October 1st 2017
So went to another of Johnnie’s wine-tasting workshops last night. He does them in his own kitchen, which I think is pretty brave – having a dozen punters in your kitchen as they quaff ten glasses of wine. Could easily turn into a disaster episode of Come Dine With Me.
But his workshops are hugely enjoyable and genuinely educational. And I can even say that after waking up with a head more fuzzy than a permed-up Paddington Bear whose just bungee-jumped over Tower Bridge in a woolly onesie.
Luckily, it’s not far to get back to mine from Johnnie’s. It involves a two-step stagger onto the pavement, a 90-degree turn left, a couple more paces… and voilà, I’m home. Even after ten glasses of wine, it’s still pretty negotiable – although if there’s sherry involved, anything can happen.
Anyway, in a brainwave that may have had something to do with those ten glasses, I vaguely recollect suggesting to Johnnie that we put an event on together – with him doing a workshop on pairing wine with food, and with me cooking the food.
ME COOKING THE FOOD? Hahaha… What was I thinking? Cooking for a dozen people, each say five courses – well it doesn’t need a mathematician to work out that’s.. a LOT of cooking. Practically industrial. And not only that, I’m asking people to part with their hard-earned cash for the privilege. No, I must’ve imagined it..
October 4th 2017
.. But it appears not. It’s all true! Saw Johnnie on the street this morning and he confirmed it. In fact, we’ve just come back from the pub where we discussed logistics. It was very loud; I could hardly hear a word he was saying. I think he said he’d be happy to host it at his house. But he might’ve said, “let’s do it, as long as it’s not in my house.”
A mental image suddenly fast-forwards to the evening of the supper-club, and we’re farcically bumping into each other on the patch of pavement outside, each thinking the other’s about to host it – him with a case of wine, me with a roast chicken – and as the whole lot tumbles to the ground, a voice-over cracks a joke about coq au vin and canned sitcom laughter rings in our ears. Hilarious.
October 7th 2017
Now it’s beginning to sink in, I guess we’d better get the message out there. After all, it’s not much of a supper-club if it’s just our other-halves coming, right?
So I begin scoping out some foodie Twitter pals. And when a few come back to book their place, I can’t help but reply with a scarcely believing “are you sure?” – which is the sort of business acumen that’ll have me thrown off The Apprentice before you could say “Siralan”.
October 14th 2017
So now I’ve got some actual people coming, better work out what I’m gonna feed them. I flick through some cookbooks for some recipe inspo.
There’s a great autumnal salad recipe from Diana Henry that ticks several boxes, not least because Johnnie and I have decided to make seasonality a key feature. I scan the ingredients, all very do-able until I get to the dressing, which is made out of something called ‘verjuice’.
Hmm, never heard of that in my life.
Check out Wikipedia… find out that it’s the juice extracted from unripened grapes. Apparently, it was all the rage back in the 16th century, like the Elizabethan equivalent of matcha. But I suppose by the time King James I came to the throne, verjuice was dismissed as like.. sooo 1598.
Then, in 1984, Australian chef Maggie Beer re-popularised it, producing it commercially and writing all about it. But can you still buy the stuff?..
I scour the local supermarket chains. Nothing. Perhaps it’s just too artisan? So I check out some of the smart delis along Peckham Rye. Nope. Then I trek over to Brixton and hunt around in some rather eclectic distributors. But they just seem to sell anything but verjuice, including some extremely, erm, niche herbal cordials.
But I guess that’s why they invented the Internet. And Ottolenghi. Yes, thank pickled barberries for Ottolenghi. I imagine that all over the world, there are manufacturers of pomegranate molasses who have draped their factory-walls in adulation with giant Chairman Mao-style Ottolenghi portraits. And it comes as no surprise that his online store also delivers on the verjuice front too. Not only that, but there’s even a YouTube clip of Yotam himself using it to make a salad dressing! (Of course it does, I should never have doubted.)
