Sunday, October 31, 2010

An underground supper at Montpelier Basement

There have been one or two pop-ups and underground restaurants already in Bristol but none looks more likely to succeed than Montpelier Basement, a new fortnightly supper club run by Elly and Dan.

It would be hard to find a couple who are more into their food. Elly’s day job is running an excellent local café and Dan blogs as Essex Eating (which is where he lived before Elly lured him out west). And rather than show us round the flat they showed us their cookbook collection. It was arranged by colour which prompted a big debate about how you should catalogue your cookbooks. (I arrange mine by subject, some do it by author or size. How about you?)

Since it was nearly Hallowe’en Dan had fixed up a projector which threw old black and white horror movies on the wall.

The menu was pumpkin themed - a fact which I’d cunningly concealed from my husband who would have almost certainly decided he didn’t want to come if he'd known. In fact he raved about the food which he pronounced better than many restaurants we’d been to recently. Which it was.

We kicked off with gougères made with Gorwydd Caerphilly and topped with a sprinkling of coarse-ground toasted pumpkin seeds. There were little bowls of pumpkin soup with deep fried sage and brown butter, beautifully fresh Cornish haddock with a pumpkin crust and shredded leeks, perfectly cooked onglet, with pumpkin jam and polenta chips and a great vegetarian option of mushroom and Ogleshield tatin with thyme, chestnuts and squash which I also managed to sneak a slice of.

The meal finished with spiced pumpkin and pecan cake with maple mascarpone, honey and toasted nuts and - how did we find room for it? - a final cheese course of Welsh rarebit fingers.

They’d obviously put a huge amount of thought into constructing the menu which was beautifully balanced and not at all heavy, despite the number of courses. (You can see how incredibly well organised they were from the checklist below.) We all told them they were mad to ask for a donation of just £20 a head for the food which was worth at least double that.

I hope some of the recipes will appear on their respective blogs (Elly has a new one here) particularly the pumpkin seed mix, the absolutely awesome polenta chips, the tatin and the cake.

In the meantime you can find one of their recipes in Xanthe Clay’s column in the Telegraph - she went to their first supper a couple of weeks ago.

The next two events are on the 13th and 27th of November. To keep track of ones after that follow @montpelierbsmt on Twitter or their ning page or email them at montpelierbsmtATgmailDOTcom

Friday, October 29, 2010

Waitrose’s flash new cookery school

Whatever’s happened to Waitrose? It seems to have woken up one morning and decided it was Harvey Nichols. It used to be just the supermarket arm of sober, sensible ‘never knowingly undersold’ John Lewis. Then suddenly it behaves as if it’s won the lottery splashing round money on expensive campaigns with Heston and Delia and setting up the flashest cookery school I’ve ever seen over its now massive flagship store in Finchley Road.

I got a sneak preview last week when I went in for a wine tasting and was absolutely bowled over. The space! The equipment! The cookery theatre! The staff - all proper chefs in their own right. The head of the cookery school Gordon McDermott used to run Rick Stein’s Cookery School in Padstow. The head chef James Bennington was head chef and won a Michelin star at La Trompette. The pastry chef, James Campbell used to be Head Pastry Chef for the Mandarin Oriental. And so on. They’re all absurdly over-qualified.

If you want to see what it all looks like there’s a video - a video, not just boring old words - about the school on the Waitrose website together with details of the courses that are coming up over the next two months. One day courses at £175 include Michelin star cookery, knife skills and - slightly oddly at this price - Boxing Day leftovers. You can also do knife skills as an afternoon course (£105) along with courses on afternoon tea, cupcakes (groan) and macaroons. Evening classes are the same price and demos such as the art of making and cooking perfect pasta, risotto and gnocchi are £65.

If someone had told me 5 years ago that Waitrose would be doing this I'd have thought they were barmy. Forget it - I’m booking myself in.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Where to stay and eat in Dartmouth

I’ve spent the last few days at the Dartmouth Food Festival - mainly giving talks so I didn't have much of a chance to scout around and make new discoveries but enough time to confirm my existing impression that it's a brilliant place to spend a weekend. And a great place to eat and drink.

