Thursday, 29 April 2010

Jim Haynes @ Fernandez & Leluu

You may know Jim Haynes.  You might be one of the 130,000 people who've passed through his Paris atelier at one of his Sunday supper club nights over the last 34 years and if you're not, you may well recognise him from the recent After Eight advertising campaign.  Although I knew the name and had a vague idea of the reputation of this American living in Paris as the 'Godfather of supper clubs' I was having a good wonder about what to expect as I made my way over to Fernandez & Leluu's supper club in Hackney for a one-off evening held in honour of the man himself.  Just from following their twitter feed I already knew that Simon and Uyen (the Fernandez and Leluu respectively that were hosting the evening) had been through a week of peaks of excitement and troughs of panic several times on a daily basis such was the thrill and responsibility of being asked to host an evening for one of their heroes and inspirations for starting their own supper club.

Whatever the various scenarios I might have entertained, they all turned out to be bobbins.  Rather than some uber-foodie revelling in the exalted status he'd earned, holding court to the hordes of us that had crammed in to meet him there was just a very genial old guy, amiably chatting away to anyone who said hello and looking vaguely embarrassed at all the fuss.  He'd just got off the Eurostar an hour before and was heading back to Paris the next day but you'd have thought from talking to him that he'd just popped round the corner for a quick bite with his closest friends.

He's certainly led an interesting life, spending the 1960s swinging through Edinburgh, London and Amsterdam getting involved with starting up the Edinburgh Festival and various underground/alternative theatre groups and newspapers, before ending up in Paris as a professor of Media Studies and Sexual Politics for the next 30 years, where he started up his famous Sunday night supper clubs.  The way he talks about his life and tells the stories, he gives the impression that a lot of things basically just happened to him - the university asked him to join them as a professor and he could teach whatever he wanted, he came up with media studies and sexual politics and they said fine, see you next term.  His supper club started up because a friend of a friend that he was putting up as a favour insisted on cooking dinner one Sunday night, as a thankyou for his hospitality.  It was such a success that everyone insisted on doing it again the next week, word got round and it all just snowballed.

These are obviously all well-polished stories that Jim must have told countless times now, but when you meet him and spend some time talking to him you can really believe that things like this would just happen to him.  He has a real gift for putting people at ease, a relaxed charm and a genuine interest in people that makes him a pleasure to talk with whether it's just the two of you or he's entertaining a whole room full of people, and it becomes easy to see how, for instance, a supper club would just spontaneously happen around him.  His legendary supper club nights aren't much about the food, they're about the people and the good times.  The food itself is a pretty random pot-luck depending on who Jim's got cooking for him that week - it's served buffet style, standing up so that everyone can properly mingle and meet everyone else, I'm sure it's more than just an afterthought but it's there to help get the party going and get people together, it's not the main reason for being there.  His supper club cookbook is simply called "Throw a Great Party", it's not even written by Jim, it's written by 3 ladies who were inspired enough by his supper club evenings to want to put it together.  

The food laid on by Simon and Uyen certainly wasn't an afterthought and they didn't make things easy for themselves - individual plates each holding an ambitious selection of starters were handed round by Uyen and her crack waitressing squad, no mean feat in itself given how many of us there were and how packed and chaotic the room was (we were standing as we ate, doing the evening Jim-style).  As you've probably noticed by now I seem to have hit the video record button on my phone in my feeble attempt at snapping a quick pic of the starters, but hey ho.

The highlights for me were a wonderfully fresh tasting, packed-to-bursting summer roll and a delicious meaty terrine. My attempt at getting a pic of the main course failed even harder but for the record it was generous cuts of tender tasty beef with some dinky baked potato and mushrooms, all really well done and again all individually plated and brought round to us all as we stood drinking and gossiping.  If I remember correctly there was also a very lively pudding as well as a hard-working barman knocking out vast quantities of assorted cocktails and a garden full of wine and beer.

The place really was packed out and with so many new people to meet and old acquaintances to catch up with a great evening was had by everyone there, Simon and Uyen were wonderful hosts and I think they would happily have kept the party going till the sun came up but the numbers dwindled as the TfL witching hour approached and eventually even those of us lucky enough to live nearby decided to stagger off into the night.  I like to think Jim had a small, proud little smile on his mouth as he said his goodbyes, heading off to his hotel for the night and leaving us to carry on a party that he started all those years ago in Paris.

