A Time to Reflect
I gave my first formal dinner in the last few weeks of my university career, in a flat overlooking the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool. I might cringe a little now at the menu (fish terrine, coq au vin, lime sorbet), but it was rather sophisticated for your average student! The sorbet recipe came from a book I’m still using to this day. A Taste of Excellence (E Lambert Ortiz, 1988) introduced a new wave of young British cooks (including Raymond Blanc) who were just starting to move on from the constraints of Nouvelle Cuisine. (By the way, let nobody mock Nouvelle Cuisine: it taught Brits that food should look good!) When I started work, it was at a large retreat centre in St Helens. I had access to a major catering kitchen and trade discount at the local butcher. Since I was also fed, watered, housed and insured by my employer, I had a comparatively generous disposable income to throw dinner parties. My private dining society was born here. Still using A Taste of Excellence, these were the days of chilled fruit soups, fried brie and ceviche.
|Foie gras en brioche
Another change of employment brought me back to my parents’ house, where entertaining might have been more difficult. However, we managed never to be away on holiday at the same time, so every parental absence became an occasion for a dinner party. One (in-)famous dinner turned convention topsy-turvy: every savoury course contained fruit, and the dessert was chocolate-covered cherry tomatoes. This was before anyone had heard of Heston Blumenthal. I continued to rely on the same go-to books for many dishes, and it was during this period that I learnt how to dispatch a lobster, how to clean a pheasant and how much faff is involved in pureeing veg without a food processor! It was also at this time, that I extended the menus from three to four courses. This is the format I now feel most comfortable with. Its challenge is to create something different each time within the same formal structure. I often liken it to the challenge of writing a sonnet, in which you have a formal structure of 14 lines and a limited choice of rhyme-schemes, and the art is in using that framework to create something fresh and beautiful. Pretentious, moi?
Friends from the dining society decided to take a couple of holidays together in Scotland in the late 1990s. Here, I discovered a love of deep, smokey whiskies and filling breakfasts. We added cocktail parties to our social lives, and so I started to learn more about the art of mixing drinks. A little older, a little more established in a career and growing in confidence as a cook, I was able to use more expensive ingredients, better wines and to top-and-tail every dinner with aperitifs and digestifs.
|A suitably grand table for Escoffier
After that series of celebratory dinners, I had the chance to reflect on what I'd learnt. I noted shortly afterwards:
"A common theme across all the writers/cooks I hold in admiration is the importance of taking good ingredients and making them sing, treating them each in a way that brings out what is best, what is unique in them. It is something I [have previously] remarked on in the Italian cuisine I have loved on our travels. Seasonality and local ingredients are vital to this endeavour, something Anton Mosimann insists on, the very thing Mrs David waxed so lyrical about but was unable to achieve fully in the 1950s. [...] Two of the dinners challenged my nerve somewhat. It was a bold step to serve a cold main course at the Elizabeth David dinner, one that I nearly backed out of. The response of my diners, though, was that it was the perfect way to show off her way with simple flavours and made a startling contrast to the hot bouillabaisse that preceeded it. Similarly, the starkness of the Anton Mosimann dinner required nerves of steel to pull off. I learnt that bold dishes must be executed with knowledge and confidence."
|Some of my favourite books