakland, California. She was one of only two white inmates. The other was a racist redneck. She invited the redneck to join a dinner table which included black prisoners. The reply was: 'Hell, no. I ain't sitting next to no hippie-commie-lesbo-killer-whore.'

Late last spring, uncomfortably warm in a white silk suit, Carla Heffner Carlisle's mind wandered during the knighting of her husband at Buckingham Palace. 'Who would have thought,' she mused, 'that years later, a hippie-commie-lesbo-killer-whore would be made a lady by the Queen of England?'

When I set off for Suffolk last week, I had not realised Carla Carlisle was Lady Carlisle. Nor had I any idea that her activism, first in the civil rights movement, then against the Vietnam war, had landed her repeatedly in jail. I knew only that one of this paper's employees had visited an American-born wine-maker who had opened a vineyard restaurant near Bury St Edmunds. She had, he told me, worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.

Chez Panisse is so good it is faintly miraculous. Like Lady Carlisle, it springs from an era of Berkeley radicalism and has evolved into a paragon of civility and grace. The food it serves is seasonal, local and beautifully cooked (mostly in a rural French style that suits the Californian produce). Most impressive is its social impact. Its kitchen has nurtured an ever-expanding northern Californian food culture, committed to organics and seasonality. If Carla Carlisle was even half-way up to Chez Panisse standards, she was going to be a find.

She was born in 1947 in Mississippi. During the Sixties, she went north to study in New York and by 1970 she was in San Francisco, publishing an underground newspaper and working as a shop steward in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union in a Chevron plant. It was her attempt to stop the plant providing defoliants for Vietnam that landed her in jail with the redneck.

Her work with chemicals, she thinks, was responsible for the leukaemia that followed. Thirteen other workers handling similar chemicals suffered the same illness. Throughout her treatment, she worked in a restaurant. 'I would put on a wig to go waitressing,' she says. By 1974 the cancer was in remission.

So, come to that, was her enthusiasm for the radical movement. 'I grew tomatoes and I loved wine. This was seen as a dangerously bourgeois tendency. Anyway, I was given a job at Chez Panisse,' she says. 'I worked a couple mornings a week with Lindsey Shere, the pastry chef, waitressed at night and wrote at all other times.'

You name it, she wrote it. After a short sojourn with the Washington Post, in 1975 she went to Paris. Here she briefly shared a flat with Jeremiah Tower, who later became one of the most successful restaurateurs in California.

By 1982, a succession of writing jobs had brought her to London. After she adopted a golden labrador, British quarantine laws kept her here. At a dinner party in Battersea, south London, she met Kenneth Carlisle, a gentleman farmer, barrister and Tory MP. They married in July 1986. Three years later, at the age of 42, she gave birth to their son, Sam.

What really makes this marriage work seems to be a shared passion for the land. Two years after they married, the Carlisles planted a vineyard on a south-facing slope which enjoyed unusually dry weather, sandy loam topsoil and good drainage through a chalk foundation.

Lady Carlisle, who had 'hung out' with wine-makers in Burgundy, chose disease-resistant rootstock and a selection of English hybrids and classic French vines. The vineyard covers seven acres and has 12,000 vines. Three years ago, their first harvest in, they converted an old barn into a restaurant and shop. Tables out front overlook a field with rare-breed sheep - Lincoln Longwools, Shetlands and Jacobs. Chickens run wild. Doves push fledglings from their raised cote, then beadily guard them.

This idyll has countrified the opening hours: service is three lunches and one dinner each week. The Friday dinner is, Chez Panisse-style, a delicately balanced set menu of five courses. The chef, Dean Simpole-Clark from the Fens, is blessed with produce he picks before mealtimes. Salad leaves come from the Carlisles' kitchen garden and the farm next door.

The food we sampled was simple, but elegant and basically good: rustic bread topped with sea salt, olive oil and rosemary; the lightest of bortschs made with young beetroot; Cornish hen smoked over chardonnay vine leaves, then served with cous-cous and a pungent salsa verde.

Chez Panisse has a regular conference between the chefs. Here, eager for criticism, Lady Carlisle pressed me for comment. She need not have; her notes for the kitchen were far more perceptive than mine. The soup, she thought, needed more body, more seasoning; the hens should have been served whole, not halved; the quails' eggs did not belong in the salad; the biscuit was missing from the pudding. The chef she teaches is lucky. While she is sharp-eyed, she is soft-natured. If he listens, he will learn.

The rare pleasure for me was finding an English restaurant that combined local food and wine. Wyken whites have the fresh, clean style of a sauvignon blanc. As opposed to fat, vanilla, New World wines, they are what Sir Kenneth Carlisle calls 'vivacious'. A 1991 blended red has blow-out potential for body and style, its strong tannins matching the goat's cheese and walnut bread.

Best, perhaps, was the auxerrois. Though it would be ideal as an aperitif, it was served as a dessert wine to accompany peaches that had been poached in the same wine, fresh raspberries and a light zabaglione.

The only unlikely and superfluous note is the restaurant's adjoining giftshop selling hook rugs, handsome American quilts, even wellington boots. Customers who come for a meal might leave with a carpet. While attractive to some, it detracts from Lady Carlisle's real achievement of convincing us that a lovely vineyard restaurant is, of course, a very English thing.

Leaping Hare Cafe, Wyken Vineyards, Stanton, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP31 2DW (0359 250287). Open lunch Thur, Fri and Sun, dinner (5-course set menu for pounds 18.50) on Fri. Visa, Mastercard. Wheelchair access (also wc). No smoking. Vegetarian meals.

(Photograph omitted)

Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all