Friday, 24 June 2016

THE GUEST BOOK

I’m stretched out on the settee in my living room staring out at the blooming Wisteria through the large bay windows as we’ve just had a week of Summer. Mum tells me I’m always talking about the weather, would you blame me living in the UK! On my lap, a large blue Smythson notebook and on the window seal, a plate with a few madeleines, financiers and of course a cup of tea, I feel a bit like the cat that got the cream!

I have been waiting for this moment since 00:30 hrs the night before and now that it’s here, I seem rather reluctant to proceed. Tissue at the ready, deep breath, open book and instead of the tears I’d expected, I burst out into delighted laughter! My neighbours must think I’m a bit crazy as this happens a lot. I’m reading what is, since the night before, my “guest book”. I’ve had the notebook for over six years and didn’t quite know what to do with it. One thought had been to write in it my favourite recipes which would one day be published but hadn’t quite got round to it as it is such a beautiful book and I was reluctant to write in it. Rather like when you buy a really expensive pair of shoes but you don’t want to wear them for fear of ruining them. Girls know what I’m talking about! lol


Amongst my guests is a hedge fund owner, all the way from Switzerland, a designer, who also works in finance, the head of fundraising at one of London’s leading educational institutions, so I am in good company and therefore feel the need to impress.



I like to serve “a little something” on arrival.  Usually something unusual to get conversation following as guests try to work out what they’re having. On this occasion, I decide to do my usual Asparagus wrapped in pastry with a secret ingredient which is always a surprise to many. There are of course days when everything goes against you, just ask Christiano Ronaldo! ;-). As I get the pastry out to wrap the Asparagus, I discover it’s gone too dry as I didn’t store it properly. That’s that then. I decide to do some cassava chips instead which turn out reasonably ok though some are a bit soft, cut too thickly in my haste to be ready on time.  Once done, I sprinkle a bit of salt and cayenne pepper on them to give them that bit of fire. These are brilliant with a crisp Rosé or a fruity Riesling. They hit the mark as everyone scrambles to have more with remarks of did you really make these! The evening is underway!





My starter is seared Scallops with a coating of homemade curry and lemon juice. I must say, the smell of the curry alone is enough to awake any senses. The curry is made up of a mixture of cinnamon stick, dried chilli, fennel seeds, whole cloves, green cardamom, cumin and coriander seeds dry roasted over a low heat and pound to a powder with turmeric.  The scallops are served on a bed of parsnip puree with pickled and fried parsnips and pickled kumquat. Of course I make a whole point of explaining what the dishes are as usually the guests don’t get the menu before-hand.  

“This is really good?!” exclaims one guest. The surprised delight sets the tone of the evening.


As the wine flows, so does the conversation which ranges from the dating scene, culture and of course work. Someone’s brought an Amarone which makes me want to cry with delight, apart from Barolo, it’s one of my favourite Italian wines. I once remember having a risotto made with it that was so delicious I could have wept, what can I say, I am an emotional person especially when it comes to food.


I can’t wait to serve the main course of roulade of lamb breast with crisped spicy new potatoes, broccoli spears and baby carrots.  Apart from its aesthetic beauty, it really does pack a punch. The Lamb breast is stuffed with a mixture of fresh coriander, chillis, fennel and cumin amongst other spices. This is then rolled up and slow cooked in the oven in chicken stock until its melt in your mouth tender. I slice it into medium size pieces and finish it off with butter in a frying pan. The stock is reduced to a thick consistency to accompany the lamb.  The broccoli spears and carrots are cooked in butter and garlic retaining their colour but tender and succulent. The potatoes are par boiled and finished off in a frying pan with aromatic spices and asafoeda to provide the crispiness.

It truly is a magnificent dish with flavours that are so subtle yet present.

I’m now completely relaxed, not only because of the Amarone but also by the fact that everything has gone down a storm so far.  One of my nightmares as a hostess is people not getting along, but there’s obviously no problem here. There’s loud laughter over shared anecdotes and light hearted banter on what we don’t agree on. One guest recounts her time in LA where if one didn’t have an agent, then one didn’t exist with hilarious imitations and another likened to Dom Jolly whose sense of humour he captures perfectly.

Inevitably the conversation turns to my time on Master Chef. I have never really written about this but probably will one of these days as I remember it as if it were yesterday. The glaring lights of the camera and stress are not something one forgets easily. Of course there’s the famous scene which was used by the BBC to advertise series 9, of me murdering a John Dory and John Torode looking on in consternation. I still cringe at “Emily what mood are you in today,” Gregg Wallace trying to ascertain what I was going to do with the John Dory, me, “Wild and dangerous”, really, did that just come out of my mouth! I’m surprised he didn’t leg it as I was wielding a rather large sharp knife at this point. A clever youtube search does still bring up said clip!


