A couple of weeks ago I got back from a festive break which was wonderful and very novel, for me. I spent Xmas 2012 with about 40 other veggies in a castle near Cambridge (Cambridge, England, that is , not to confuse it with other towns called Cambridge abroad!) It was a Christmas house party, organized by the travel company Vegiventures who provide high-quality holidays and trips all over the world for vegetarians and vegans. Their foreign holidays look amazing, but they are not cheap: I hope to go on one or other of them sometime, when finances permit. The only reason I was able to attend this Christmas event, over several days, was that I was working for them, on a voluntary basis: I was helping out with the cooking and all the kitchen work, serving the guests, etc. It was hard work, but I had a great time, and I was sorry to have to leave by the end.
The place we stayed, Buckden Towers, is an estate comprising castle, houses and grounds, a lot of which dates back about 900 years, and has a lot of our significant English history attached to it. It is a huge, stunning and very well-preserved place (the picture may give you an idea), now owed by a Christian missionary association, who hired it out to us for the festive period. It was a wonderful spot in terms of the views, the character and atmosphere, but not ideal from the catering point of view, which was hard, but we rose to the challenge!
We, the staff, totalling 9 of us, arrived on 23 December to set up, and left on 27 December (the guests were there from Xmas Eve, 24 December, to the morning of 27 December). Our kitchen was in the basement of one of the towers, and the dining area was in a large room above. Everything, all the food, plates, etc., had to be carried manually up from the kitchen to the dining-room, up a flight of twisting tower stairs, which did pose a big logistical challenge! That is what I meant about the facilities not being ideal (and also the kitchen was quite basic, not usually the type that professional caterers would use). So it was quite demanding and exhausting from that point of view. Additionally for the staff, the accommodation too was basic. A lot of staff slept in dormitories in the tower, and I had a tiny room off the dormitory (which had obviously been built as a cell in mediaeval times), which had nothing in it but a bed and a heater, nowhere even to hang my clothes! But the views out over the castle grounds (through barred windows) were spectacular, so that made up for it. I had never slept in a tower room before anyway, and it had great character to it.
As I say the work was hard but fulfilling: I was mostly in the kitchen, helping with food preparation (just in those few days I must have scrubbed, peeled and chopped a MOUNTAIN of vegetables!), cleaning up, and serving the guests in the dining-room. All the fruit and veg that we used was organic and came from local farmers, and the bread came from local bakers, so it was obviously of a high standard. Several of us staff were also given a big bag of this fruit and veg to take home at the end, so my fridge was well-stocked for a few days when I first came back (not now!) The food was mostly vegan, although we did provide vegetarian alternatives too, e.g. dairy milk besides cows' milk, butter besides vegan margarine, and dairy cream besides cashew nut cream. They also provided wheat-free alternatives to certain dishes for the coeliacs.
The meals themselves were amazing (obviously we staff ate the same meals as the guests, but we just served them first), but then I knew it would be good, as Nigel Walker, who runs Vegiventures, is a top-notch chef, and did all the cooking himself (with help from us staff!) For Christmas dinner we had the usual roast dinner, veg, etc., but in place of the turkey, we had seitan schnitzels, which were delicious and surprisingly “meaty”! (that was also the first time I have tried seitan, although I have heard about it a lot). Not a dead bird in sight on the table, which made a nice, refreshing change! I will write in more depth about the food in another blog, as there is too much to go into in this one.
There were various activities and entertainments provided for the guests for their stay, which the staff were also able to attend; e.g. yoga, walks,dance, creativity classes (like making balloons into animal shapes, which some people then wore as hats during their dinner!), etc. I didn't get to go to many of the activities as I was either working, or tired and resting, and the yoga was too early in the morning for me! I also didn't really feel like going on any of the guided walks as I was on my feet all the time anyway. I did go to a Dance of Universal Peace though, on the evening of Christmas Day, and took part in an impromptu cabaret on Boxing Day evening, which involved various entertainments, e.g. piano- and guitar-playing, jokes, dancing, stories, etc. I had to get up and sing with the rest of the kitchen staff, an alternative, funny version of the Twelve Days of Christmas! So that was all good fun, and very inclusive. The guests also gave presents to the staff, which was a nice surprise.
It was generally a very positive experience and my abiding memories will be of beautiful surroundings, really nice people and amazing food. There was a great sense of camaraderie and community about the whole event, which was really heart-warming. I felt it was in keeping with what should be the true meaning of Xmas, i.e. peace, love, non-violence and sharing.
I'll describe the wonderful vegan food in my next blog, so watch this space! As ever, your votes and comments are much appreciated.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.