Monday, 25 August 2008

Quintessentially English Dinner Party

If I've learnt one thing from Cowie, it's the need for themes. You can't have a theme-less party. It's just not allowed. And I have to admit, I think she's right.

The only problem is picking a theme that is fun but also do-able. Whilst tarts and vicars was a fun theme at university it doesn't work quite as well in London when you have to get changed into your fishnets and bondage gear in the office before hopping on the District and Circle Line and then getting the night bus home.

Whilst being overwhelmed by the experience we had at the Royal Well Tavern, we decided upon what turned out to be a brilliant theme: Quintessentially English. Quite retro, but perfectly in keeping with a Summer weekend at Stevington.

Catering for 14 for a weekend is a much bigger task than I had realised. So I took the Friday off in order to break the back of the cooking. My day started with a 4 page plan, which I've included here, mainly to impress Cowie who thinks I can't organise anything!

To do list

The starters were all inspired by recipes from a brilliant book called Terrine by Stephane Reynaud. Admittedly this might sound a bit Frenchy, but it still felt English and very retro! Plus, most of the vegetables in the terrines came from our garden.

Terrine book

I meticulously recreated his spring vegetable terrine that remarkably emerged from its icky looking cellopane actually resembling the picture in the book!

Spring vegetable terrine

Spring vegetable terrine

Anna and Edwin did their best to recreate a cauliflower and cabbage terrine. It's just unfortunate that I forgot to buy green cabbage. Rather than turning out snow white and surrounded by dark green leaves like a classy maki roll, the red cabbage blead through the cauliflower turning the whole thing pregnancy test blue!

Reb cabbage and cauliflower terrine


More successful was Cowie's smoked mackerel terrine topped off with yellow courgette and cucumber "scales" - very retro. Very tasty. Very Cowie!

Smoked makerel terrine

But the star of the starter show was the tomato, mozerella and basil terrine challenge. Edwin, myself and Ed from work all had a go at contructing this fiddly little terrine. Anna and Edwin had lovingly dried out a tonne of Mum's yellow and red tomatoes from the greenhouse...

Tomatoes drying

You just layer tomoato on top of mozerella on top of basil until you have filled the chocolate fondany pot. And then hope that your one emerges as the best! Sadly mine didn't win. But it meant that Ed has been basking ever since, waiting for me to write about it!

Tomato mozerella and basil terrine

Ed's is the one in the middle and mine is at the far end. Edwin's masterpiece is nearest the camera.

My favourite part came next. It was a whole day in the making, but it was all worth it! I had seen a stunning recipe for Heston Blumenthal's pea and ham soup on Eats Like a Girl's blog and was determined to give it a go. I brought a ham hock and two pigs trotters back with me on Thursday night from the ginger pig and lovingly simmered them all day on Friday with some herbs onions and other stock goodies. After many hours of bubblig I took out the hock and trotters and added a massive bag of frozen peas which quickly cooked. We had some for dinner on Friday night and it was delicious. But a day later after some serious straining and refinement we each had a cold shot glass of pea and ham soup as an amuse bouche. The trotters and hock had given the liquid a silky complexion and a serious amount of body. So much so that the jelly/stock left back in the pot was able to belly dance of its own accord.

We enjoyed these large shot glasses full of green gunge with a small glass of chilled sherry. And you know what. It worked.

Pea and ham soup

By this point I was getting a bit worried by the state of my 3 kilo wild sea trout - it's so hard to work out how long it should stay in the aga for. Unfortunately, I left it in a shade too long. I much prefer medium rare fish - with translucent flesh, but when you are cooking for so many people it is so hard to get things just right. We served this incredible fish from Delizzimo with steamed samphire, buttered new potatoes, brown shrimp butter and hollandaise sauce (which I had made for the first time). It was delicious and very refined. Tremendously English. And all inspired by the sea trout I had at the Royal Well Tavern.

Wild sea trout face

The desserts lifted things to another level - Cowie's gooseberry jelly was a masterpiece in Englishness. I wonder whether it could have been any more seasonal or Nationalistic. It was inspired by Stephen Reynaud's strawberry jelly and was intended to offer a lighter option and also stop any celiac's from grumbling about discrimination.

Strawberry terrine

Gooseberry jelly

Anna and Edwin's strawberry tart looked and tasted stunning.

Strawberry tart

And I was very proud of my home grown raspberry cheese cake that I had baked in my grandmother's slightly rusty tin.