Special thanks to Qype and After Eight for organising the evening.

There are lots of other blog posts about the evening, in particular LondonEater and London Foodie have a lot of photos, Tamarind & Thyme and A Rather Unusual Chinaman have proper descriptions of the food and Billy's Booze Blog has a frighteningly comprehensive account of all the drinks we drank.

Fernandez & Leluu's blog has their own write up of the evening, as well as details of all their forthcoming supper club nights.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Asparagus Woody Ends

It's the start of asparagus season!  This means of course that for the next few weeks we have a mardi gras of celebrity chefs on our TVs demonstrating how to fondle our way along an asparagus stalk and snap off the woody end from the bottom, telling us how it will naturally snap at just the right spot to leave you with a perfect spear to eat.   I've long suspected this was bollocks and was very pleased to read food science guru Harold McGee confirming exactly that: there's no magic snapping point that a spear will tell you about, no matter how much flexing and caressing it gets.

The good news - especially given the price of English asparagus - is that a lot more of an asparagus stalk is edible than is generally believed, you just need to chop it up: the fibres that get progressively longer and tougher as you work your way down the stalk giving the unpleasant chewy, woody character all lie in the direction of the spear, slicing it into thin disks renders them into perfectly edible and tasty little slices.  Harold didn't seem too bothered about actually doing anything with the asparagus ends after he'd chopped them up beyond eating the little disks raw and sprinkling them on top of more asparagus so I thought I'd have a go.

Asparagus and sorrel tart

Lots of little asparagus slices add a nice contrast to the creamy texture of this tart, as well as filling it out with lots of asparagus flavour.  Sorrel isn't the easiest herb to get hold of but there's plenty of it around at this time of year if you have a good look around at the markets.  Its grassy, fresh citrus flavour goes well with the cheesy eggy asparagusy filling and really make this dish.

for the pastry (you can buy shortcrust pastry but there's nothing quite like homemade, plus you get to put loads of cheese in it which makes a difference):

25g each of butter and lard
100g plain flour
big handful of grated gruyere cheese

Put the oven on at 180, rub the fat into the flour then add the cheese and a pinch of salt, then just enough cold water (I add it a teaspoon at a time, should only need 2 or 3) to form a smooth dough ball.  Put it in the fridge in a plastic bag for half an hour, then roll it out and line a 19cm flan tin with it.  Ideally you'd have one of those shallow ones with fluted edges, I don't, any kind of cake tin about that size will do, you'll just end up with rather wonky looking bits of crust coming up round the edges.  Some people may consider this appearance amateurish, I like to think of it as homely.  Prick the base all over with a fork then bake for 20 minutes, take out of the oven and brush it lightly with some beaten egg (if like me you've not got a brush improvise with a few sorrel leaves) and give it another 5 or so minutes in the oven to glaze.

for the filling:

about 6-8 spears asparagus
2 handfuls grated gruyere cheese
1 handful grated parmesan cheese
1 big handful sorrel leaves
3 medium size eggs
1 tub single cream (about 300ml)

Beat the eggs together with the cream and the gruyere and salt and pepper.  Roughly chop the sorrel leaves, some stalks are fine but remove the larger ones.  Take the asparagus and slice off the really gnarled woody bits at the bottom, probably about 1 inch.  Then do that flexy caressy thing with each spear as if you were going to snap it like they do on the telly and slice it in half about 1-2 inches above where it would have snapped and slice the bottom half into thin little disks just a few millimetres thick.  Steam or boil the asparagus tips for about 3 minutes (you just want to half-cook them) then add the little disks for another 30 seconds.  Pat the little disks dry and put them in the bottom of the pastry case, pour the egg/cream/cheese mixture over the top then sprinkle the chopped sorrel leaves over and arrange the tips of the spears in it to your liking.  You might want to chop them in half once more, whatever.  Sprinkle the grated parmesan over the top and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes till the filling is set.

Crabmeat on toast

Take a mixture of white and brown crabmeat, add a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise, a little squirt of lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne pepper, season to taste and mix together.  Stir in a couple of handfuls of little disks of asparagus stem, either raw and crunchy or that have been boiled/steamed briefly for 30 seconds.  Serve on toasted slices of sourdough.  I suspect the little asparagus slices would make pretty good croutons in a crab bisque type affair as well.

