Friday, 23 October 2015

The Private Dining Club

Augustus, known to his parents as Colin, was an aspiring chef dedicated to reviving obscure and somewhat scary recipes sourced from ancient, grease-spattered cookery books. This passion was somewhat at odds with his day-job as a retail assistant in a high street book shop.  When not grappling with heavy boxes or assisting customers who could only recall vague details about the book they simply had to have,  he would be found tucked away in the Food and Drink section.  Not for him the populist writings of Nigella, Gordon and Jamie - his tastes were far more refined and esoteric. But a quick look at some food porn helped him cope with the boredom of recommending the latest Dan Brown novel.

Gus's friends loved his cooking - largely because they were mostly too lazy to cook themselves and good old Gus always over-catered.  The downside of "just passing by and we thought we would drop in" was having to try his various food experiments involving fiery spices, arcane hard-to-source herbs, ragged looking foraged flora and unyielding cuts of meat and clumps of offal.  Augustus (nee Colin) was taking his art to a wider audience through the medium of his Private Dining Club.  Having managed to persuade the local wine shop that it would be a huge benefit to their business to have eight strangers eat dinner in the rather austere surrounds of the "tasting room", his plans were accelerated.  Elaborate menus were planned and rejected; seasonal ingredients to be sourced within 5 miles were bought or foraged from secret copses or tracts of railway embankment.  The hedonistic lure of the Private Dining Club, the first of its kind in Bogborough, worked a charm on those bored with their regular haunt, The Lamb to Slaughter's, pie-based menu.  Extensive use of social media, screeds of florid prose about the menu and the promise of a "gourmet experience" was sufficient to dun eight victims into parting with "£30 per head including a drink on arrival."

Gus had promised a stylishly themed and decorated venue to complement his Blummenthalesque feast.  Thus he needed to call upon the services of Jasper, his friend and general dogsbody, to supply suitable props. Luckily, Jasper dabbled in antiques and dwelt in a converted gardener's bothy crammed with eclectic furnishings.  His haul of copper cookware, enamel pots, crazed Georgian plates, heavy crystal glasses and exquisite French napery was piled into his ancient Land Rover.  Additional props such as leather suitcases, calfskin bound books, sporting paraphenalia, old parlour games, apothecary bottles and taxidermy were added to the mix.  The desired effect was a mash-up of Old Gentlemen's Club and A Night at the Museum.

Come the night and Gus found that he had bitten off rather more than he could chew.  The very small kitchen at the venue was not conducive to producing a meal for 8 guests all at the same time.  The first course, a foraged medley of wild mushrooms served in a puff pasty Pithivier was burnt on top and rather undercooked elsewhere.  The horseradish cream proved bitter - possibly the foraged horseradish was not as fresh as it might have been.  As the food was at least 30 minutes late, the guests had staved off their hunger pangs on the delicious bread obtained at vast expense from the local deli "The Ravenous Radish".  Drink, purchased from the wine shop below, flowed freely and by the time the main course appeared, most of the eight guinea pigs were rather well-oiled.  By now Gus was sweating profusely, his hipster beard glistening with moisture as he battled to bring his meal to "The Pass".  Jasper who had been co-opted to wait tables hovered uselessly as he watched the guests become progressively drunker.

Finally, the main course was ready to serve.  Ambitiously, Gus had decided to serve orange-glazed suckling pig complete with an orange stuffed into its gaping mouth.  Vast pewter platters of wild leaf salad and gargantuan tureens of slow roasted root vegetables fought for space, whilst the perma-tanned porker took up most of the table. Carving was a dangerous experience, as the knive slipped off the glossy crackling, baked to conker-hardness.  Eventually, large slabs of pork were hewn and guests were able to begin the feast.  The saltiness of the crackling exacerbated the need for large gulps of wine - by now, all pretence of "tasting" the wine had vanished.  Bottle after bottle was ordered to sate the thirst of the diners.  Gus and Jasper had also imbibed freely, somewhat undermining their capacity to bring the meal to its expected Grand Finale.

The pudding was an interesting creation, involving wild berries marinated in a homemade rosehip liquer.  This intoxicating mixture was then cooked in a batter like substance, to create a clafoutis.  By now the diners' stomachs had exceeded their natural limit and the prospect of further carb-loading was somewhat of a challenge.  Nonetheless, they manfully forced down Gus's leaden creation, topped up with a glass of Austrian dessert wine and then a bucketful of coffee.

