Monday, 21 February 2011

The Montpelier Basement - Behind the scenes

The last time I actually wrote about our Bristol supperclub ‘The Basement’ was just after our second event in October last year. We were complete novices back then embarking on an exciting new venture, fresh faced, young and naive. Much has happened since then. 12 suppers later, and we’ve been transformed into grizzled veterans; complete with scars, burns and wry smiles that seem to say ‘we’ve seen stuff’. But, and this is the nice thing; one of the reasons that we continue is that each event is still as incredibly exciting as the first.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it all takes a hell of a lot of work. In the weeks before there’s the actual administration, announcing dates, emailing backwards and forwards, replying to people who want to come and filling spaces if people drop out. (Last minute cancellations being the absolute worst nightmare of a supper club. The ingredients are bought to order, and it’s not like a restaurant where you’ll get passing trade to fill those places), luckily we’ve not been troubled too much in this regard, *touch wood*

Then there’s setting the tables, cleaning the cutlery and glasses, ironing tablecloths (and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of napkins), drawing up seating plans and building a fire. This is all before we’ve done menu planning, emailed this out to our guests, and then spent at least a couple of days shopping.

Buying ingredients for a supper club presents it’s own problems. You want to cook pork cheeks? Superb. Now try and ensure you’ve got two each for 34 people on the exact weekend you want them. But what’s this? There’s been some kind of balls up at the butchers and the aforementioned porcine cheeks order hasn’t turned up in full and it’s too late to find anything else. So do you scrap that idea and cook something else entirely? It’s often a logistical nightmare I tell you.
Then there’s the sheer bulk of what you have to buy. How about 30 onions, 20 leeks and six kilos of pork belly? Not having a car means I’m slowly developing the squat, muscular build of a man who’s forever humping heavy bags of vegetables and meat for miles and miles in an urban environment.

The night before (or sometimes two nights before, depending on what’s on the menu), we begin to cook. Preparing as much as we can in advance to give us a fighting chance on the actual night of the supper. We have a four-burner hob and one oven. Trying to cook an eight-course menu on that for 17 can be incredibly tricky unless you plan it carefully (as we’ve learnt to our cost when horrified, we discovered three things we should be cooking, had to be in the oven all at the same time, at different temperatures. As you can imagine, much panicked juggling ensued!)
So we bake tarts, make ice cream and simmer stocks, normally working well into the night. The morning of a ‘Basement’ involves getting up early, shopping for last minute items and then cooking, cooking and more cooking. We write a ‘to do’ list; stick it up on the kitchen window and cross stuff off as it’s complete.

No matter how much time we think we have to prepare, the last few hours before a supper always pass in the blink of an eye. There’s normally the slightest moment of calm, a limbo where we wait for the first guest to arrive, and then we’re off, it’s wacky races (I’m Dick Dastardly, and I wont tell you who ‘E’ is……..Ok, who said Mutley?)

We both cook, and love it, sharing all the prep and the actual cooking on the night but we’ve also learnt to play to our individual strengths. ‘E’ has much experience of managing restaurants and waitressing, so she normally takes on the role of maitre d’ and waitress (Moving through the diners, smiling and balancing ridiculous amounts of plates on each hand “gracefully, like a swan” as one of our more poetic diners put it).

My own skill set lies more towards verging on being utterly OCD where it comes to tidiness and organisation. Basically, in between cooking, I wash up and put stuff away like a man possessed. (Finding enough space to plate up 17 dishes is hard enough even with the worktops clear!)
Obviously there’s some overlap, I sometimes act as greeter, clumsily bring dishes out to tables or clear them away and ‘E’ sometimes helps with the washing up (although she absolutely detests doing it), so actually it all works like a well oiled machine…sort of.

One of the main problems is getting the food out all at the same time and hot, but we’ve become pretty adept at getting this right. Making sure the plates are warmed beforehand is a must. (So, just one more thing to cram into the oven then yeah?).

