Giffords Circus Cookbook by by Nell Gifford and Ols Halas

Giffords Circus

What’s the USP? Some people go to the circus for the clowns, some for the acrobats and their feats of derring-do. But if you’re headed to the traditional touring circus of Giffords, which performs across the Cotswolds and the South West of England each year, then you might well be going for the food.

For the last 17 years, Giffords has also been host to the UK’s only travelling restaurant. After each show, 60 audience members gather for a 3-course banquet that seems to carry all the wonder of the circus over into each dish. Here, then, is the Giffords cookbook; now you can create your own whimsical feast without having to worry about your children’s coulrophobia (that’s a fear of clowns, as if you couldn’t guess).

Sounds magical! Who’s the author? The circus’ founding matriarch, Nell Gifford has teamed up with the restaurant’s head chef, Ols Halas. Both get ample time to share their stories at the beginning of the book and, as you might expect, they’re pretty fun (it’s not often a chef’s background involves literally running way to join the circus).

Is it good bedtime reading? The reading is probably where Giffords Circus Cookbook is at its best. There’s an absolute tentful of writing here, from Marco Pierre White’s fawning foreword to the chapter introductions that offer insight both into the challenges of cooking in a travelling restaurant and of the inner-workings and community of a modern circus.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Nothing here is particularly unusual, though the recipes do tend to fall on the more luxurious end of the scale. You’ll want a good butcher at hand, and some of the ingredients (romanesco broccoli, activated charcoal and fresh truffles) are a little more Waitrose than Asda. It would be nice to see a cookbook knock up this sort of wonder and magic in their dishes using more down-to-earth ingredients, but I suppose that’s not the point, is it?

What’s the faff factor? Look, Willy Wonka didn’t build his chocolate factory in a day. It took bloody ages and required the slave labour of Loompaland’s indiginous people. So consider yourself lucky when your own slice of whimsy only needs a two-day brine beforehand, or perhaps necessitates the creation of a meringue (there’s a lot of meringue in here – apparently this is a staple of the circus diet).

What will I love? There’s an irrepressible joyfulness that runs throughout the entirety of the Giffords Circus Cookbook. Everything is bright, and everyone always seems to be having so much fun. It’s an infectious sort of a feeling, and reading the book makes you feel every bit a part of the mish-mash vaguely-Moominesque family of oddballs and misfits.

What won’t I love? The recipes aren’t organised in any sense that could be considered even remotely helpful. Instead, the eight chapters loosely tell the story of a season with the circus and might feature anywhere between one and nineteen recipes. Desserts are mixed in, and as such the panna cotta might be found next to the monkfish tails, the black forest trifle opposite roast guinea fowl. If you know what you’re looking for, you can dive right into the index – but for inspiration, it’s not particularly practical. But then, what part of ‘60-seat restaurant serving the clientele of a travelling circus’ suggested practicality to you?

Should I buy it? If you entertain regularly and want to inject a little bit of magic into your dinner parties, this cookbook is not to be missed. There isn’t much here for the casual, everyday cook – except escapism. And that’s always worth a look.

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Brighton-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas.

Cuisine: British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Buy this book
Giffords Circus Cookbook: Recipes and stories from a magical circus restaurant
£27, Quadrille