Secret Garden Party

There is a secret garden in Regent’s Park. You may already know where it is, but if you don’t…well, sorry, but you’ve had a big enough clue already. A very good friend of ours decided to share this secret with us recently and we are enormously grateful that he did. We won’t tell anyone, we promise.

Gardens make me very happy. They are havens from the rest of life and picnics in them are bliss. The discovery of this one was nothing short of magical, its brightly-coloured plants illuminated by the evening rays, as I entered, a good 45 minutes earlier than my dining companions. I’d like to say that my timekeeping was bad but really I think it was sheer excitement that sped me along at such a pace. Beautifully kept lawns, neat borders and gently trickling fountains greeted me, as well as the occasional hidden amorous couple behind the hedges.

As if to remind me that we were not in the grounds of a country pile but in the middle of grubby, 21st-century London, the idyll was momentarily shattered by the appearance of an almighty rat – but he disappeared as quickly as he’d emerged so I didn’t hold it against him. Nor did I tell anyone about him. Had I done so, the evening might have ended there. Who knows – perhaps he was off for a picnic with his friend the mole*.

Guiding twelve people in to such an unadvertised spot was rather like a mental challenge from the Crystal Maze, so much so that when all twelve were present and correct I briefly considered a career in the army (I’m pretty sure they like navigators there). If only we’d given them all a map to decipher, this enchanted bower would have felt harder-earned. As it was, a mobile phone sufficed. A furious BSG arrived, laden with smoked mackerel pate, sardines and toast, claiming that ‘go diagonal’ hadn’t been the right instruction – it had been more of a 60 degree angle than a 45. Oh well, I never was very good at trigonometry.

Luckily he was appeased by a large slab of terrine on crusty bread made from an authentic French family recipe by an authentic French person, Virginie. However, I fear that her secret recipe will remain so, just like the garden. But sacre bleu it was good: livery richness laced to precision with booze. It vanished just as quickly as it appeared. Other than this, the patchwork of mismatched coloured cloths was spread with countless delights; salads, cheeses, onion tarts, cold meats, bread and dips; a feast that would have made Mr Mole swoon. The BSG and I brought our current favourite munch of the moment, which we have recreated time and time again after being introduced to it at Terroirs. It is a wonderful dish as no cooking whatsoever is required, though it’s probably a good idea to have a mint handy for after.

Anchovies, shallots and unsalted butter on sourdough

Serves 8 for a starter

Anchovy fillets – 2 tins

3 or 4 shallots, very finely sliced

Pale unsalted butter (French is best, though I’m not sure why – it just feels right)

Sourdough bread (failing that, an airy, crusty loaf)

Slice and toast the bread, and cut it into bite-sized morsels. Put all the other ingredients out onto a board or dish, and let everyone help themselves.

Spread the toast with a convincing slab of butter, don’t be shy.

Sprinkle a few translucent shallot pieces onto the butter.

Smear half an anchovy fillet on top with your knife.

Gobble it up.

Assess the flavours, adjust your quantities and make a second attempt. It won’t be long before you have exactly the balance you want.

I promise that you will love this. Like a cold glass of milk with your Marmite on toast, it just works.

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*These two had perhaps the greatest picnic of all:

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. ‘What a day I’m having!’ he said. ‘Let us start at once!’

‘Hold hard a minute, then!’ said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.

Shove that under your feet,’ he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.

‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly;
‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrolls-
cresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater—’

‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’

‘Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously. ‘It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it very fine!’

From The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

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Packing for the beach: sand-proof picnic

Ah, the seaside. Sweeping views, breezes, sandcastles and picnics. You sit back, the sun on your face and the wind in your hair and let the fresh air permeate. Now time for lunch, you unwrap your carefully made sandwich (make sure it’s yours though, with the special mark you made – you don’t want the dry-looking one), bite into the soft roll and get the unmistakeable grind of sand between your teeth. How the devil did that get in there? Split seconds from cling-film to mouth – unbelievable!

It may be fun for building with and burying people in, but when it comes to food, sand is an evil grain with many cunning plans. If your chosen bite falls to the ground with a thuck, you can forget it; it is irretrievable (except maybe if you’re a dog, but I know some fussy dogs). No, for a worry-free shore-side lunch, you need to come up with food that exposes as little of itself as possible to this elements, but remains as exciting and varied as picnic food can be.

I think we may have found a solution.