Dessert is a deconstructed trifle.

One of the subjects I was really bad at in school was needlework which we had to do as part of “home science”,yes, colonial school! As part of my “O” levels, I had to sew a blouse which I had to measure and cut myself. Needless to say it was never completed as I had neither the patience nor the precision for neat back or running stitches.

I’m therefore amused as I find myself with a measuring tape in my hand trying to cut out precise slices of a coconut sponge cake which forms the base of my trifle. The cake is then soaked in a mixture of condensed and coconut milk then coated in desiccated coconut. Atop this goes a mango bavarois (frozen mango custard for the layman) wrapped in a passion fruit jelly.



I of course puree my own mango and make my own passion fruit juice and don’t regret all the hard work that went into it when I see and hear the reaction from everyone. You can taste everything that is in the dish and can even imagine yourself on some tropical island somewhere as the flavours are very tropical.

As the evening draws to an end, one of the guests says she’s rather impressed by the fact that I managed to seat down to eat with everyone. It would be completely worthless for me if I wasn’t able to do this. Part of the fun of doing this is sharing my passion with other people but most importantly seeing their reaction to what I have created. A bit like a farmer’s satisfaction by I good harvest I suppose.

Amidst “we must do this again with the same group of people”, another guest suggests I should have a guest book where people can leave their reviews. The birth of my “guest book.” I very much believe in timing and things happening when they are meant to so I know it was the right time to whip out the Smythson!



That inevitable time comes when one guest gets up to leave and of course everyone else follows suit. This is when the goody bags come out. “What, madeleines, they are my absolute favourite treat”! That alone is gratification enough for the evening. Of course there were also financiers to go.

As I use agar agar to make jelly and wrap wafer thin warm biscuit mix around a metal ring to try and achieve a perfect tuille for one of my desserts, I smile at how naïve I was when I started out almost 10 years ago. The anxiety and fluttering of the tummy before guests arrive is unchanged but my cooking style has evolved.  I feel I know better the type of cook I am today and would like to be in the future. Spice will always remain central to everything I do.






Monday, 11 April 2016

THE ART OF DINING OUT




There is an ongoing campaign to “bring back plates”, a crusade against restaurants serving food on bits of wood, roof slates, jam jars and yes, even dustbin lids, God forbid not literally for the latter!  There’s also a general longing amongst diners for the traditional way of dining if AA Gill’s review of Shuang Shuang is anything to go by. He bemoans the lack of simple old soup on menus, a carving trolley and old waitresses to name but a few. If I may add to the list, the joy of dining out at leisure!

By golly, whatever happened to the world.  There’s nothing I hate as much as the smug “voice” behind the phone telling me “you will have the table for two hours”. Two hrs my foot, surely that’s just time enough to say hi to each other, go through the menu and swap items in my case. God knows I won’t look at a menu before I visit a restaurant, spoils the whole fun of discussing the dishes on offer, part of the fun of dining out with friends surely!

I can remember a recent date almost turning into a disaster due to this time limitation malarkey. Of course the fact that I turned up at the wrong restaurant is beside the point.  By the time I turned up at the right restaurant, I think we’d already used up 20 minutes of our two hours! I was actually oblivious to the fact that we had to vacate the table at someone else’s pleasure rather than by the need for either one of us to escape. Come to think of it, this could be brilliant for first dates when one wants to escape without claiming a headache! I digress, on said night, the restaurant which shall remain nameless as they have since made up for it after my very public grumble, brought us dessert menus whilst we were still having our main course and proceeded to tell us that we had very limited time left.  Everyone knows I have an extremely sweet tooth and having seen a dessert I was determined to have, I went on and ordered it. You can imagine my indignation when the maître d’ came over to ask us to leave the table as our time was up. I have never been so insulted in my whole life, well maybe I have, but that’s not the point!

There was no way I was going to leave my dessert. What happened to simple good manners!

Imagine my delight therefore when I recently decided to pay a visit to a city restaurant I’ve been longing to visit but haven’t quite got round to it as it is in the City and I live in the South West.  I know right!  I booked an early table but the “voice” did not tell me I had to vacate it after two hours, already a good start.