It helped, of course that the weather was gorgeous - sunny and crisp - and that we were put up by one of the festival sponsors Coast & Country Cottages in a luxury pad that overlooked the Dart Marina (thanks, guys!). In our few idle moments we could kid ourselves we were members of the yachting set, sitting in our picture window (above) watching the ferry chug gently across the Dart. It was heaven.

We also ate a couple of great meals at local chef Mitch Tonks’ two restaurants The Seahorse and Rockfish both of which I strongly recommend. Rockfish is the newer - an upmarket but family-friendly chippy that occupies what looks like a converted beach hut on the front and just has the most brilliant fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. Super-fresh plaice (don't be put off by the picture below: the crumbs didn't look that orange), perfectly cooked chips and super-sloppy mushy peas to dunk them into. Although you could go overboard with flash seafood like lobster there are some really inexpensive options like breaded whiting for just £3 and the portions of chips were easily enough for two. We got away with a bill of £35 with wine.

The Seahorse is pricier and more upmarket with a serious wine list but it’s not remotely stuffy. Fish again is the main draw but if you’ve already OD’d on that there are other options like a rib of Devon beef to share and the wonderfully decadent wild mushroom and truffle linguini we had as a starter. They also have fixed price deals at lunchtime which are quite a bit cheaper. (£15 for 2 courses or £20 for 3.)

We also ended up one evening in the bar of a local boutique hotel called Browns (above) which has a tapas night every Friday which you can read about on my food and wine matching website here. It was a particularly friendly place and I imagine a good place to stay if you want to be more central. (The Marina is about 10 minutes walk away - though on the flat rather than up one of the precipitous hills that surround Dartmouth.)

Talking of hills I should also mention a good B & B we’ve been to a couple of times before called Mounthaven Guest House right up above the town which is very comfortable. We’ve never managed to book one of the front rooms that have an amazing view over the estuary but the owners, Rose and Shaun thoughtfully give you the best table for breakfast overlooking the same view if you've had the back room.

We’re lucky that Dartmouth is only a couple of hours from Bristol which makes it ideal for a short get-away-from-it break but now we know it so well I think we’d make the effort if we lived further afield. Although it’s a popular tourist destination it’s not overcrowded, particularly at this time of year, and it’s part of a wonderfully unspoilt bit of countryside and coastline.

(Another company that does rentals in the area is Blue Chip Holidays which sponsored the festival wine and cheese tastings I was giving along with local wine merchant Red & White.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Blogs of the month

A very late blogs of the month post due to a long overdue holiday which I should have announced before I went away (for those of you who might have thought I'd abandoned this blog).

Anyway here are four to enjoy:

Ideas in Food
Food science and flavour combining are hugely popular right now, especially in the US so dip into this fascinating blog - and book - from Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot who met when they were working at Clio in Boston and now have a restaurant consultancy business. There are some fascinating posts - most recently what to do with grilled outer leek leaves and how to poach oysters at 48° and still retain the briny taste. Fascinating reading.

Eggs on the roof
A charming, quirky, beautifully written and photographed blog from Oxford-based journalist, writer and broadcaster Charlie Lee-Potter. The title apparently stems from her childhood when her mum's best friend told her that if she threw an egg over the top of their house, it would never break . . . Mainly but not exclusively about food but well worth reading even when it isn't

And another gorgeous looking blog from food photographer and writer Pascale Cumberbatch. Oddly, like Charlie, she lives in - or rather just outside Oxford. And also photographs landscapes and scenery. I love her intermingling of colour and black and white photography. Beautiful.

Jim's Loire
Jim is Jim Budd, a British wine writer who spends half his time in London and the rest in the Loire and Lisbon (long story. Don't ask.) Anyway he's a mine of information on what is happening in the Loire vineyards and to small producers all over France. (Like me he's very interested in natural wine.) He's also a fearless exposer of wine scams through his site Good bloke.