Tales Of The Country: Days of wine and wet noses

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The Independent Online

Three or four miles from us as the crow would fly if the farmer hadn't already shot him stands one of England's more northerly vineyards, Broadfield Court, the home of Bodenham English Wines. The house was built in 1086 and is almost tear-jerkingly lovely, rather reminiscent of Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire. Apparently the Mitford sisters used to attend parties at Broadfield Court in the 1920s, and it is certainly easy to imagine lots of gay flappers flapping gaily on the lawn.

Until the other day we hadn't been to Broadfield Court, but our friend Avril kept saying we must, if only to have tea in Broadfield Court's charming café, housed, as all charming cafés should be, in an 11th-century barn. The café is run with irresistible joie de vivre by Alexandra James, a fortysomething mother-of-three whose late father-in-law bought the estate in 1968 and promptly planted a vineyard, having learnt the rudiments of viniculture on an Italian farm after escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp in the dog days of the Second World War.

Anyway, Jane and I went for lunch there last Thursday while the children were at school, taking only Milo the golden retriever. We sat in the garden and tied Milo to the table leg, which is why when I went back in to order some coffee Mrs James had us described on her order pad as "outdoor doggie".

We had some brief banter about this, but the woman behind me in the queue was not amused. "Excuse me, I've got an outdoor doggie as well," she protested. I assumed she was joking. "I'm afraid only one customer can answer to 'outdoor doggie' and it's me," I said, cheerfully. "But I was here first," she snapped. And that is a verbatim account of the exchange, which had the happy side effect of cementing my rapport with Mrs James over raised eyebrows, although as a former actress with the RSC, she gives much more dramatic raised eyebrow than I do.

Later, we had a long chat. She is passionate about English viniculture and contemptuous of the continuing predominance of French wines in the restaurants of the House of Commons. There are currently six wines on the Bodenham list and I tried five of them, ranging from dry to medium white. They have undoubted merit, and Mrs James ventured that she and others are slowly winning the battle to convince the English that wine produced in England is not necessarily irredeemable plonk. "I don't have to put a gun to people's heads to try it now," she said, "which I did until about two years ago."

I don't suppose she did really, although I have no doubt that she can be unusually persuasive. She has also learnt to be unusually resourceful - in the Borneo jungle of all places. Three years ago - before I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here was so much as a glint in Tony Blackburn's smile - she and 11 other Herefordshire women accepted a challenge to spend 24 days largely fending for themselves in the jungle, an experiment recorded by Channel 4 and transmitted as a programme called Jungle Janes.

She carried a 55lb backpack containing 25 portions of Lancashire hotpot, which owing to a cock-up, comprised her food rations. There are undoubtedly privations worse than spending 24 days in the jungle with nothing to eat except Lancashire hotpot, but at the time - not unreasonably - she couldn't think of any. I asked her how the experience has shaped the way she now runs Broadfield Court?

"I don't get in a state about anything," she replied, "but at the same time I have no patience with people who whinge about nothing." The "outdoor doggie" woman clearly had a close shave.

An admirable book, The Townies' Guide To The Country, is published today by the small-but-perfectly-formed Merlin Unwin Books of Ludlow, Shropshire. It has been written by Jill Mason, who, as a gamekeeper for 30 years - and a woman all her life - is a rare species.

She provides the answers to questions that may or may not have been nagging at you, such as how many eggs the average laying hen will produce in her life, and the maximum number of litres of milk a cow can yield in a single day, and what the proper name is for a male turkey. If you know that the answers are respectively 300, 65, and a stag, then you might as well save yourself £20.

But there is, of course, a lot more to this book than that. Indeed, it will prove invaluable to those of us who are trying to distance ourselves from our townie backgrounds and build at least a basic knowledge of country matters.

Incidentally, if a cow gives birth to twins - one male, one female - the female is always infertile, and is known as a freemartin. I can't wait to drop that into conversation down at the King's Head. But how?

Mal O'Propp is the name I will give to a delightful man who does occasional odd jobs for us, and who never fails to drop a classic malapropism.

Oddly, they usually involve some kind of foodstuff. For example, while discussing the pros and cons of one job, Mal once told us that we would have "to bite the biscuit". Last week, Jane and I duly hung on his every phrase, but he disappointingly didn't oblige until, bingo, he shared his views on whether he could build a woodshed for us on some sloping land.

"I don't think," he said, "that it's going to cut the custard."

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