My finger hovers over the “Add to Checkout” button. But something’s tugging at my soul. Noooo! What am I doing? Surely I don’t need to follow recipes so slavishly like some sort of gastro-maton! This supper-club’s about my dishes, my creations, and I’m at least gonna put my own stamp on them. So I hold fire on the verjuice, and try to think up some alternative. Like, erm, Irn Bru dressing?..
October 28th 2017
Time to scope out my local London farmers market. I’ve been going there for years, and it’s very much a weekend ritual. Indeed, I’d like to source ALL the supper-club ingredients from there if possible; after all, it’s a London supper-club. I love the excellent produce, the sense of provenance, the freshness and seasonality, and the stallholders that remain insanely cheery despite the lonely 4am drive round the M25 with nothing but a consignment of freshly-picked curly kale.. oh and of course the damn fine doughnuts. (Particularly since Cakehole kindly slip in an extra one for good luck – cheers guys!)
At this time of year, there’s always a game stall, and Kieron’s Game has a fantastic selection of venison, including diced neck and shoulder, perfect for my Italian slow-cooked stew.
But when I visit the market today, my head’s turned by a stunning goat’s cheese at the Nut Knowle Farm stall – a soaring golden dome of its seasonal Marlet Gold. It gives me the idea to do a cheeseboard – for who doesn’t love a cheeseboard? – and its maximum appeal to minimum effort ratio seems highly attractive to this virgin supper-club host. Besides, cheeses are seasonal, and that’s very much in tune with our autumnal theme.
Good news is that the stall’s due back the weekend before the supper-club. Looks like I’ve struck (Marlet) gold!
November 16th 2017
Meet up with my writer friend Dan in Brixton. He’s trying to get his head round the concept of supper-clubs.
“So, it’s like having your friends over for dinner, but you actually get them to pay?..”
“Er, not at all. It’s basically, erm.. Like, when.. erm. Okay, yes.”
November 19th 2017
Now I’ve started on the cheeseboard path, I decide to follow up with a couple more. I pop into cheese-shop Hamish Johnston, not too far away in Clapham, with my two kids in tow.
The last time I visited a cheese shop with them was in the Italian Alps, which turned into an absorbing hour-long tutorial on local cheeses. The exuberant shopkeeper literally began gesticulating towards the various mountain peaks that loomed beyond the glass frontage to indicate where all the various cheeses are made, whilst passionately imploring us to taste each and every one. I was in heaven.
Any hopes of a similarly in-depth experience are however immediately dashed: this shop is heaving with local Clapham-ites in a pre-Christmas shopping frenzy. And in the same way that it’s dangerous getting between a mother bear and her cubs, you likewise don’t want to get in the way of a Clapham-ite and their Vacherin du Haut Doubs.
Still we get to sample a few cheeses, if only because my kids start blurting out requests – “brie brie brie” chants one, “parm-eeee-saaaan” warbles the other – like two enthusiastic fans on opposing football terraces, and quite oblivious to the evil eyes radiating from around the queue. Still the shopkeeper generously obliges, whilst I offer meek apologies to our fellow customers.
Johnnie has already identified a tawny port to go with the cheeseboard, along with the suggestion that something like a Comté would make a good match. Fine by me, as it’s a cheese I’m very fond of. However, keen to keep things local, as well as seasonal, I wonder about equivalent English cheeses.
The knowledgeable staff direct me to a cheese called Lincolnshire Poacher; little chunks are sliced off for us to sample. It’s certainly similar to Comté: nutty and sweet, with a gorgeous deep lingering flavour. In fact, I think it’s every bit as good, and it’s British too – with this cheese, perhaps we could survive Brexit after all! And so I decide to buy some, along with a generous wedge of Devon Blue.
November 25th 2017
Just a few days to go now! Help! Nerves already jangling and my other-half remarking on an increasingly regular basis on the extensive proportion of my brain that seems to be taken up by this supper-club… Sorting out the kids’ school bags? Oops, forgot. Paying the bills? Erm. Basic personal hygiene? Eeek. But deliberating whether to serve my assembly of cheese with a medley of dried exotic fruit? Total mental absorption.
