Monday, 18 October 2010
Montpelier Basement - Gastronomic success or gastroenteritis?
Slowly, almost painfully, one heavy lid creaks open to expose my bleary and bloodshot retina to the blurred soft grey hues of early Sunday morning. Sunlight leaks lazily around the corners of the curtain, rudely intruding into my dark hungover world. I lay there still, staring blankly, studying the ceiling as my brain winds up slowly like a dynamo; it's not quite there yet. Silence. But not perfect. I strain my hearing and concentrate on the deep rhythmic breathing of a slumbering 'E'.
Suddenly, almost surprising myself, I wrest off the covers and immediately wish I hadn't, as the cold morning air envelopes my still duvet-warm body. The shock wakes me up instantly and my brain moves up a gear, from reverse into first. Like an automaton, I reach out blindly for a sweatshirt from a pile of clothes, dragging it over my head, as I creakily fall out of bed in a kind of silent controlled tumble and pad quietly, bare feet on carpet to the door and the darkened silence of the rooms beyond.
Making my way downstairs, I turn into the dining room. Sunlight streams unrestricted through the French doors, lighting the scene in stark detail. I stand in silence, my eyes picking over the wreckage of the night before. At least a dozen empty, dull emerald wine bottles lay forlorn and discarded. The length of the table is strewn crazily with screwed up napkins, crumbs, water glasses, wine glasses, pitchers, knives, forks - in fact pretty much all the cutlery we own. The white tablecloth has a massive red stain spread across one end. I stare and remember. It looks like a map of Africa painstakingly drawn in claret. Strangely impressive.
Leaving this scene behind, I take a few steps and turn into the kitchen and gasp. Utter carnage. Every surface is covered haphazardly with bowls, plates, saucepans. It looks like a bomb has gone off. My head hurts. I'm starting to think that the bottles of Japanese lager that we necked whilst cooking the previous evening, followed up with white wine, then celebratory red, more white...stout, and sherry?!! Probably wasn't the wisest course of alcoholic consumption. But let's rewind....celebratory, yes....last night had been cracking, in fact it had been a real success. We'd even been applauded by our guests, amongst them no other than Xanthe Clay, the Telegraph food columnist and author.
Smiling, I turn back to the kitchen wreck and start the business of clearing up. It's something I'm rather good at, being almost borderline OCD when it comes to tidiness. Whilst I work, I process the day before in my mind; it had flown past in such a blur with all the preparation....
Saturday was to be the first date of our supper club, Montpelier Basement. We had begun early and were up and on the train to nearby Bath at 7am to pick up some bread from Richard Bertinet's famous bakery and fresh produce from the excellent weekly farmers market.
We met Richard Bertinet who was incredibly friendly and helpful, and the bread well what can I say - amazing. Gorgeously crusty and flavoursome sourdough, beautifully lightly textured Bath Buns and incredible focaccia. Both 'E' and I were goggle eyed, as we looked around at all this beautiful produce displayed on the shelves of the bakery. Richard asked us about our menu, and suggested some of the aforementioned incredible sourdough, a spelt loaf, two different types of focaccia (rosemary and olive), some ciabatta and finally, we couldn't resist a sweet Bath bun to nibble on as we walked along the still quiet, early morning streets to the farmers market, which by contrast was a hive of activity. The incredible fresh bread smell emanating from the bag was quite something.
Surveying the various stalls heaving with beautiful fresh local ingredients, we worked quickly and soon had a massive bag full of different types of beetroot; (purple, amazing candy striped and golden. We planned to roast these with thyme and a dash of balsamic vinegar), big bunches of cavolo nero, some brussel tops (similar to greens, we planned to chop, blanch and finally pan fry these), some beautiful locally grown Desiree potatoes, quite unlike anything you'd get from the supermarket in terms of quality, and some bunches of incredibly varied coloured carrots. Quite a haul and pretty damn heavy as we struggled our way back to the station.
Arriving back in Bristol, and leaping into a taxi at the station - I decided the next thing I should do in order to prepare for the evening supper club, would be to slam my finger in the taxi door. That's right, God knows how I did it - I jammed my finger in the closed door good and proper. As a justifiably alarmed 'E' struggled to help me and shouted at the Taxi driver, he looked blankly at me and said "errr do you want me to unlock it then?"