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Last Saturday was scorchio, so a secret seven hit our local beach at Brancaster. The unfathomable Brit beach-going rule that ‘the nearer the car park and toilets the better’* meant that we had a huge stretch of it pretty much to ourselves. Not ones to miss a picnic opportunity like this, we took some sandwiches – two, actually. And they were HUGE. We hadn’t so much made these as packed them: two loaf suitcases rammed with flavoursome delights, one all hunter-gatherer and the other perhaps a bit more metrosexual (well, it has more veg in it). Both were free from the mountain of cling-film hell and the guesswork that accompanies so many beach outings. In the battle against the sand invasion, these brutes are all the food you’ll need, I promise. They’re neat, they’re fun to make and a bit like cake, sharing one makes you feel you’re all at a party (there’s also something rather grown-up about bringing a chopping board to a picnic…)

The first, manlier of the two (but refined – like Tom Ford) was the Shooter’s Sandwich, which G had read about courtesy of Tim Hayward on the Guardian food blog earlier this year. Over came the link and down went the gauntlet. This comprised well-seasoned steaks cooked medium-rare, whipped straight out of the hot pan and laid into a hollowed-out long loaf, lined with mustard and/or horseradish and smothered in a savoury, duxelles-type thing. Once the mustard-slathered bread lid is replaced, the whole thing is wrapped in greaseproof paper and string, weighed down with books/saucepans of water/chopping boards and left in a cool place (you’d be amazed how much debate surrounded this particular stage at one in the morning – GCSE Physics, was it? Everyone was an expert.) After an uncomfortable night under the press, the precious package was richly squished with savoury juices and ready to be transported, carved and consumed. Minimum fuss: maximum excitement.

As we did it in a wine-fuelled frenzy in the wee hours I have no photos of the process, but here’s the ‘after’.

Shooters Sandwich

I more than made up for it the next morning when we started on the second sanger, based on a New Orleans invention, the Muffuletta. It is a picnic in a sandwich.

lining

This involved a sundried tomato and olive mush made in the food processor with which we lined our hollow loaf, partnered with liberal glugs of green olive oil.

olives sundried tom mush

Then alternating layers of Parma ham, salami, Taleggio cheese and roasted red peppers were carefully added.

salami

cheese

peppers

If I were to be really picky, it perhaps could have done with some more green in the form of avocados – but these would have quickly turned brown so perhaps courgettes and basil instead – I confess that I am prone to over-packing. Nevertheless, that’s the beauty of it: anything goes. To be honest, it would have benefited from the overnight torture the Shooter’s Sandwich had received, being a bit drier and less yielding (perhaps more olive oil required?) Who knows, but it was delicious, fun to build and sand-free. I am very much looking forward to experimenting with the next one.

Muffuletta

*Two miles of wide, dune-backed beach and the 50 metres around the entrance is a labyrinth of windbreakers, killer stunt-kites** and orange Crocs.

**Having seen it with my own eyes, it is perfectly possible (probable) that such a stunt kite when badly driven is capable of grounding and swallowing a hefty teenage boy – especially when said bad driver is their dad. It is also absolutely hilarious; just ask his mother.

The Eggplant Strikes Back

The BSG was attacked by an exploding aubergine recently (thankfully the burn on his face didn’t scar though people kept trying to wipe the ‘lipstick’ off his cheek at a wedding the following day).

The moral of the story is to PRICK THOSE BAD BOYS before oven baking, they are Darth Vader when they’re hot.

Here in case you missed it before is a recipe for aubergine dip, shamelessly reproduced.

You need:

1 large or 2 smaller aubergines
Olive oil
Lemon
1 garlic clove (optional, depending on who you’re impressing)
Flat leaf parsley
Fresh red chilli
Salt and pepper
Pitta bread and crudités to serve

Roast the aubergine whole in a hot oven (180 degrees) for 45 minutes or until soft to the touch and the skin has started to wrinkle. Peel away the skin and the stalk and discard. Mash the innards in a bowl with a good glug of olive oil, a couple of squeezes of lemon juice, the crushed garlic clove, a small handful of chopped parsley and a teaspoon of finely chopped red chilli (with the white bits removed).

All the above ingredients can be added to personal taste, but the whole process is best done whilst the aubergine is still warm and straight from the oven – it seems to absorb the flavours better. I suppose you could do it all in a food processor, but mashing it all and stirring is rather fun (plus you can eat it). Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with warm toasted pitta bread fragments (give them a couple of goes in the toaster – monitored of course – so that they are crunchy and strong enough to take a good dollop of dip).

Scott’s, 00…

The doorman took my coat whilst another whisked me through them with a smile and without a whisper. I entered the busy room redolent with lunchtime chatter, as if carried on an invisible current. Gliding alongside the handsome Maître d’ I was escorted to my seat, where the man was already waiting. Through ribbons of pale cigarette smoke* his eyes flashed azure and a smile flickered at the corner of his mouth as he rose to greet me:

“The name’s Bond, James…”

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Ok, so I didn’t really have a date with 007. I was lunching at Scott’s with my friend Simon, who certainly shares Bond’s predilections for the finer things in life, sartorial and other, but without the licence-to-kill.