One other tip from Harold McGee's original article if you can't be arsed reading it - short fat spears give the greatest ratio of tender to stringy.  Apparently some heritage varieties grew to 2 inches in diameter and a pound in weight.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


The Regent's Canal from Angel down through Hackney to Victoria Park can be a pretty stressful route if you're not on the water.  Cyclists, joggers and pedestrians whizz/run/waddle along the narrow towpath in both directions navigating each other in an uneasy cease-fire marked by the constant ringing of bike bells and the nervous roulette of when to dart down the even narrower paths under the bridges.  I'm surprised I've never seen anyone fall/dive/get pushed into the canal itself, especially on sunny weekends, but if you find yourself between the Kingsland Road and Whitmore Road bridges and about to become part of a cyclist/jogger sandwich instead of diving into the canal or the nettles you can dive into a lovely little cafe nestling on the canal towpath called, erm, Towpath.

It really is pretty tiny, set in a couple of shallow recesses in the wall of an old warehouse one of which is the kitchen/service counter, the other with seating and a big communal table.  Importantly, given the recent weather, it also has a couple of decent space heaters in the ceiling and it's set back and sheltered enough from the canal to avoid the chill wind that's been blowing down it the last few weeks.  Defiant optimism in the appearance of summer sun means there's some tables and chairs outside too.

Given the lack of kitchen space the menu isn't a huge one but there's a breakfast and a lunch menu that both change each day, although I'm happy to report that their grilled cheese sandwich appears to be a permanent fixture on both menus.  Breakfast is up until 11.30 with the likes of porridge with poached fruit, granola, the grilled cheese sandwich, cakes and toast.  Lunch consists of salads, soups, rillettes, bruschettas, grilled cheese sandwich (ahem) and more cakes and sweet things.

There's obviously a lot of care and attention that goes into everything they make here that tells in the details, the grilled cheese sandwich is made with great bread and small slivers of spring onion nestling in the melted cheese.  It comes with a homemade quince jam on the side (the last of their batch from the autumn, have to see what they replace it with) and the tasty rillettes are accompanied by a very nice crunchy homemade picalilli, the coffee and hot chocolate are well made and in amongst the cakes there are little bite-sized chocolate truffles and meringues (3 for a £1) for a quick sweet snack.

It's pretty much at the mercy of the weather, I've been there when it's been cold and rainy and had the whole cafe to myself but at the hint of any sunshine it's a popular place and fills out quickly.  They've just been granted their wine licence so plans are afoot to start staying open later into the evenings for dinner.  It's only going to get more popular as the summer approaches, and deservedly so.

Between the cafe and the Kingsland Road bridge is an art installation called Canal Wall by Yuko Shiraishi, an artist who's had a studio by the canal for the last 20 years.  That's the 70 metre long wall painted in different colours, not the car.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Pret's New Mayo Stuffed Crust Sandwich

We all know Pret and we all love Pret sandwiches.  What really sets them apart from the competition in the high-stakes world of office worker lunches is their special mayonnaise, made to their own recipe and then pumped in generous quantities into almost every single thing on their shelves.  It's also cleverly used as the basis for a range of other sauces to take their sandwiches to the next level when the opportunity presents itself, a ham sandwich is elegantly elevated by the application of mustardaise; the addition of a few clever extras produce a sauce to take their Chicken Caesar sangers to legendary status.  You can imagine my excitement then at finally getting my hands on an example of their latest experiments in mayonnaise delivery, one of the much-anticipated new Mayo Stuffed Crusts.

The first of their new line is the corned beef, mussels and mozzarella number, a generous and brave combination that is brought together into an harmonious whole with judicious application of their regular mayo but then taken to game-changing new heights by a stuffed crust containing delightful bursts of tomatotartaraise, a witty modern take on the classic tartar sauce.

Using their regular mayo as a base, it's then sharpened and salted with lemon juice, capers and Heinz salad cream before being blitzed with tomato puree to form a thick unctuous counterpoint to the delicate meaty seafood filling, moistened with everyone's favourite gooey moz.  A treat indeed.

Next to hit the shelves is the much anticipated black pudding, smoked cheddar and mushy peas between slices of artisan sourdough, the stuffed crust full of appleaise promising to cut through the spicy richness of the hoummustardaise in the sandwich without overpowering the subtle combination of the filling ingredients themselves.  Also in the pipeline is the first of their new Best of British range of classic butties, expect to see their traditional Stargazey baguette with samphireaise in the shops soon.  I really cannot wait.