Normally the main course involves much frantic activity, more often than not it’s served with accompanying vegetables and side dishes, which means mucho hob juggling trying to cook everything and keep it hot.

But once it’s all out and our guests are eating, it’s cheesy grins and high-fives. We’re over the ‘hump’ and it’s all downhill from here, (often literally, this is normally my signal to start drinking…. extravagantly). We come out of the kitchen for a bit, mingle, chat to everyone and have a drink with them before finishing off with the desserts and our signature savoury of Gorwydd Caerphilly and Bristol Beer Factory rarebit.

Then, feeling immensely satisfied, elated and buzzing it’s more mingling, chatting and drinking until in the early hours eventually people start to call it a night and drift off home.

Then it’s a sit down, a chat over a drink about how we thought the night went, perhaps a swift tidy up (That would be me), and then off to bed, to get up early and probably do it all again the next day. (Our preference of late is for back to back ‘Basements’ on a Friday and Saturday, it makes for a more manic time, but it means that people who want to come, can and we get some weekends off too…. it’s a tiring win/win).

But wait, the work doesn’t end there. Did I mention trying to get wine stains out of tablecloths? Or the problem of trying to get rid of all those empty bottles? God knows what our bin-men think; let alone our unsuspecting neighbours. Our recycling bin is normally bursting at the seams with 40 odd empty wine bottles on most Mondays…

If you fancy coming along and contributing to our Monday wine bottle mountain, then drop us an email at
and we’ll add you to the mailing list.

Oh, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter @montpelierbsmt

Mwah Mwah

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Homewood Fresh Ewe’s Cheese & Blood Orange Salad with Bristol Marmalade Croutons

In our ‘Montpelier Basement’ guise, ‘E’ and I were proud to be asked to provide lunch for the attendees of Bristol’s ‘Cheese School’ on Sunday, a fascinating regular class on all things cheese, jointly hosted by Trethowan’s Dairy and Food Writer Fiona Beckett, held at the Bordeaux Quay cookery school.

The brief was something light (as the ‘pupils’ had been gorging themselves on amazing artisan cheese all morning), but it also had to feature cheese in some way. (My initial thought of cheese& pineapple on cocktail sticks interspersed with Wotsits as a buffet option was swiftly vetoed).
Despite this initial setback (I mean come on! It fitted the brief perfectly), we eventually came up with an amazing yet simple and flavoursome cauliflower cheese soup using excellent Keen’s cheddar, this was topped with small pieces of welsh rarebit made with Trethowan’s own beautiful Gorwydd Caerphilly. (‘E’ has thoughtfully provided the recipe for the soup here on her blog).

In addition, we served a salad of our own invention, using sliced little gem, tossed with Homewood Fresh Ewe’s Cheese, Blood Orange segments and Bristol Marmalade Croutons. Over this we drizzled a warm marmalade dressing.

What’s really nice about this salad is that a local couple makes both the Cheese AND the Marmalade. Tim and Angela who actually met whilst selling their produce on adjoining stalls at a farmers market. (Tim selling his cheeses, Angela selling her jams and chutneys). Talk about ‘terroir’ eh? (If that reference just sailed over your head, ‘terroir’ is a bit of a vague slightly poncey French term to describe a special sense of 'place', with regards to food or wine.) I think this qualifies.

Anyway, enough of my babbling here’s the recipe….

Homewood Fresh Ewe’s Cheese & Blood Orange Salad with Bristol Marmalade Croutons

Serves 4

You’ll Need:-

2 x Little Gem Lettuce – leaves roughly shredded
1x Blood Orange – peeled, segmented and cut into 1cm chunks
2x slices of stale white bread, crusts removed and cut into 1cm cubes for croutons
Small 150g pot Homewood Fresh Ewe’s Milk Cheese
2-3 tbsp. Bristol Marmalade (Substitue normal Marmalade + a splash of Bristol sherry if unavailable).
4 tbs Olive Oil
1 tbs Sherry Vinegar
Salt & Pepper
2 tsp Pumpkin Seeds – lightly toasted.