So he says.

The restaurant has moved from its original site frequented by Bond creator Ian Fleming and where, according to the author, Bond would sit at a table by the window ‘to watch the pretty girls go by’ (another thing he and my lunch companion have in common.) The 21st century version is still patronised by the beautiful, here they were, tanned and fragrant and mingling with the chinoed regulars on this Saturday lunchtime; we were joined by one of them: Lucy, our Miss Moneypenny – she stopped the room as she entered, smoky eyes seemingly feet ahead of the rest of her. We were all dressed up to the nines (perhaps even the tens) for a wedding that afternoon. Sadly, the BSG was on a mission elsewhere so couldn’t make it a foursome, but you know how he is with shellfish.

Champagne seemed the most appropriate way to commence proceedings. I looked on covetously as my companions slurped down (with panache bien sûr) half a dozen oysters, glistening on their shells. So much of the glamour in bi-valve consumption is about the ceremony and Scott’s really does it the best, from the Tabasco to the platters to the muslin-wrapped lemon halves: this is tabletop theatre at its silver-plated best. Pair this with discreet and expert service and you really start to feel like a VIP…

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To chase these we shared starters of monkfish cheeks braised with broad beans and bacon and devilled mackerel with parsley salad. The heat and apparent frugality of the latter dish provided the perfect arch-rival to the rich savouriness of the first. Chop-slappingly good, all of it – though watch the dress!

For our main course, I was immediately seduced by the poached River Tweed sea trout with garden vegetable broth, which both looked and tasted as beautiful as it read, the rosy flesh dancing over a light soup of perfectly cooked vegetables, as green as weed waving in a clear chalk stream. Accompanied by a wobbly yellow hollandaise and new potatoes bathed in butter and mint the fish was almost as elegant as the day’s bride would prove to be and an ode to simplicity.

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Typically, Simon went for a dish which, bar the caviar I think, was the most expensive dish on the menu: the Lobster Thermidor. I didn’t mind, he was paying. I had always been doubtful about the thermidor thing, supposing that the best thing you can do with lobster is very little. Once I had tasted it I understood: it was a lesson in rich decadence – completely delicious and comforting in its silkiness. I left it at one bite so that my day would continue usefully. I’ll slip into something more comfortable before I order one of those (think elasticated waist).

Moneypenny had the dressed crab – or rather undressed, not a shell in sight. But very stylish nonetheless – rather like a Bond girl waiting between the sheets.

Hum, perhaps it’s a bit much? I’ll leave the 007isms for now.

We left Scott’s a bit fuller than we’d arrived, certainly happier, and one of us considerably poorer (thank you!). But for a one-off special occasion with close friends this was absolutely sparkling and it set us up nicely for what was to be a very stylish wedding indeed.

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*No, nobody was flouting the ban – cigarette smoke just makes it all a bit more spy-like…

Disclaimer: You may observe a rather hurried quality to this week’s pics (the pic of the sea trout you see above does a great disservice to the gorgeous bride – it really did look lovely, promise!) I was undercover.

Elderflower cordial

Norfolk’s elderflower bushes put up their parasols last weekend – they arrived about 3 weeks late this year, but better late than never: they were gigantic, frothy flying saucers, their champagne notes effervescent in the air. The BSG had been so keen to get cutting and steeping on our previous visit that the kitchen cupboard was already stocked with citric acid, which had been easily procured from the chemist’s. Armed with a pilfered wire supermarket basket – how embarrassing – we perused the green aisles, selecting only the most pristine, untainted chandeliers.

Elderflower cordial – makes one and a half litres

  • 20 heads of elderflower
  • 1.8kg caster sugar
  • 1.2 litres water, boiled
  • 2 unwaxed lemons*
  • 75g citric acid
Method

1. Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl, covering with freshly boiled water and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved.

2. Gently shake the elderflower heads to evict stubborn residents, and then place into the bowl.

3. Pare the zest of the lemons off in wide strips and toss into the bowl with the elderflowers. Slice the lemons, discard the ends, and add the slices to the bowl, then stir in the citric acid. Cover with a cloth and then leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

4. Remove the larger contents and then strain through a muslin cloth or very fine sieve and bottle. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks after opening.

As well as being a refreshing summer drink mixed with still or sparking water it’s a wonderful infusion for pannacotta, fool, yoghurt and ice-cream.

If I could find a gooseberry, they go very well together too – but I can’t. They’re selling them in Morrison’s in High Wycombe apparently, so says my first class girl on the ground.

elderflowers

*it may well yield unmentionably disgusting results, but I am going to try adding cucumbers in like the lemons, in homage to the ‘grown-up’ soft drink of the eighties, Aqua Libra. I loved it. But I was clearly in the minority.