Raspberry cheesecake

All of these seasonal desserts were washed down with a delicious Italian sweet wine, which brought our glass tally up to the double figure mark. Exhausted by all the cooking we eventually retired to the summer house to play a brilliantly chaotic game of roulette and black jack.

Thanks to everyone who came along and to all of you for helping out so much. Especially Edwin, Anna and Cowie. It has since been pointed out to me that I have got absolutely no photos of people any more. I'll have to rectify this next time.

I can't wait to host another party - all I need to do is save up for a bit and think of a new theme. My gut feeling at the moment is that it should be a pizza oven party.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Le Champignon Sauvage

Ever since devouring David Everitt-Matthias's book, Essence, whilst exploring Whitstable last autumn, I've had a crazed desire to visit the author's restaurant in Cheltenham.

We decided to make the most of our trip to Cheltenham so turned into a mini holiday. Everyone we spoke to in Cheltenham before we visited the restaurant had the same reaction. Amazing food. But terrible atmosphere. We put this to one side, dismissing them as idiotic locals. But of course they were right!

Le Champignon Sauvage is focused purely on the end product. The food is the star of the 2 Michelin starred show. But this is at the vast expense of everythng else. It's almost as if they are being obtuse about the whole thing.

As we walked in we couldn't help thinking that we were in the wrong place. We sat down in the waiting room which made us feel like we were in a cross between a dentists and an Indian takeaway.

The menu read beautifully. Full of interesting ideas that we hadn't encountered before. Cowie and I consulted heavily with the waitress before deciding to have scallops followed by skate for Cowie and rabbit and pigs' tail caneloni followed by zander for me. I chose them because I would never cook them at home. This a rule I am trying to live by when it comes to ordering in restaurants.

We were ushered through to a dining room that was as quiet as it was floodlit. We were surrounded by the posh and aging population of Cheltenham who actively disobeyed the strict no mobile phone rule that is printed on the menu like they do at golf clubs.

Cowie's scallops were delicious, but not the best we've ever had. They were accompanied by an intriguing combination of licorice and artichoke. Big flavours for a couple of little blobs of fishy flesh.

My rabbit and pigs' tail dish was stunning. Layers of flavours that I found very hard to decode, but completely loved. Fascinating. This is why we came here. This is what they do best. This is what got me excited when I read Essence. This was awesome.

Cowie's skate was good. But it was a bit stingy and greasy. It needed to be meatier. Skate is one of our favourite fish but this didn't live up to our expectations.

I ordered zander more through curiosity than a desire to eat it. That said it was an interesting dish that was of more interest to the brain than the mouth. Again it was quite hard to unravel and just like everything else was presented with great style.

Feeling a bit wary of the bill and not feeling the love for anything on the menu we decided to feast on petit fours washed down with a cup of iffy espresso. We staggered back to our BnB with their words of wisdom ringing in our ears. They were completely right - the food is brilliant, if a bit inaccessible, whilst the atmosphere is morgue like. With the lights being so bright and the room so unfriendly nobody speaks above a whisper. It's something we haven't experienced before and resulted in us breaking out into spontaneous laughter on a couple of accoassions to see if we'd get told off!

I'm delighted we've dined here - as its somewhere I've wanted to go to for ages. It brought us down to Cheltenham and introuduced us to the brilliant restaurant Royal Wells Tavern.

Royal Well Tavern

We went to Cheltenham for a long weekend to escape the humid monotony of London. We're both country folk at heart who get very twitchy if we haven't seen a field or smelt a cow pat for a few days. We were treated to 3 glroious days of sunshine. Probably the only three consecutive days the sun has worn his baseball cap a la William Hague for the whole summer of 2008.

We stayed at 32 which is in the Mr and Mrs Smith guide. I'll leave you to look at it yourself, but needless to say it was very swish and very stylish. A nice change to frilly curtains and flowery pillow cases your normally get at BnBs. O... and the breakfast was perfect. Apart from the mindless chatter from some of the other guests. We uncovered a new truism. When given a rectangular table, layed with six places, the first couple will always choose the far end. The next couple will always choose the near end. And the last couple will land up gimping it up in the middle seats - sandwiched between two strange couples.

I'm pretty bad at small talk at the best of times, afterall this is Cowie's speciality. But I am atrocious in the morning. I'm perfectly capable of ordering tea and saying yes to all the different permuatations of the full English breakfast, but anything beyond that is not on. Breakfast should be silent. A chance to read the papers. A nice way to ease into the day whilst listening to the news. A chance to think about what the day has in store for you. The rest of the day is for talking.