Anyway, back to the farmer’s market, this time armed with a suitcase. Make a bee-line to the cheese stall, and that Marlet Gold.
That beautiful dome – in the intervening weeks its image has so fantastically evolved in my head that it now resembles nothing less than Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. But when I turn up to buy this showstopper cheese, my fantasy bubble immediately pops – for it now appears much smaller, more shrivelled, and spotted with an unseemly furry white mould. Instead of a Renaissance masterpiece, it looks more like Yoda’s badly-suntanned little cousin. Damn!
I ask whether it really is the same cheese. Sadly, it is – the stall-holder explains that its appearance can change from batch to batch. Aagh, what do I do? I stare down disconsolately at Yoda’s little cousin, looking searchingly for an answer. Still, The Force seems to be suggesting I go with it, and at least it doesn’t look like Chewbacca. So in the bag two pieces place I.
I load up with all the other ingredients, including 3.5 kilos of venison, and cart them home. My fridge now looks like a chilled still-life portrait of Bambi.
November 28th 2017
Who said that being a food-writer-stroke-supper-club-chef isn’t compatible with my exhaustingly-busy NHS child mental health service job? After a full day of focussed energy on supporting depressed, self-harming teenagers, and kids with ADHD surfing over the clinic chairs, I hurry back home – after all, there’s half a deer to marinade.
But first, I need to source the wine for the marinade. Unlike Johnnie, I’m no wine expert. So I do what any self-respecting middle-class wine novice does when trying to choose a wine: dig out Jane Macquitty’s “50 Best Wines for Christmas” pull-out from Saturday’s Times.
Of course, popping into the nearest Tesco from work, I soon realise that every other self-respecting middle-class wine novice has done exactly the same. The own-brand Chilean pinot noir has already sold out! Gah! These Macquitty acolytes – they’re like hyenas!
I catch one of the staff, and ask if they’ve got any in stock. He shakes his head dismissively, as if it’s been the twentieth time he’s been asked that question that afternoon.
I then pick up some other bottle of pinot, and dash back home. Into the pot it goes, along with bay leaves, juniper berries, red wine vinegar, and the venison – all ready for a couple of days’ getting to know each other in the fridge.
November 29th 2017
Just one day to go.. Think we’ve got most things covered. Just go through my list. Yep, all fine. WhatsApp message beep goes off. It’s from Johnnie. Do I have napkins? Napkins?? I haven’t seen one at home since 1987! But then I think about it. We’ve actual guests, paying guests – of course we need napkins! So back again to Tescos, I dash.
I search frantically down the aisles. I grab a member of staff. Oh no, it’s the same guy whom I asked about the wine. First Chilean pinot noir, now napkins, what will he think? I try to dig myself out by explaining that I don’t normally buy napkins, you see, but I’m organising a matching food-and-wine supper-club.. but that doesn’t seem to help.
He gestures towards an aisle just past the dental care section. Sure enough there materialise a modest array of napkins: festive holly design, festive bells, festive red-nosed reindeer, festive naughty Santa (!).. then Minions, somersaulting Minions, farting Minions – oh dear, this is SO not the look I’m aiming for. Fortunately, just beyond the seasonal chintz napkin apocalypse, appear the standard issue variety. Phew!
November 30th 2017
Okay, so this is it, today’s the day! I wake up all excited, like a child on Christmas Day, practically sliding down the banister right into the kitchen. I whip out the venison, do the last bit of prep, and in it goes at 120°C for a long slow stew.
My phone pings. One of my Twitter pals confirms she can make it. I’d never met Sudi before, but I do enjoy her posts and the occasional Twitter-chat. I pore through some of her latest posts, whilst stirring the onions.
Oh. My. Lord.. she’s just published an article on cockles for a national newspaper, and another and another. How did I miss this? She’s a bona fide renown food-writer.. and she’s gonna be tasting my food!
I tell myself it’s fine, just stay calm. She comes across as lovely and unassuming and I’m sure it’ll be fine. No need to panic.
