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Thursday 14 February 2013

Petworth House Throws a Party‏

Words by Felicity Spector

"These houses were made for parties." Sarah Hammond, the director of upmarket catering company Rhubarb, was in her element: standing in the grand drawing room of a 17th century mansion, a roaring fire in the hearth keeping out the bitter cold of a January night. We were in the glorious Petworth House, in the heart of the Sussex countryside, set in its own 700 acre deer park landscaped by Capability Brown.

Image: National Trust

The event: a very special evening of cocktails and canapés  to mark Rhubarb's new collaboration with the National Trust, laying on private parties and functions in some of the country's finest historic homes across the south of England. It was also a unique chance for a private view of Petworth House's sell-out Turner exhibition, which features several works which haven't been seen before in public.

Image: Felicity Spector

It was my first visit to the house; I'll have to save the gardens for a less chilly, daytime trip. But it was a huge privilege to be able to wander around the rooms after-hours, in a house immortalised by some of Turner's best known works.

Image: National Trust

The house contains the National Trust's finest collection of paintings, several of them by Turner, alongside Van Dyke, Reynolds and Blake. There was one incredible room lined with intricate carvings by Grinling Gibbons - in fact, that's one of the rooms you could hire out for one of the bespoke Rhubarb-catered events.

Another was filled with paintings and Grecian style statues, and as one of the National Trust staff commented - "This is about the only room I can imagine where gold cutlery and crystal glasses wouldn't look at all over the top."

The team are remarkably sanguine about the idea of partying guests coming up close and personal with an array of artistic masterpieces. There's modern carpet on the floor, for example, an army of experienced waiting staff and cleaners, and a feeling that guests at an event there would respect the historic nature of their surroundings, and not start flinging around the red wine.

I had time for a leisurely trip round the Turner exhibition, including a marvellous oil painting of Petworth House itself, as well as a selection of watercolours and sketches drawn from the displays at Petworth itself as well as some private collections. A real luxury to be able to stroll round without battling through the crowds. Then it was back to the warm embrace of the drawing room for some much anticipated refreshments.

Rhubarb are known for their innovative food and beautiful presentation - they have catered for royal weddings, charity balls and celebrities like Elton John. They have a handful of restaurants, two of them in central London, and have just begun a new partnership with Heston Blumenthal: who, marketing manager Gavin Gooddy told me, had already brought plenty of exciting new ideas to the venture.

Image: Rhubarb

And here, they were keen to show off some of that skill; with a succession of delicious canapés  including a very pretty macaron which turned out to be made of beetroot, filled with a soft goats cheese ‘ganache’. There were delicate filo pastries with a tiny poached quail's egg and hollandaise, presented on an antique mirror. Rectangles of parmesan shortbread, with a scoop of goats cheese and a sun dried tomato appeared on a specially designed wooden board. There were miniature scoops of butternut purée with a sliver of scallop, served in Chinese-style spoons.

Image: Felicity Spector

I was glad to see an array of shot glass desserts being carried in on a towering stand: naturally I tried them all - including a luscious dark and white chocolate mousse and a passion fruit panna cotta which struck just the right balance of sharp fruit with the rich cream underneath.

Image: Rhubarb

The idea of allowing these grand homes to be enjoyed after hours, and during the long, chilly winter months, means the National Trust gets some much needed revenue to plough back into upkeep and improvements.

And, although there is nothing quite like a cream tea eaten on a perfect Spring day in a garden landscaped by Capability Brown, these are houses which clearly have more to offer, even after the sun goes down. There are ball rooms, grand dining rooms, parquet floors and orangeries: houses, as Sarah Hammond put it, made for parties. And now they are not just the preserve of the privileged landowners who once owned them, but for anyone with a love of Britain's heritage, and a special occasion to celebrate in style.

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