I was one of 4 Jonathans staying at 32, with the other 2 Jonathans in charge of the place and the 4th being a guest. When we arrived on Friday we immediately interogated Jonathan 1 about our dinner options. He wholeheartedly recommeded a newly opened restaurant called The Royal Well Tavern. Impressed, we took the recommendation and strolled across Imperial Square to a very unlikely location next door to a dirty looking chip shop and opposite the National Tyre Centre and bus station.

With all the tables busy we sat at the bar and were talked into ordering some Breton oysters that had arrived earlier in the day that the front of house had tried for lunch. They didn't disappoint. Smaller than normal oysters they were deliciously fresh and flavoursome. Oozing with the essence of the sea they instantly rejuvinated us after our long journey from London. With a glass of house wine from a small caraffe I joked with the chap who was serving us that I felt like Simon Hopkinson should be sitting next to me. He laughed and pointed at a small library of cookery books that stood behind the bar - all of which I owned - including 2 by SH himself! And the others by the rest of his band of merry men.

The more got stuck in the more we realised that this was a very special place. Like a cross between the Anchor and Hope, Cafe Anglais, Riverford Farm and all of the other places that put their ingredients first and chefyness second.

Cowie had a lovely fillet of bream whilst I was completely bowled over by an expertly poached fillet of sea trout which came with some brown shrimp butter and a mound of vivid green samphire. Without doubt the finest trout or salmon dish I have ever had the good fortune to eat.

I had a sudden pang of greedy curiosity whilst waiting for my trout which resulted in a small plate of lambs tongue arriving just as the fish did. I've rarely tasted something so deep and meaty. Inadvertantly I had created my own surf and turf! Cowie the taste and texture of it... but it was the gassy after-effects that really turned her off!

We shared a vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert, which was perfect too.

The staff were brilliant. The best either of us have ever come across. The chap we had chatted to at the bar when we first arrived turned out to be the ridiculously young owner who we subsequently found out is called Sam Pearman. He was effortlessly charming in a very disarming way. We found ourselves discussing our next trip to La Champignon Sauvage with him. I won't write here what he said but can tell you he was right!

If you are ever in Cheltenham you simply have to visit Sam's restaurant. It's the best in town. If only all towns had a restaurant as good and straightforward as this.

Farmhouse Kitchen Takes Stourhead by Storm

Or was it "Storm rains down on the Farmhouse Kitchen at the Stourhead Show"?

On a wet Sunday, at the beginning of August Cowie and I helped James and Henry out on their fantastic sandwich stand at the Stourhead Show. It's only when you are standing the otherwise side of the counter that you realise how hard caterers have to work to earn every penny. With the cost of diesel as high as it is these days travelling to events and running a generator is on the verge of being prohibitive.

Putting this very boring introduction aside, Cowie and I had great fun helping out. It's so refreshing to be part of a business idea you can truly believe in. It all started when we went off to Wales to test drive some ideas Henry and James had been cooking up. After a full day of cooking and eating we came up with the concept of selling handmade good old fashioned English sandwiches at outdoor events. It's not rocket science. But that's the beauty of it.

There is a serious gap in the event catering market. At the moment you are subjected to overpriced, substandard food that is swimming, like David Walliams, in grease. You can see from the other stalls below that the competition is very generic. They don't have strong brands and are simply there to serve edible fuel.

Baked Potatoes

Posh pancakes

Jane Nicholls Catering

Henry and James have created the beginnings of what could become an iconic brand - The Farmhouse Kitchen. Henry's design background with Linley has meant that the stnad always looks incredible. It stands out against the generic backdrop and has already captured the imagination of many event goers.

Farmhouse kitchen from the side

We served tea and toast in the morning to hungry, cold eventers whilst we got ourselves set up for the lunchtime sandwich rush.

Tea and toast sign

The sandwiches are brilliant. Delicious and handmade by Henry, James, myself and Cowie... using hand sliced fresh white or granary bread from Bob the baker.

James and the giant blackboard

You have a choice of beef and horseradish. Which went down a storm.

Roast beef

Roast ham and mustard.


And the very popular, cheese and home-made pickle.

Cheese and pickle

Having tried all three sandwiches the beef is by far and away my favourite. Perfectly rare and smeared with buckets of horseradish it is the king of sandwiches. The cheese and ham sandwiches are excellent as well.

By the time afternoon came it was pissing with rain. Everyone ran for cover. Cowie headed out as soon as the clouds cleared with a tray of delicious cakes.