Somewhat exhausted by his Herculean efforts, Gus was confronted by an enormous pile of washing up.  The tiny sink in the kitchen was unequal to the task of cleansing the over-sized tableware and the dishwasher too harsh an environment for the antique plates and silver.  All the dishes were bundled back into the Land Rover to travel to the capacious butler's sink in Jasper's kitchen.  Tempers were frayed as the clearing up and packing dragged into the night.  The guests refused to leave, making their last cups of coffee and dregs of wine spin into the small hours.  Finally, Jasper persuaded them to go and the last items were stowed. 

In the cold light of the next day, Gus added up the costs of the event including buying a very expensive bottle of port as a thank you for Jasper.  And compensating the wine merchant for some missing bottles of wine that had not been accounted for on the night.  With all of that taken into consideration, Gus had made a profit of £12.50.   Guest reviews were lukewarm at best, as the party nursed heavy hangovers and rather queasy stomachs unused to such rich provender.  The dream of a Michelin Star seemed distant.  Good news, though - Gus had applied to be on The Great British Dinner Party Challenge and had just heard that he had got selected.  A perfect way to launch his career as a master chef.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The chicken ladies....

Amongst the vintage and decorative living fair cognoscenti, chicken keeping was a great passion.  Like any epidemic, it started with one carrier and then the virus spread particularly affecting those wearing linen and visiting country vintage fairs.  Suddenly, small talk was all about hen houses and where to obtain the best-looking  hens and the procurement of various galvanised containers for feed and water.

Much like the hens themselves, there was a pecking order amongst the ladies.  The Chief Henkeeper was a countrywoman of standing who bred hens from her picturesque but tumbledown cottage and gardens.  Hens roamed freely in her wildflower meadow, housed in a variety of ramshackle timber buildings.  Her word was law on the merits of different sorts and sizes of bird, types of hen house, feeding regimes and hen health.  As Chief Henkeeper, she supplied her avid disciples with their livestock, having inducted them into the Dark Arts of hen husbandry at one of her jolly Hen Parties aka chicken keeping courses.

At a slightly lower ranking than the CH, Mrs Seasoned Henkeeper was another reliable source of handy hen hints.  Not for her the fancy Frizzle or the pretty Pekin; her poultry de jour were rescue hens obtained from the Happy Hen Foundation.  The HHF regularly liberated battery hens and then sought loving homes for their scraggy ex-captives. Mrs Seasoned Henkeeper was not deterred by the balding appearance of these unlovely creatures.  A few weeks in her tender care and the little darlings would be sporting glossy feathers and beginning to enjoy their freedom.  Mrs SH had a massive flock, being a soft touch for a sad story.  This was alongside her motley menagerie of rescued dogs, stray cats, a one-legged parrot and two ancient sheep that occupied her very untidy garden.  Neighbours had long given up complaining about the farmyard noises and smells, bought off with copious trays of free eggs.

The Young Pretender was desperate to achieve the heady heights of knowledge of the Chief Henkeeper.  Not for her the shabby secondhand-on-Freecycle henhouse or the converted garden shed.  She had been lured into buying an Heirloom Henhouse, as advertised in "Country Cottage and House" magazine.  The pretty Gothic style structure, softly painted in eggshell Barrow and Fall Liberty Bodice pink created a perfect bucolic vision in her well tended gardens.

Mrs YP could not countenance anything less than "divine" or "pretty" in her line of vision and thus, rescued hens were not on her agenda.  Poring over "Henkeeping Style  - the magazine for the country home henkeeper"  she was torn between Bantams,Silkies or even Pekins.  The dainty bantam with its tiny eggs would be a fitting occupant of her chicken Doll House.  But the Silkies were just so very lovely and as for the Lavender Pekins, she positively drooled over their pin-up portraits in Hen of the Month. Her husband, Jonty, sarcastically referred to these magazines as Chicken Porn.  In the end, the Chief Henkeeper had graciously supplied her with 6 bantams and her 7-year apprenticeship had began.  The CH's Hen Hotline was constantly engaged with lengthy calls about why one chicken was pecking another, or why no eggs had yet been laid.

