There have to be few dinners that start with an amuse bouche of fire-jumping horses and flying Presbyterians, and have a side of puppetry, but then there are few restaurants like the aptly named Circus Sauce.
The official restaurant travelling alongside Giffords Circus, Circus Sauce takes cooking under canvas to the next level. Forget baked beans, bacon sarnies and tinned peaches, the team here (who’ve been on the hoof since 2003) cook four-course feasts from their small, moveable kitchen. We’d booked into the last day of the London leg of their summer tour, in the grounds of Chiswick House.
Cotswold-born Giffords, the brainchild of English literature graduate Nell Gifford, looked to the Wild West for its inspiration this year. With Tweedy the Clown, Dodge City the circus saloon band, dancing horses, acrobatics, aerialists and more, The Painted Wagon show is an example of traditional entertainment at its best. Glorious costumes, slapstick comedy, slap-your-thigh music and the marvellous and wonderful all rolled into one.
Being careful not to fill up too much on freshly spun vanilla candy floss, popcorn, tea, cakes and brownies, and pizzas, hot charred from a Dan Chadwick oven, during the interval, we headed over to the dinner tent after the performance. As the sun began to set behind the big top, the twinkly lights from beneath the canvas lit up tapestries, bunting, flower garlands, and the blackboards of the evening’s menu. They change each week, depending on what the team can source locally, but more often than not, things start with freshly baked bread and soft golden butter.
There were three different types brought out by the jolly team, which we piled onto our Emma Bridgewater plates with vigour. All of the crockery here is by Emma, Nell’s sister, and I spy the next course – a mound of potted shrimp with pickled sea vegetables placed in the centre of our table. This is a sharing, everyone get-stuck-in kind of affair; the butter from the sweet shrimps melting in the late summer evening humidity with ease, as I spread it on to the bread.
Little bites of deep-fried oatmeal bites stuffed with gruyére, like arancini, came round too and were hastily snaffled. Sauce isn’t licensed so you can bring your own booze – and people go all out. The diners next to us had a sparkler to start, red and white to follow, and a pudding tipple to finish. You can always check that week’s menu online if you’re hoping to do a spot of matching.
For main, a platter of tender duck is bathed in a rich gravy and joined by roasted root veg, and more bowls of lightly steamed greens – it’s remarkable how well everything is cooked considering the size of the food truck. We see two chefs frantically plating from the window; that’s not the only performance they partake in, though.
(Spoiler alert!) Hush descended upon the tent, as the final clatter of knives and forks came together before pud, and a red curtain was pulled apart for an immersive puppet show and ditty from the chefs themselves.
Pudding is when you realize that charming the diners next to you was a very good plan indeed, especially when you see that they’ve called dibs on mum duty, cake slice in hand. A banoffee pie, suitably groaning with toffee, cream, toasted meringue, chocolate shavings (and a smidge of fruit in there somewhere – still counts as your five-a-day in my book) was served out by my near neighbour – I’d done well, and bagged a giant slice.
I left the tent feeling warm and fuzzy, and for a change, not just from the wine. This is a genuinely unique and special kind of dining experience, so make the most of it while you still can. From 4 August -25 September, Giffords will be travelling to various locations across the South West, including Frampton on Severn, Minchinhampton, Marlborough, Cirencester and Stroud. I recommend signing up to the newsletter, now, so you can book early for next year, too: it’s that good.
Written by Laura Rowe, August 2016
Images courtesy of Andrew Rees, Shootingfood Photography and Rebecca Reid
Circus Sauce at Giffords Circus. Various locations across the South of England over the summer
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