Cowie on cake duty

James' brownies are amazing. It's very rare that you get that slightly crispy glaze on the surface that marks our a bog standard brownie from an absolute cracker.


The flapjacks aren't bad either. I'm a bit surprised James hasn't nicked Mum's lavender flapjack recipe yet. Maybe we'll see it in phase 2!


Henry's clever use of bails in the design of the stand helped to create a fantastically family friendly atmosphere. People loved the idea of perching on a bail whilst eating their cake or sandwich. It gave rise some wonderfully English scenes - my favourite of which is below.

Dog queuing

Henry and James are off to the Wincanton and Shaftsbury Show next week. Good luck chaps. I hope you sell loads of sandwiches and that the weather is kinder than it was at Stourhead.

Dressage Judges' Lunch at the Stourhead Show

Women are scary.
Dressage people are scary.
Judges are scary.

Combine the three and you've got a serious knee wobbler.

Cowie's Mum runs a dressage competition every year at the fantastic Stourhead Show in Somerset. This year her caterer pulled out at the last minute so I was volunteered by Cowie as the fall guy!

We got up at 6am in order to create lunch for 20 of the most discerning palettes in the West Country. I was left in charge of the salmon which I cooked very gentrly in the Aga with plenty of butter and a good squeeze of lemon. By cooking the fillets on their skins I was able to carefully deskin them and break the flesh into chunks.

I mixed up some creme fraiche with some very smoky salmon, horeradish, capers, lemon zest, water cress and seasoning and spooned it over the now cooled salmon. I can assure you it tasted a lot better than it looked and I will definitely be doing it again. I've modestly named it "Salmon a la Brown".

Salmon a la Brown

The peppers went down a storm, as they always do. I just love how sweet and fresh they taste. And that little kick of garlic.

Roasted pepper

The quiche was a Tamsyn Cowie classic. Medium rare and full of cream. Delicious. But not something you want to eat too much of unless you particularly like having your chest sawn open and tubes played with by a guy wearing latex gloves.

Cougette quiche

And needless to say Cowie junior's feta, beetroot and nectarine salad was a complete triumph.

Beetroot and feta salad

The verdict was unanimous. All the judges loved it!

The Yorkie Bar of the Chilli World

This chilie is not for girls!!!

Hotter than Britney Spears in an underage pole dancing competition dressed in PVC. And then imagine that you were watching her perform this erotic showstopper in a sauna that had caught fire. Then imagine, if you can, that the fire brigade had turned up with no water and instead of them all being burly men they were all Jessica Rabbit clones. And if you can stretch your imagination any further... just remember the times that you have run a bath, tried to adjust the hot tap with your left foot and landed up scalding yourself to within an inch of skin catching fire.

This badger looks really innocent. Just don't trust it. We only read the seed packet after we had got a bit too macho and popped a red chili in our mouthes at the same time. I almost blacked out, and hiccuped my way to the kitchen where I forced a shovel of ice into my mouth followed by 3 pints of chilled milk. I couln't really see straight for about an hour, not to mention the fact that my lips swelled up and made it hard to speak.

They aren't called Prairie Fire for nothing!

Orange pepper

Yellow pepper

Man Eating Plant

Otherwise known as a "Sundew Plant" - which loves nothing better than a nice plate of aphids for lunch. And guess what... our chili plants are covered in green fly. So we've managed to set up an organic, biodynamic, symbitotic eco system on the east facing fourth floor of an advertising agency in the middle of London!

Our plant is very particular - its water (which it drinks like a fish) must be distilled, and preferably acidulated with lemon juice. Tap water would kill it. So I have bought it some beautfiully clean Tesco's mineral water which it is loving so much that it has broken into flower.

We feed it around 6 aphids a day, which we think might well be too much. We're worried it might just exploded like Mr Creosote! On one ocassion it caught hold of a centipede, curled up and digested it over night. I'm a bit concerned that it could be a man eater, like the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes...

Here it is in full glory...

Sundew plant flower buds

Sundew plant arms

We've just planted a herb pot with seeds and have harvested our third crop of chilies.

Office Picnic

Inspired by our sushi party Ed whipped up a sushi fest for his girlfriend Erin who likes nothing better than raw fish. Quite brilliantly he arrived at work with a collection of tasty leftovers - delicious crayfish tails and white flecks of crab.

I read the other day that the average amount of time taken for lunch is around 16 minutes in the UK which is horrific. It means we all eat sandwiches, get fat and land up broke! Much better to bring in leftovers, or better still prepare food at home that is perfect for work.