Ms Urban Chick had a completely different style.  Her longing for an aesthetic yet functionally  designed hen house for her pocket-sized town garden had been assuaged by a trendy Egloo.  A funky purple dome now stood on her tiny lawn complete with two brown hens.  Whilst not the fanciest birds, there was something pleasing about their utilitarian shape and their willingness to produce regular brown eggs. Ms Urban Chick's reading matter "The Urban Hen" mixed helpful advice with fuzzy focus shots of pet hens and the poetic hen-inspired offerings of 9-year old girls.

Aspiring hen keepers could apply to join the ranks of the established Chicken Ladies, but would have to undergo a lengthy initiation first.  Attendance at a Hen Party was the entry point; the purchase of a hen house painted a romantic pastel shade and almost the cost of a second home in France was also obligatory; a selection of hens chosen only for their pretty feathers and picturesque appearance was usually a requirement unless a special case could be made for rescue hens.  Having passed through this process, piles of unread "Henkeeper's Weekly", regular visits to the country store and an ongoing battles against foxes, rats and red mite would become part and parcel of the newly sworn-in henkeeper's life.  But the eggs looked so sweet for sale in their specially-sourced pink egg boxes.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The friendly doorman - a tribute

Visitors to the popular Brocante-on-the-Green were notorious for their eagerness and even downright craftiness in trying to enter the sacred portals of the village hall before the official opening time.  Some would pass themselves off as "helpers" - "oh, I'm just popping in to give Jacinta a hand".  Others would wait until the side door was unguarded before slipping in and merging into the rail of pre-loved clothes.  This somewhat compromised the efforts of the fair organiser to set a time for the Grand Opening as well as missing out on collecting the modest entry fee.  A Solution. Had. To. Be. Found.

Enter Richard, a gentleman perfectly created for the role of Official Doorman.  Originally, his function was to chaffeur Jill, his sweet-natured wife, plus a carload of pretty china, softly painted furniture and lovingly embroidered cushions and bags to the fair.  The overland trek to reach Sussex from the outpost of Devon in which they resided was somewhat of a legend amongst the vintage family of regular traders.  No journey would be complete without at least one visit to a stately home, beautiful garden, delightful country pub or exquisite rural bed and breakfast.  A whole book of Places to Visit from Devon to Sussex and Back Again could have been based on their voyages to and from the fair.  Always good-humoured, Richard would draw into the car park ready to unload his precious cargo under Jill's firm but fair direction.

At the start, Richard's friendly chit-chat and willingness to hang out with the vintage ladies was perhaps unusual, some would even say a little odd.  Most men could not get away fast enough from the piles of pink fabric, chipped and distressed furniture and piles of dusty bric-a-brac.  But Richard was made of sterner stuff.  Not for him the escape to the pub or hiding behind a newspaper in the tea room.  Spotting his potential, the somewhat stressed fair organiser offered him the honorary role of Official Doorman, furnished with the Ceremonial Money Collection Box.

The front desk was set up with military precision - the Ceremonial Money Collection Box given due prominence, nestled amongst pamphlets promoting vintage fairs far and wide.  All styled beautifully on a rustic table with a pretty bunch of wildflowers in an old French jam jar.  As Doorkeeper, Richard's first duty of the day was to chivvy the ladies to move their cars and vans from the car park.  Herding cats would have been easier, but with charm and humour the first objective was achieved.  Then, he would take up his station at the front desk, ready to repel invaders until the given signal by the Lady in Charge.

His jolly patter was legend amongst the customers - "lots of lovely things to buy inside" "I don't know where they find it all" and lots of cheery banter with his regular ladies.  The half hour wait to enter the hall went in a trice.  Money duly handed over and reverently placed in the Collection Box, the vintage-hungry ladies would race into the hall or clothes room.

Rather like a friendly uncle, Richard would take it upon himself to make all newcomers trading at the fair welcome.  Nervous first-timers relaxed under the warmth of his sunny charm and old hands enjoyed a joke or quip as they hauled in their treasures.

At the end of the fair, Richard would still be chatting to anyone who would listen, fuelled by cups of tea and the occasional slice of Lemon Drizzle.  And once the car was loaded, Richard and Jill would potter over to the pub to join the other traders for a drink and final analysis of the day's activities. Still laughing, Richard would escort his precious lady to the car, to begin the overland expedition back to Devon.  And the echo of his laugh would linger in the hall and in the memories of the vintage family.