To Assemble:-

Arrange the shredded little gem lettuce in a large serving bowl.
Scatter the lettuce with Blood Orange chunks, toasted Pumpkin Seeds and then crumble over the Homewood Fresh Ewe’s Milk Cheese.

Make the marmalade croutons by melting a large knob of butter in a frying pan, when foaming add the bread cubes. Toss in the melted butter and fry until crisp and golden. Add a heaped tbsp of Bristol Marmalade to the pan, and coat the croutons as it melts. Remove from the heat and allow to cool briefly to firm up before sprinkling the croutons over the salad.

To make the dressing, pour the Olive Oil into the same frying pan, with the Sherry Vinegar, and a heaped tbs of the Bristol Marmalade. Cook over a fairly high heat until the marmalade has melted and then drizzle the warm dressing over the finished salad. Season with salt and pepper and serve

PS – I think I should mention that Angela’s Bristol Marmalade is so called because it has Bristol Sherry in it. And for those outside Bristol looking to buy some Homewood Fresh Ewe’s milk Cheese, it’s stocked by Able & Cole.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The New Inn at Backwell

It’s been 2 weeks or so since Michelin published their 2011 guide. As is now almost customary, I scoured the lists of restaurants, and held my head in my hands as once again Essex seems to be almost entirely unrepresented, not a single Michelin Star and just one Bib Gourmand in the whole frigging County. (George and Dragon at Kelvedon, I salute you). Entirely depressing. If it wasn’t for London having an embarrassment of riches when it comes to decent restaurants and being just a stones throw away, I think I’d sink into terminal depression.

However, I was startled out of my low spirits by suddenly remembering that this year I live on the other side of the country and the culinary problems of Essex although close to my heart are 175 miles away.
Happily, Bristol, and the surrounding area fared much better in the 2011 guide with the Pony & Trap at Chew Magna being awarded a star and The New Inn at Backwell getting a Bib Gourmand. It was the latter we decided to visit for lunch last Sunday.

Blackwell lies just outside Bristol; barely 10mins on the train from Temple Meads and then a brisk 15 min walk through a leafy and not entirely charmless village. So surprisingly easy to get to, even for people like me who are currently minus a car *sniff*

The New Inn itself is a lovely looking place, old, stone built and with character but obviously the subject of recent refurbishment, it all looks very neat, tidy and pleasant. The interior also looks brand spankingly decorated in muted grey contemporary colours, but the wooden floors and original fireplaces help to retain some age worn character. It all feels suitably cosy and relaxing. It was nice to see some locals drinking in the bar, I think there’s nothing worse than a place purporting to be a ‘pub or inn’ that is actually anything but.

Taking a seat in the restaurant area proper, beyond the bar we got our first look at the menu. My Initial thoughts were, ambitious inventive cooking and bloody cheap…. 3 courses for £19.50 – Hello!

Unusually, as the whole menu looked so interesting ‘E’ and myself decided to order a starter each and an additional one to share.

Despite having chewed and gnawed my way through some bloody awful Carpaccio style dishes in the past, (A lamb Carpaccio in Southend’s ‘The Glasshouse’ a few years back being perhaps the worst, three 50p size slivers of tasteless chewy meat sprinkled with dried packet herbs…£7 thanks very much). The New Inn’s Carpaccio of Long Ashton Fillet with Stilton Shortbread and Stout Cream, intrigued me.
The plate of food looked beautiful, serious food porn and the actual Carpaccio itself was awesome, meaty full of flavour and generously portioned. Unfortunately the Stilton shortbread was overcooked, and just a bit hard. So much so, that as I tried to cut into it, the end went pinging off across the table and onto the floor. It all tasted great though and it’s nice to see someone doing something really different and exciting with British food.