We decided to use Ed's goodies as the basis of a mini picnic. All we needed was a couple of baguettes, some pate, salad and some salami. We toasted the bread and adorned the crsipy little roundels with an array of toppings before closing the door to our office and listening to Test Match Special.

Crayfish tails with chilli

Crab on toast

Ardennes pate

Desk picnic spread


Sushi Party

My super, sister, Suzy, gave me a sushi set for Christmas. Given my normally embarrassing tendency to not make full use of culinary Christmas presents for at least a decade, it has been almost newsorthy that I have managed to make the most of it in July. Only 7 months on from Christmas.

The kit contained a kilo of sushi rice, ginger, mirin, wasabi paste, rice vinegar, rolling mats, instructions and an amazingly sharp sushi knife. So all I needed to buy was 2 sushi books (why buy one when you can get 2 saying almost the same thing), 3 types of soy sauce, edamame, a rice paddle, and sushi grade salmon, tuna and makerel for 8 people. Cowie and I got most of the kit from an obscure and stifflingly hot Japanese store on Brewer Street before getting the bus to Victoria from the far more sanitary looking Japan Centre on Picardilly. Whoops.

We decided to do sushi as a starter and fill everyone up with miso marinated salmon as a main course. We made the brilliant decision to delegate pudding to Anna and Edwin... and they certainly lived up to the task. This truly was an Anna Surprise which I doubt you'll find in many Japanese recipes books. Or indeed any recipe book that has made its way past a comprehenisve tasting committee.

Suz met me in Selfridges to collect our fish along with some bright orange fish roe and filleting advice from the charming lady on the immaculate sushi stand. She even gave us some belly tuna free to go in our rolls. We whizzed back to the flat as fast as possible as we realised that not only did all the rice have to be cooked by 7.30... it also had to have cooled! Ah. Panic.

But not to worry. With the Brown siblings working in tandem we managed to get the rice cooked, cooled and made vaguely into salmon, tuna and makerel nigiri relatively easily. The rest of the team feasted on edamame, sashimi and Japanese beers.

Having never made sushi before, I was amazed at how sticky the rice is. But even more so it made me realise that the sushi you are served in Japanese restaurants is stunningly perfect. To get that level of control and precision over such niggly rice is mind blowing. But it also made me realise how crap the sushi is from Tescos and the likes of Prett.

With the nigiri filling everyone up and making us feel more confident we moved onto to using the rolling mats. Our first roll was very ricey, but well put together. After setting the bench mark Suz took over and created master piece after master piece. If she ever gets booted out of Harrods she can always go and become a sushi master! Here she is in action:

Suzie rolling

These little badgers with the roe on top were stunning...

Roe maki

I guess it shows that I had a more innocent childhood...

And here's Suz embarking on what looked impossible in the book... but turned out to be pretty easy.

Salmon and avocado roll filling

Roe the boat

Everyone had a go at making maki rolls with varying degrees of success. It's such a brilliant way of hosting a small dinner party with everyone getting a chance to have some fun. Very interactive. I can't wait to give it another go and get seriously good at it. It's also made Cowie want to go out to all of London's best sushi restaurants... which is going to cripple me.

On to the now thoroughly unnecessary main course! Miso Salmon. Having had some epic black miso cod the week before I had it in my head that we had to recreate it... albeit with some cheaper fish! With a few packs of salmon tails from Sainsbury's and a large tub of shiso miso from our weird Japanese shop on Brewer Street I embarked on creating the salty, sticky marinade that turns cheap fish into stunning haute cuisine (or whatever the Japanese is for that). I religiously followed a brilliant recipe I found on Gastronomy Domine. I say I religiously followed it... I've got to confess that I only let the salmon sit in the sticky goo over night rather than for the stated 3 days! Next time!

It was stunning. I am still kicking myself for letting the skin char a bit too much. One of my favourite things in the whole kingdom of food is crispy fish skin. And there's a fine line between gorgeous crispiness and a mouth full of soot! The flesh itself was stunning. The salmon tails had been through a full transformation from decidedly average through to very special.

But not as special as Anna and Edwin's "Anna Surprise". Which is rather a kind name for it. I am still not quite sure what it was despite it being the one thing that will stay in everyone's minds for over. My tasting notes would be... like a creamy, warm, Red Bull and grean tea soup with a hint of gelatine. I am not kidding, my stomach just started growling with horror as I typed that last sentence.

We all had a wonderful time - Cowie and I can't wait for our next sushi adventure. It's made me yearn to go to Japan!


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