Panic! It’s absolutely time to panic! I’ve got a dozen paying guests coming in a few hours – including a food-writer from a national newspaper – and I’m preparing a five-course meal for them!!
And then I realise that if you include me, that now makes it 13. Isn’t that supposed to be like really unlucky? Something to do with The Last Supper in the bible? Well the last thing I want is any connotations with death. If nothing else, that’s awfully bad PR.
I spray the sides down with disinfectant once more, whilst my mind turns to other concerns. Like what if the salad wilts? What if the main goes cold? What if Bambi rises from the pot as a mutant zombie deer and leads an undead army of cute forest creatures against us? Unlikely I know, but there are suddenly so many ‘what-ifs’ that my ‘what-if’ part of my brain is literally billowing smoke out of my ears.
Now it’s crunch time, or hopefully not crunch time at all, as I’m about to test the venison, which I’m hoping will be meltingly tender after a 48-hour marinade in the pinot noir and vinegar, followed by a 7-hour slow-cook… But when I bite into it, there’s a definite unappealing chew, which doesn’t go away even after I try to sweep the sensation under my mental carpet in a valiant attempt of self-deception.
Noooo! How can this be? Bambi has undergone a seemingly unassailable sequence of chemical then slow thermonuclear assault in my oven – how can her fibres fail to yield! Was she a buffed-up personal trainer to the other forest animals? Did she inject steroids?
I lob a few squares of dark chocolate into the pot – which may smack of desperation, but it’s actually meant to be there to balance the sourness of the marinade. Chocolate fixes everything, right?..
With my heart heavy over my ruined headline dish, I start decamping to Johnnie’s. I really do hope he’s hosting it. Anyway, shouldn’t take too long to carry all this food over. Ten minutes, according to my meticulously laid-out schedule. A couple of saucepans. A spatula..
.. a grater, two heads of radicchio, a block of parmesan..
.. a ladle, two tubs of ice-cream, three blocks of cheese, a slice of quince membrillo..
.. a sprig of dried muscat grapes still on the vine, an artisan hand-crafted cheese knife..
.. all done, phew! So, let’s see. Guests come at 19.15, so that leaves me with.. Aaaaaaaagh! Shit shit shit shit shit and shit!
Twelve guests – paying guests – about to arrive and Johnnie’s kitchen top is chaotically strewn with unprepared food, as if a gang of foxes have ransacked the fridge and then challenged each other to a game of naked Twister. (No idea why I’ve just added ‘naked’ in there – if I was going for effect, it’d be even more freaky had the foxes been wearing tuxedos..)
Like a rabbit caught in several headlights, my eyes frantically flit from ingredient to ingredient. It’s like one of those school exam nightmares, but it’s actually happening!
And breathe out. And breathe in. And relax.. Out of nowhere, Eye of the Tiger suddenly stirs inside my head.. Okay, I can do this.. Even if it means having to ninja-chop vegetables across five dimensions.
Ding dong.. Argh!! They’re here! Or at least my neighbours are. I shout out a welcome, but I’m too immersed in plating up the cheeseboard whilst frying mushrooms and pouring cream to properly greet them. Hope they think I’ve got all this in hand…
They take one look at me, then the kitchen top, and it’s clear to them I haven’t got things in hand at all. For, in a whizz, they kindly start offering to chop the radicchio, shred the sprout-tops, and peel the pears. Another neighbour is drawn to the polenta pot; fortunately she’s Italian, so that’s a blessing I’m not gonna refuse.
Feeling guilty that my paying guests are now preparing their own dishes, I eventually usher them to sit down once it is apparent that their intervention has saved the day. Thanks to them, I’m now feeling on top of things again.
Time to start plating up the first course. Except, out of the corner of my eye, I notice a tupperware tub out on the kitchen top. Something is wrong. Very wrong. It’s been out there since I arrived. Oh crap, it’s the ice-cream! Aaaagh!
