My nostrils twitched as I entered the Chelsea Flower Show. The pollen count was overwhelming. The old chap next to me sneezed so hard that his toupee blew off. He didn’t notice because he was pleasantly drunk having been quaffing Pimm’s since 10am. He had lost his wife who was last seen in an out-of-control wheelchair running over people.
Being pleasantly drunk is about the only way to survive the Chelsea Flower Show. It’s mostly a collection of shops selling gardening tat and ghastly souvenirs, with a string of food stands selling cheap burgers and Vietnamese street food.
The Chelsea Flower Show is best known for show gardens designed by the great, the good, and a woman who married well (“please, call me Kate”). Buried behind fast food and eco tat, the gardens are few and far between. Pocket sized bits of turf shipped in at great expense, the show gardens are mostly planted with collections of wild flowers. Many have water features and the odd bit of garden furniture. A central pavillion features flower displays of a magnitude rarely seen outside of a funeral.
The crowd consists mostly of old people from the shires visiting the big smoke. It is a day out so they dress up. The chaps wipe the soup stains off their blazers, while their wives shake the mothballs off the flowery dresses they bought for the Queen’s coronation. Their standard issue hip and knee replacements might be a bit rusty, but these folk arrive with a grim determination to have fun. In general it is a good idea to stay out of their way – remember these are the people who brought you Brexit.
I escaped across the road to the Kitchen at the Chelsea Barracks. The original military barracks have been demolished to make way for a posh apartment complex and restaurant. I was with the Springbok Sloane whose father was barracked here prior to being shipped off to the front in World War 2. The simple chapel where the soldiers prayed remains standing – a poignant memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Kitchen at the Chelsea Barracks is a pop up restaurant created by chef Ollie Dabbous for the flower show. The large high ceilinged space is dominated by a stunning upside down garden. The pollen continued to tickle our noses as we ordered cocktails. Gin and champagne make a delightful spring cocktail when combined with fruit juice – think of a French 75. Here, a variation with Kaffir Lime cordial, and another with an infusion of pea and mint, are nicely mixed and artfully presented.
The food is the main event at any Dabbous restaurant and we were not disappointed. The presentation of our beetroot and scallop starters were so over the top that it was difficult to find the main ingredients! The combination of flavours; beetroot with toasted pistachios and marigold, and scallops with crushed mint and peas were unexpected and delightful. The main course of turbot and mussels in a warm nasturtium broth was cooked in parchment and was sinfully rich. The wine parings from Hedonism Wines were creative and surprisingly easy on the wallet.
Established in 1862 the Chelsea Flower Show has gone from being a genteel gathering of gardeners, to becoming a theme park for loutish geriatrics. O tempora, o mores!
On the day I visited the flower show prime minister Theresa May tearfully resigned – felled by Brexit. The nation at the inception of the Chelsea Flower show was ruled by another woman; a Queen with slightly better control over her houses of parliament and a firm handle on Europe.
Buried in a small cemetery at the Royal Hospital where the flower show is held, is yet another female leader. I stopped to pay my respects to Margaret Thatcher. They just don’t make them like they used to.