My barely restrained response of "errr yes!" elicited some action and as he unlocked the door from outside, freeing my mangled finger, I almost dreaded to look. It was flat - probably half the thickness that it normally is. Inside I was screaming like a child throwing a tantrum, but outside I was strangely calm as I assured both 'E' and the driver I was completely fine. I'm not entirely sure why we do that, put a brave face on things; the psychology of it is lost on me.
Strangely, despite my finger throbbing, and the taxi driver grimly assuring me that it would
"hurt tomorrow, oh yeah - that'll be black and blue that will",
before launching into a litany of other finger-trapped-in-door accidents he had known. Meanwhile, my flat finger had somehow 're-inflated' itself. Yes it hurt like hell, but it was back to its normal size. I could wiggle it. Not broken, luckily!
Leaping from the taxi, this time I was extremely careful in slamming the car door. We hurried downstairs to the kitchen and began preparing for the evening's supper right away. I glanced at my watch, it was just before noon.
We'd already laid the communal table, polished the glasses and cutlery, washed and stacked all the tableware. I'd got the log fire ready, I'd already made the beef cheek with milk stout stew, we'd tidied and prepared. 'E' had made the St Clements posset dessert, and was busily making stem ginger shortbread. We were well on track, in total control - we had hours and hours to prepare....
...Seemingly five minutes later, it was 7pm and our first guests would be arriving in half an hour as we hustled around the kitchen. I don't know how we did it, but as the first people began to arrive, we were ready. I have to say when it comes to organising a kitchen 'E' demonstrated ably why it's her profession.
With the guests drinking sherry and tucking into nibbles of spiced almonds and pumpkin seeds, we quickly readied ourselves. 'E' had drawn up a complete timing plan, and wow was it complicated. The roast baby squash with beet leaf and hazelnut pesto starter, although involving some last minute work, wasn't too bad, but getting the main and accompanying side dishes out for ten people… all at the same time, and all hot, would involve some serious organisation in a domestic kitchen.
As 'E' patiently explained to me how it would work, I listened stupidly, went boss eyed and wished that I'd studied rocket science so I would be better able to understand what the hell she was talking about. Snapping out of this revelry I assured a doubtful looking 'E' that I'd taken in all that she'd just said and understood the plan backwards. And we were off!!!!
The next hour or so passed in something of a blur. I didn't really get the chance to get out of the kitchen as much as I'd have liked, but - and this is the main thing, our guests were obviously having a cracking time judging by the sounds of raucous laughter and noisy conversation. The kitchen actually leads directly off the dining room, so we were no more than two meters away from the table.
The cleared plates coming back pretty much empty were also a good sign. After reaching the high point of the evening, getting the main course and accompanying side dishes out on time, and most importantly, hot, 'E' and I grinned at each other broadly and had a congratulatory 'high five'.
Able to relax a bit more, we joined our guests for dessert and a few glasses of wine - and received a round of applause. Superb.
Finishing off the meal with Keen's cheddar Welsh rarebit on Bertinet sourdough and some Trethowan's Dairy Caerphilly with homemade membrillo, some of our guests - proclaiming themselves stuffed to the gills, made their way off into the night. Others stayed till way after 1am as we chatted, and drank the remaining wine and sherry.
'E' and I had a bloody good time, and were more than happy with the evening. Of course there are things we'd like to improve, but it's a learning experience and for our first supper club, the feedback from our guests the next day was phenomenal.
I only wish I'd managed to get some more photos of the food, but just didn't have time.
My twin brother texted me the next day with the question “So, Montpelier Basement – Gastronomic success, or Gastroenteritis?”
Gastronomic success I reckon.
In actual fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much, we've already set the next date - Saturday 30th October. The menu is yet to be confirmed, but will again be British, seasonal and where possible, local. (With a bit of Halloween thrown in for good measure...in a completely classy and non-cheesy way, naturallement).
If you like the sound of this, and want to join us, or would like to be added to the mailing list - drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org