Quick, in the freezer! Where’s the freezer? The kitchen’s all fitted. Open a cupboard door. Nope, washing machine. Another – a crockery drawer. Here? No, drying cloths. And there? A unicorn. What, a friggin’ unicorn?! Maybe I’m in a dream after all!.. No, it’s just Johnnie’s kid’s cuddly toy, presumably still there after an unsuccessful game of ‘Hunt the Unicorn’.
Finally, bingo! Freezer is found. And after a frenzied game of freezer Tetris, including some creative repositioning and possibly restructuring of some choc ices – apologies Johnnie – I eventually manage to squeeze the tubs into the freezer before the ice-cream turns to custard. Phew, that was close!
Back to plating the first course. With most of the hard work now done, it’s strangely thrilling – a dozen plates lined up on a kitchen-top, onto which I throw the dressed radicchio, then the roast Jerusalem artichoke, then the roast squash slivers, and finally dollops of hazelnut pesto – all ‘dum dum dum dum dum’ times twelve. I’m enjoying this!
And off they go go go!.. The guests look on expectantly. I hold my breath, biting my lip as I watch them keenly take their first bites. A few satisfying nods and “mmmm’s” – well, I’ll take that!
In the meantime, Johnnie presents two wines – a South Australian viognier and an Austrian grüner veltliner – explaining how they match the dish, comparing and contrasting their respective flavours and styles. The guests sip and taste, back and forth between the wines and the dish. Which thankfully gives me time to prep the mains.
So to the venison. Bambi, we meet again. And it’s crunch time ( – jeez, I need to stop referring to it like that!) With the extra time in the oven, has it finally succumbed? Please please please – I stare up to the gods of slow-cooking, mutter a little prayer, and take a bite.
Mercifully, the chew has gone, and the morsel melts in the mouth. Okay, so the stew looks a tad unrefined, but the flavour is certainly there. It’ll do.
Out I ladle the polenta onto the dishes, and spoon over the sweet-sour agrodolce stew. Around the edges I scatter stir-fried sprout-tops, like an emerald sea surrounding a desert island. And out those dishes go, whilst Johnnie presents two more beguiling wines – a Thracian pinot noir and a Catalonian priorat.
The mains were always gonna be the tough part, with quite a few frenetic last-minute processes. But now that it’s over, I could feel a smile stretch across my face, and my shoulders finally relax. We’re now into the home straight.
A refreshing shot of pomegranate and rosewater sorbet, a startling cerise-pink glow to light up the autumnal evening, followed by a cockle-warming pear and coriander seed crumble with chestnut ice-cream, complete the desserts. Johnnie cleverly matches the crumble with a mulled pear cider.
And finally to the cheeses. My piece of Marlet Gold may not be a looker – I wince at what could’ve been – but the flavour really shines through. And the Devon Blue and Lincolnshire Poacher are just perfect with Johnnie’s tawny port.
The guests all tumble out, thanks and farewells are said. Lovely to meet some Twitter foodies I’d yet to meet before too. And so grateful for everyone’s support. I breathe a big sigh and look to Johnnie. We’ve done it!
It may’ve been hard graft, but it’s been well worth it, and hugely fun. And boy does it feel like an achievement.
And even if it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, I’ve definitely learned a few important lessons for next time – such as where to find plain napkins, and that you can actually buy some very obscure things in Brixton.
Now time to plan the next one..
If I haven’t put you off, and you’re interested in joining us for another London supper-club, do please get in touch! More London supper-club news can be found here. In the meantime, if you like your wine, do check out Johnnie’s Wine School, as he runs workshops throughout the year. Another three cheers for London Farmers Markets – the gems of London – as well as to the various stalls at their Wimbledon market where I sourced my ingredients: Ted’s Veg, Perry Court Farm, Kieron’s Game, Nut Knowle Farm, Wild Country Organics, Gould’s Cheddar, and Harvest Moon. And if you enjoyed this post, you may like my other post about being a rookie – Confessions of a [Rookie] Food-Blogger.
London Supper-club scenes
London Farmers Market scenes