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)

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