Friday, 30 July 2021

Sex, drugs, rock and roll — and a top secret request for pork pie

SEX and drugs and rock ’n’ roll got me in trouble with Stewart, the organiser at

SEX and drugs and rock ’n’ roll got me in trouble with Stewart, the organiser at last year’s Henley Festival, writes Paul Clerehugh.

I didn’t have sex and drugs with him — it was the sheet music pinned to a dozen knackered pianos planted out with cascades of nasturtiums, dahlias and lobelia the colour of wine gums, adorning the Crooked Billet’s pop-up riverside bar and restaurant.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll by Ian Dury, to be precise. A little risque for poor Stewart, who’s OCD about the festival’s sharp look. Catch him early in the morning mowing stripes into the festival lawns.

The Crooked Billet bar and restaurant is back at the Henley Festival from July 6 to 10. A wabi-sabi mishmash of sexy shabby tattiness.

Relaxed informal dining, 200 candlelit tables on the riverside. No need to book. Dishes from £10 include salt beef, sea bass, rotisserie herb chicken, king prawns, crunchy fresh field to fork salads, spicy rabbit stew.

Puds include Oreo cheesecake with salted caramel, raspberry meringue and chocolate mousse with swirls of Mr Whippy ice cream. A local cheese board, including St Bart’s from Nettlebed.

The stars’ dressing room is part of the Crooked Billet pop-up. If you fancy a selfie with Elton John or a pint of Rebellion IPA with Dame Shirley Bassey, join us for a drink.

We have an affordable wine list I’m proud to serve. Gorgeous Provence rosé, sensibly priced prosecco and champagne, draft craft lager from the Portobello Brewery and real ales. I’ve got the stars’ backstage riders and dietary requirements — buy me a drink for that gossip. Who requested pork pie? Elton John, Bryn Terfel, Shirley Bassey or Will Young?

Elton John’s diva outbursts are legendary — but nothing compared to the 237 chefs cooking at the festival.

It’s a culinary Glastonbury. A brilliantly eclectic mix of restaurants and eateries. Michelin-starred chef Daniel Clifford from Midsummer in Cambridge is cooking at St James Riverside.

Modern-style tapas and world wines at Barco. Supper and jazz at Ronnie Scott’s — one of the Rolling Stones performs there on the Friday.

Top chef Henry Harris created the Dog and Badger’s menu. I’m delighted Henley’s Spice Merchant are bringing their delicious contemporary Indian flavours and magical friendly service to the Festival. Shirley Bassey and Saag Balti — I’m in heaven.

Mum and dad picnic in the car park — reckon it’s cheaper. All my menu’s under £20 — I guarantee their prawn ring costs more.

Besides, with the introduction of this year’s car park Street Food Big Top, why bother picnicking? It will be packed with vibrant cuisine, carts, hawkers’ stalls and vans — authentic world flavours from South Asia to Central America.

Rubbernecking! That’s why mum and dad picnic. Gazing at gazebos, linen, candelabras, butlers. Apparently there’s a Heston Blumenthal lookalike to hire. And apparently Porsche Cayenne do an optional espresso machine in the back.

You will find the Crooked Billet bar and restaurant right opposite the entrance on the riverside.

Sponsored by local company Beckhoff who’ve swapped white plastic patio furniture for 200 lovely oak tables and chairs (putting me back in organiser Stewart’s good books).

I’m cooking every night from an open plan canteen kitchen. Affordable, unstuffy candlelit riverside al fresco dining. Come and say hello.

• Paul Clerehugh is chef proprietor of the Crooked Billet, Stoke Row, and London Street Brasserie, Reading. Catch Paul every week on Food on Friday (2pm, BBC Radio Berkshire).

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