It was a perfectly crafted bag that brought together Melissa Morris, the American founder of the London-based leather house Métier, and Silka Rittson-Thomas, an art adviser and creative consultant. About four and a half years ago, Rittson-Thomas (who is also a contributing editor to T) purchased a Métier Private Eye bag — a chic, roomy style constructed from lightweight leather, with ergonomic spaces for a laptop and other essentials. She instantly adored it and, soon after, went to meet Morris in person at the brand’s store in Mayfair. They’ve been friends ever since. So, when Morris mentioned to Rittson-Thomas that the brand’s fifth anniversary was coming up, and that she wanted to throw some kind of summer celebration to mark it, Rittson-Thomas suggested she hold the event in the gardens of Walcot House, her home in the Cotswolds that she shares with her husband, the photographer Hugo Rittson-Thomas.
Those gardens envelop the Rittson-Thomas’s stone manor house — one element of what was once a much larger property built in the 16th century and at different points in its history owned by ancestors of the current Earl of Liverpool and the current Duke of Marlborough. (It is believed that in the 18th century, the then Duke of Marlborough demolished parts of it to provide construction materials for nearby Blenheim Palace.) Exploring the expansive grounds, which Hugo — who bought the property 20 or so years ago — and, later, Silka have transformed, feels like passing through a series of open-air rooms, each with a slightly different personality. There are walkways lined with manicured yew hedging; a cutting garden currently brimming with hollyhocks, nightshades and heritage roses; and a thriving vegetable garden, whose rosemary-framed beds grow everything from sorrel to Tuscan kale to ornamental pumpkin. The latter two areas provided produce for the intimate dinner (a prelude to a more formal affair that took place the following night) that Morris and Rittson-Thomas ended up throwing, with the help of the Cotswolds-based caterer Caroline Gibbs, on a warm evening earlier this month.
Planning the event wasn’t such a leap for Morris. In 2013, having worked for brands including Helmut Lang and Belstaff, she was feeling disillusioned with the fashion world and its unrelenting pace, and was considering applying to culinary school and perhaps eventually opening a cafe. She’d first discovered a passion for cooking after moving to San Francisco in 2005 and finding, as a newcomer to the city, that hosting dinner parties was a way of making meaningful connections. But before she pursued this potential path, funding came through for a line of her own, one that would allow for time to perfect each product, and she leapt at the chance. Sure enough, Métier’s wares have a reputation for being as thoughtful and meticulously crafted as they are beautiful. Made with carefully sourced materials and designed to last a lifetime, they have compartments in all the right places, and an innovative modular sensibility: The brand’s smaller bags and pouches clip neatly inside its larger ones.
Dinner guests — friends of the brand old and new, including the interior designer Charlotte Rey, the creative director Betty Bachz, the artist Tej Adenuga and the model Anna Roborough — first mingled on a section of the lawn that’s home to statuesque pleached lime trees that can also be seen on the surface of a reflection pond. Here, they sipped on a variation on a bramble cocktail incorporating Yola mezcal and a nettle syrup homemade by Rittson-Thomas, and sampled fresh Parmesan, jamón Ibérico and snap peas that they ate straight from the pods. The group was then led around a corner to a walled-in orchard with an enchanting carpet of poppies and a large dining table, crafted from a single Scottish elm trunk, that was set with white linen napkins, vintage hurricane lanterns and, at its head, a vase of alchemilla flowers.
The one dish Morris knew she wanted on the menu was branzino al sale, or salt-baked sea bass, which seemed like a good way to pay tribute to Italy, where Métier’s bags are crafted, and which she thought would give guests the feeling of being on vacation with their nearest and dearest. “When I think of the best thing about summer and being on holiday, it’s always that dish,” she said. “You break the crust and it’s very communal — and it’s just so fresh and simple.” That simplicity, however, means it has to be perfectly prepared (there’s nothing you can hide “under some sauce,” said Morris), but under the supervision of Gibbs, who worked closely with the chef Sean Enslin, it absolutely was. Accompanying the fish was a heritage tomato and basil salad dressed with nothing but olive oil and salt, as well as fava beans with ricotta, lovage and bright nasturtium flowers, and parsley-flecked new potatoes in butter. These dishes, too, showed the kind of restraint that requires confidence in one’s ingredients and execution. Morris takes a similar approach with Métier, paying attention to the smallest details — she’s sourced zippers that move like butter, has given her bags gently rounded bases so that they don’t dig into the holder’s side and has her designs tested in a facility that simulates 20 years of wear — and letting them add up to something special.
As the sun set and the poppies began to close (“It’s like they were doing a dance with us,” said Morris), out came a crostata topped with wild strawberries and globs of cream, a sweet end to a memorable evening. “Just made with love,” Morris said of the dinner. “With everything that’s happened in the last few years, one thing we’ve all learned is that you should stop and celebrate the moment when you can.” Here, she and Rittson-Thomas share their entertaining tips.
Instead of place cards, leather tags in the shape of letters, tied loosely around the dinner napkins, let guests know which place was theirs. Inspired by a midcentury stencil typeface, the tags double as bag charms, and thus gave everyone a little something to take home. Morris also had custom cushions made for the benches. Their fabric, produced outside Lake Como, Italy, featured geometric patterns in a dusky colorway. “I thought that would be nice against all of the red in the poppies,” says Morris.
Opt for Elegant Touches
As Rittson-Thomas sees it, silver is an easy way to elevate any tablescape. During dessert, extra fresh cream meant to be poured onto the crostata was served in satisfyingly weighty antique silver jugs, which contrasted appealingly with the natural grain of the wood table and the wildness of the surroundings.
Less Is More
It pays to heed that oft-repeated yet oft-ignored advice, “Never be cooking when your guests are there,” says Morris. “If you’re worried that something’s going to burn, your guests will feel that.” In addition to taking time to plan carefully and prep in advance, she recommends sticking to a streamlined menu. “Keep things simple,” she says. “Then you don’t need to do so much.”
Let the Season Be Your Guide
Morris lived in Berlin for a period, during which she adopted the characteristically German and sometimes fanatical fondness for seasonal produce, one that Rittson-Thomas, who’s originally from Germany, shares. Berliners talk breathlessly, for instance, of the arrival of Spargelzeit (“asparagus time”) and Erdbeerzeit (“strawberry time”). For the dinner, the women chose to make the fava bean dish because there was an abundance of the verdant legumes in Walcot’s garden, where the berries for the crostata were also grown.
Once you’ve prepared, arranged and organized as much as you can, there comes a point where you just have to relax and sit with the possibility of any eventuality, whether bad weather or dropped plates — and, most important, enjoy yourself. Remember that guests are there because they want to be. And, adds Rittson-Thomas, if you’re hosting in your own space, try not to fret about how others might perceive your choices. “I just think you shouldn’t be too worried about how you entertain, because it’s your home, you know, and your home is you.”