Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I stole Craig Bancroft's pencil

Phil Howard dishing out the cheese course
Following a recent tasty but initially cold overnight stay in Nottingham, we have amused ourselves by planning the title of my (mercifully unforthcoming) memoir. It is to be called Sat Bains Fixed My Radiator. Or is it? There is a rival title, born of the moment Craig Bancroft, the estimable co-owner of Northcote, came over at the end of the opening dinner of chef-fest Obsession just in time to witness me putting a Northcote pencil in my handbag. Needless to say, we had had the paired wines.

Phil Howard, head chef at The Square, has done most of the Obsession festivals. On successive nights,  some of the toppermost chefs from here and abroad take over the restaurant kitchen and serve their food. Everyone gets the same thing at the same time, so it's like very high-end, small-scale banqueting, and it's a great way to try the chefs' food without going all the way to London, Madrid, or Atlanta. It's 100 quid a head for five courses bookended with Champagne and coffee. Mum made a face about the price, but it feels like good value when you see how much it's possible to burn through at Pizza Express with two grown-ups and a toddler.

Howard has a reputation as a chef's chef, and his strength and dedication to The Square are widely admired. His smoked mackerel veloute with oysters and caviar is also pretty impressive; the soup had an incredible rich, sweet smokiness which, he says, comes from home-smoking the fish (and this was just before the Big Mackerel Row). He later rated the smoking job as 8/10, which bodes well for a dish that scores his full 10.

Judging by the framed menu Howard was presented with, there had been a few last-minute changes to the finished menu. Not all the courses were spectacular, but the glazed veal cheek with cauliflower cheese, truffle shavings and raggedy little handmade farfalle really worked, and there was a frisson of Great British Menu banquet-style jeopardy as monitors showed the kitchen handling a delay to the rhubarb souffle-filled tuile cones served with custard and rhubarb sorbet.

I've been to Obsession before at the kind invitation of the Northcote team, and sat on the 'industry' table with an unlikely set of companions: Big Sam Allardyce, Angela Hartnett, and some of the north west's premier growers of root vegetables. Ken Hom was cooking and the food was great, but being in the thick of the dining room, surrounded by really excited customers who were really enjoying themselves, was probably better. And, of course, I got a 'free' pencil.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Four Tiers of Trauma: or, why some books should be better

There is a bit in India Knight's very excellent novel My Life On a Plate in which the heroine, Clara Hutt, describes one of the ways in which glossy women's magazines charm (or used to charm) advertisers. Whichever cosmetics house has stumped up the cash for the ad on the back gets the credit for the cover girl's make-up, whether their lipgloss was used or not. The casualties of this, Clara points out, are the girls who buy the featured lipgloss and then wonder, sadly, why that shade doesn't look the same on them. I'm not much for lippie, but I am one for cake. And Derek and Lucy's wedding cake, the paley beautiful project which has already occupied an unhealthy amount of time, got done despite, not because of, the book which inspired it.

I didn't charge the happy couple for their cake, so I don't feel bad about the fact that the idea - four tiers with hand-moulded roses - was lifted straight from the pages of Mich Turner's Couture Wedding Cakes (Jacqui Small, £30). It was published in 2009, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that some things on Mich's equipment list just don't exist, but still it hurts. I can Google with the rest of them, not to mention attend cake-head hobby fairs.The inch-deep round polystyrene cake spacers Mich calls for are not produced; I had to find a polystyrene factory and have them specially cut. 2cm diameter circular plunger cutters can't be got, either. I needed more roses than she suggests to block between the tiers; she gives no instructions for creating the little posy that looks so sweet on top of the cake in the book. I felt like the girl with the wrong lipgloss, but with only hours in which to solve a load of sugarcrafting problems before the door shut, Crystal Maze-style, with me and a half-finished cake on one side and, on the other, a harried bride sending her mother in law out to a big Marks & Spencer to find some of those ready-iced wedding cake layers and a box of dowels, two weeks before Christmas. Between Mich's half-baked instructions and my half-remembered cake dec course, it got done and thanks to photographer Helen Mary, who took the picture above, the lasting record of it is glorious enough to behold with relative pride. 

I write about cookbooks for part of my living, and I really appreciate the ones that work. This is one of the many reasons why.