I have a confession to make. I've lived in Coventry my whole life, and until this month had never visited Warwick Castle. The more local, crumblier Kenilworth Castle, yes, but it would seem my primary school were too tight for Warwick.
All year round folk from all over the country and beyond visit Warwick to tour the well-preserved Medieval castle and its exhibitions, and to take part in seasonal tourist attractions and events. I'd always been vaguely aware of the jousting and archery events, and something about the dungeons, but was surprised when an e-mail dropped in to our inbox, inviting us for dinner.
We were given a few options of dates and theme for their upcoming summer group events. Much to our disappointment we weren't able to make the date of the 'Dungeons After Dark' dinner, but pleased to be finally visiting the castle at all, we signed up for the Kingmaker's Banquet instead.
During the week leading up to the event, Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, kindly sent us a short introduction and a copy of the menu for the night. Turns out he was too busy with battle preparations to attend the event himself, but we received assurance that his trusted victualler and house staff would see us right. The menu read as pretty standard, uncomplicated fare, although not in any way Medieval (not necessarily a bad thing - the 15th Century isn't renowned for its culinary excellence). It didn't have us exactly salivating, but we were excited for the evening none-the-less.
We arrived at the sleepy castle grounds at 7.30pm as instructed, and were handed a token each for a complimentary drink; an oddly moderated system, considering that drinks were freely poured later in the evening. Feeling a little peckish, our attention was then brought to the canapés:
'F**k me!' I exclaimed. Our anticipated "Open Pork, Apple and Sage Pies" turned out to be full-sized pork pies as big as your fist. We had one each of course, because cowards we are not and they were really delicious, but someone might want to rethink those pre-dinner "nibbles".
Before dinner, we were led through the Kingmaker attraction, which is a walk-through exhibition of medieval sets and life-sized characters, depicting scenes of the preparation for the battle of Barnet. It's a great attraction, with an incredible amount of original detail and cool things to look at, but honestly I felt swept through it. Aware that we were due for dinner shortly, and following the flow of the crowd, I didn't feel like I could take my time as I'd have liked. There was a pause in a couple of the rooms, where the Earl's Squire talked about particulars of the exhibition, but mostly I felt that you'd need longer to really take any of it in.
Reaching our dining room for the evening, the cosy Undercroft, we were directed to our banquet table. The costumed hen and stag-do's were all seated in their groups, with the random couples and smaller groups on a table together. It worked well. The entertainment truly began with the rambunctious entrance of Sir Richard Rannulph, our host for the night in the Earl's regrettable absence (Think Rik Mayall's Lord Flashheart). We were encouraged to rap our fists on the table and cheer. A lot.
We were served from the end of the table in the traditional manner by costumed kitchen staff, passing the dishes down to our fellow guests, while other waiters filled our goblets with a choice of unspecified white or red wine, or beer. The drinks flowed at a good pace, though - enough to get squiffy if it's your pleasure, but not too much.
The meal itself was frankly.. weird. Not bad as such, just not a very well conceived menu. I'd liken it to something a 13 year old boy might concoct, when asked to devise a 3 course meal in food tech.
The starter was very beige - a mushroom rice ball, a small quiche, and a frittata with a few token salad leaves. (Sir Richard made a great show of not wanting to announce it, finally conceding with a theatrical but disgruntled holler of "BRING IN.. THE.. FRITTATA!". I feel he was correct in his reservations.) All fine, but bland, and definitely in need of the "selection of dips", which turned out to be only plain mayonnaise and sweet chilli.
For the main: more pie. An actually not bad hickory smoked chicken, ham and leek pie, served with thick gravy, roast potatoes and veg. Maybe not quite suited to a clement August eve, though. Pudding was a pear cake with a spiced pear liquor, though the liquor didn't seem to be present, and honestly it needed a bit more liquid than the thin pouring of cream it was served with.
The dinner should either be totally on-theme and historically accurate, or modern with a strong nod to flavours of the era. I think they've attempted the latter, but missed the most basic point of just conceiving a good menu; where all the courses flow nicely from one to the other, and look good on the plate. The starter was the biggest culprit. Some sort of terrine would have been just as easy, if not easier to prepare and serve, and would have looked far more impressive.
Throughout our meal, we were delighted by the talented castle musicians, and the magic tricks and comedy of Nathaniel J Bagshot; a cynical magician who self proclaimed he is "living proof of what Jeremy Corbyn would look like if he lived on a diet of pies and lager". The whole troupe; from the Castle gossip Peg to Sir Richard, did a great job of keeping the evening moving, the guests roaring, and the drinks flowing. Despite the average meal, we had a really good time.
An embarrassing moment for me, was when offered tea or coffee to go with my novelty, castle-shaped shortbread at the end of my meal, I asked for an espresso; to which I was told that they only have filter coffee or tea. What do they say? "First World Problems"? "Bourgeois Bastard"? (I think actually, I coined that one..) Anyway, they should invest in a commercial coffee machine to do espressos and lattes and things. (I get it, there were loads of us, it's much easier to cook up a vat of coffee..)
As a "food blogger", I can't, in good faith, advise you to book yourselves on The Kingmaker's Banquet to have an exceptional meal. It's just not. At £60 a head, it's a fairly expensive night out to have on a whim. When you consider it's almost 4 hours of entertainment at an incredible venue, with more or less free-flowing drinks, though, it's really not a bad deal. The groups in particular were having a great night, and I think the banquet setting is perfectly suited to that. If you're planning a special occasion with a group, and want to do something a little different that's not really centred around the food (even better if you like dressing up!), then the Kingmaker's Banquet might be a good shout. As a foodie couple, you might want to visit Warwick Castle in the day, spend time at the attractions, and book yourself somewhere in town for dinner.
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
N.B. We were invited by Warwick Castle Events to dine with them and give honest feedback. The meal was complimentary, however all opinions are our own.