‘E’ had gone for something of a more classic yet conventional dish, Moules Marinières. There’s not a lot to say about this really, the pile of mussels cooked in garlic, cream and white wine looked attractive enough presented in a glass bowl, but if I’m honest it’s not something I ever order in restaurants finding it a bit unadventurous. Although to be fair to ‘E’ it was the only choice out of the starters for a Pescetarian.

A vegetarian would have been stumped for starters actually, as it turned out the only non-meat dish we’d ordered to share ‘Welsh Rarebit Mousse with Chicory, Apple and Red Cabbage’ contained Gelatine and ‘E’ could only look on aghast as I ate it all. It was really interesting actually, as with the previous dishes, it was beautifully presented, with all of the expected cheesy rarebit flavours present in the mousse, which contrasted nicely against the sharp and sour flavours in the accompanying salad.

So far so good, some minor niggles but really interesting food.

I love a nice bit of Pork Belly, so couldn’t resist some that was 12 hour roasted with crackling and braised cabbage puree.

Up it came, and bloody hell. It was a work of art. I don’t think I’ve seen a roast dinner as beautifully presented ever. There was even a sneaky piece of mystery meat, (which turned out to be duck), perched on top. A small pot of rich jus to pour over it all completed what to my mind looked like a perfect plate of Sunday lunch. I’m happy to say that it didn’t just look amazing, but tasted the part as well.

Almost in an act of vegetarian redemption for the lack of starter options, separate large bowls of superb roast potatoes were deposited on the table, mine cooked in goose fat, ‘E’s cooked in vegetable oil and a nice big bowl of seasonal vegetables.

‘E’s veggie choice of Baked Leek and Pine Nut Pudding with Roasted Parsnips was excellent, it’s really good to see some real thought going into Sunday lunch vegetarian options on the menu with ‘E’ constantly frustrated by the almost standard unimaginative restaurant options of dishes comprised of goats cheese in some form or other, or a totally inappropriate pasta dish.

Stuffed silly and bursting at the seams, but having caught sight of a dessert menu with yet more inventive dishes evident, so refusing to throw the towel in just yet, I ordered ‘Nougat, Pistachio and Hazelnut Praline with Salt Coffee Parfait’.
What an amazing dessert, the whole thing was delightful to eat, although I have to say the salt coffee parfait served in a jar was particularly good.

I’ve eaten in a lot of Gastro-Pubs, and more often than not the desserts are where things normally fall down. How many times have you seen Sticky Toffee Pudding or Crème Brulee on the menu? The same old dishes again and again and again, Isn’t it about time we moved on a bit?
Don’t get me wrong both of these examples can be sublime when done well, but enough is enough, I wish restaurants would put as much thought into their desserts as they do with the rest of the menu.

Happily, The New Inn hasn’t fallen into the rut that so many other places seem to languish in and their desserts are exciting, new and unusual. Even when a classic is served, it’s with a twist, the Rhubarb Crumble coming with the intriguing addition of Bay Leaf cream for example.

Across the table, ‘E’ was eating a well made ‘Bitter Chocolate Tart with Marzipan Ice Cream and Chocolate & Orange Sauce’, again something a bit different and a bit exciting, I can’t say I’ve seen Marzipan Ice Cream before and it was bloody good, maybe a bit sickly sweet after the excesses of the rest of the meal, but I’m pleased I tried it.

So, on the plus side The New Inn at Backwell gets a massive thumbs up from me. I can easily forgive the minor quibble of the overcooked Stilton shortbread as the food was generally amazing. My only real negative comment is that the starters need to include a real vegetarian option, if it contains gelatine it’s not actually vegetarian. But nevertheless really beautiful and interesting food, inventive use of quality ingredients, the best Sunday lunch I’ve eaten for quite some time and perhaps the most imaginative and exciting dessert menu I’ve seen in a gastro-pub for years. Oh and at £19.50 for 3 courses, it’s a total bargain as well. I can’t wait to go back to give the evening dinner menu a try.

The New Inn at Backwell

86 West Town Road,
BS48 3BE

Telephone: 01275 462199