A girlfriend and I decided to go to Wentworth Street to buy some African fabric, you’ll be amazed at what you can find in London. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to visit L’Anima in the city and make a whole day of it.


We are first to arrive and so have a welcome committee, the maître d’, several hostesses, a lady who kindly takes our coats and someone who looks like a manager, I say this as he was the only one wearing a suit! I immediately like the glass fronted restaurant with tables covered in white linen strewn around in an orderly manner. The only decoration on the table is a small glass tumbler with a single rosebud. You can see the kitchen on one side of the restaurant, a thing favoured by many  restaurants these days. I have to say, there’s something quite reassuring about seeing the people who are cooking your dinner. 




A bread basket with lovely warm bread is immediately brought to the table with the most delicious green olives and of course good old balsamic vinegar immersed in olive oil. The maître d’ is appalled when I go to put my handbag on the floor. He’s obviously used to dealing with ladies who are fussy about their bags whereas I really couldn’t give a hoot but I appreciate the little cat (who I immediately name Felix)used to hang the bag by the table.

We struggle to pick our dishes due to the vast choice on offer and being foodies we of course want to try everything on the menu. The maître d’ turns out to be a real gem when we tell him we would like to try each other’s dishes. He suggests a sharing menu, basically the dishes we picked but served to each of us, I think we actually end up eating more food than we would have had we not been sharing.

We start with a raw Tuna, Avocado and Mango Salad. I have to say, I love raw Tuna and avoid ordering it in most places as I always end up disappointed, not this time!


The Tuna is meltingly tender and the mango so tasty it reminds me of those I had in my childhood. Coupled with the avocado smear, yes, looks like smearing is still the done thing, and a sprinkling of squid ink dust, it is a marriage made in heaven. I then realise we are in for a treat. Did  I also mention that there is a little edible pansy on the plate.

By the time our “middle” course of Beetroot Tortelli with smoked Burrata, Ricotta and aged Balsamic Vinegar arrives, the maître d’ and I are best of friends. I know he owns a Vespa, but of course, he is Italian after all and that he lives in Croydon. How I wish I was polite enough to have asked for his name.


What a dish, and if I’m sincere, my favourite of the night. .The Tortelli arrives on a sheer black plate which off-sets its deep red colour beautifully. It is open at the top so one can see the cheese on which the vinegar is drizzled at the table with aplomb. Beetroot and vinegar work beautifully together and combined with smoky Burrata, whose smokiness I can actually taste, it very easily asserts itself in my mouth. One can also taste the beetroot whose juice was used to provide both flavour and colour to the Tortelli. Definitely something I’m going to try at home!


Then comes the Marinated Black Cod in Prosecco and Paprika. I’ve always thought Black Cod overrated so this wasn’t my choice but I am happy to try it. The colours of the dish are incredibly vibrant.  The Cod has a beautiful orange paprika crust but is soft and flaky and is accompanied by a purple mash potato with rich green Kale. It isn’t a bad dish but didn’t blow my mind away. Then again, Cod has never been my fish of choice.


I must admit that by the time the Lamb arrives, I’m ready for dessert so my recollection of it may be a bit jaded!  The lamb is perfectly pink in the middle with a lovely crisp outer ring. It’s served with a lamb and raisin jus, pear and a saffron potato. I felt the pear could have been left to cook a bit longer in order to absorb more flavours and also be just that bit softer. Nonetheless, my girlfriend seemed to have really enjoyed it.

A meal isn’t complete without dessert in my opinion and I’m glad she also agrees as we proceed to place our orders. We have no doubts over this one and there is no way we are going to share, other than a spoonful taste.


I of course go for the white chocolate Soufflé which I remember being as light as cotton candy and comes with a scoop of very delicious vanilla ice cream and some melted dark chocolate.



I almost regret my choice when my girlfriend’s chocolate smeared plate of hazelnut and chocolate sphere arrives. But definitely envious as the waiter proceeds to pour a hot caramel on the sphere which enticingly melts away to reveal a hazelnut encrusted in beautiful sugar work.

The service was flawless, atmosphere hospitable and food devilishly divine.  We even receive an extra pot of tea each and the offer of a lift home on the Vespa, as the skies have just opened up and we can’t leave. We linger over this surrounded by the comfortable hum of voices from the now filled up restaurant and the sound of splattering rain.

L’Anima is operated by a team that are obviously proud of what they do which you can tell from the little things they do to make your experience special. Definitely worth a second or even a third visit.

Note to self, never turn down that 6 pm table, you may just be in for a treat.