Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Frontline Club

Last night my friend Marcus Berkmann, the Spectator columnist and quiz master from the Prince of Wales Highgate pub quiz (the toughest one in London), held a quiz at The Frontline Club in Paddington. I've been wanting to go to this journalist's private club for a while, for they have interesting events, talks and film showings. 
Opposite St. Mary's hospital, the club is upstairs from the restaurant. Entering a room with tall windows and red leather sofas, Marcus found a place for me on a team led by Jonathan Foreman, a literary PR. Jonathan immediately demanded £20. Taken aback, I asked why.
"for a bottle of wine" he replied jauntily
"but I will only drink a glass. I'm driving." I managed to respond, feeling wrong-footed. I'm old fashioned enough to expect to be bought a drink by a gentleman.
That was the right response.
He back-tracked "oh I suppose you can buy a glass then."
A glass of Chardonnay was £4 and very nice too.
I sat down with the team. Foreman demanded £5 for the quiz. Suspicious of him now I said "but I am Marcus' guest".
"Doesn't matter" he insisted and pocketed the fiver. 
The rest of the team 'The foremen' ( I quipped that we should be called 'The foreskin' but they didn't go for it. Maybe I'm a little rough for this club) consisted of a woman and 3 men. The woman, Helen Castor, was pretty and smart. She is writing a book on medieval queen's tentatively entitled 'She-wolves' which will include Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Tudor. Elizabeth 1st is technically an 'early Modern' era Queen and will not be in the book. I hope she finishes soon, this is exactly the sort of book that I love. I mentioned the historic British tolerance of female leadership and the 'salic law' in France, which did not allow a female to become Queen in her own right.
"Oh they just made that up, the French. They had a choice between a 4 year old girl, direct line to the throne, and an older man who was already running the country and they just made up this law, pretending it had been around forever" said Helen.
The men in the team were Jonathan and two of his stable of writers whose names I have unfortunately forgotten. They were older and one of them, very charming, looked just like Australian cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson.
Writing a quiz is an art.
"A good quiz" says Marcus "is when anybody feels they have a shot at answering the questions. At the Prince of Wales I aim for the lowest score to be about 40% and the highest 80%"
"Do you change the quiz depending on the audience?"
"Yes. I knew the teams here would be well-travelled and well read. The range of scores here is between 50% and 85%"
Our team won by one point. It was hard for me to be taken seriously at first by the rest of the team. They didn't know me, plus I look younger than my age, which can sometimes be a disadvantage. Older men assume I'm a young flippertygibbet! Helen was shit hot, particularly at the 'books of films and their authors' round. Sir Les Patterson also managed to pull a few great answers out of the bag. I excelled at the French 'text speak' round, a lucky one for me, as I have spent so many years in France. The perfect quiz team, one that can answer general knowledge, is gender balanced with a wide age range. You could say it's a practical exercise in democracy.
Our prize was a book on the Middle East and a drink each. I ordered a Baileys. When I went to collect it from our table it had been drunk. The team told me that Jonathan had handed it around to others. I asked him and he denied it.
Marcus bought me a replacement.

Monday, 30 March 2009


Goats cheese and Beluga lentils
Goats cheese 'Capricorn' and Beluga lentils

Trying to think of an idea for the Aquarian cocktail but this lavender cordial didn't work

View from the hallway in the Underground Restaurant
Had to fit 34 people in. View from the hallway.

Bills from Portobello rd market
Bills from Portobello rd market. Trying to keep track of all the expenses.

Making the gratin dauphinoise at the Underground RestaurantMaking the gratin dauphinoise, adding fresh bay leaves, then double cream
Making the gratin dauphinoise, adding fresh bay leaves, then double cream.

The amazing Aquarian cocktail, with menu behind.

goats cheese goats cheese on Beluga lentils, created and prepared by Neil Spencer
The goats cheese for the Pluto in Capricorn dish, on Beluga lentils, created and prepared by Neil Spencer

Petra Chocstar enjoys a cocktail. Wearing her trademark red stilettos, clickclick "there's no place like a home restaurant, there's no place like a home restaurant"

Johnny 'you scratched the surface' and Jo, my rockabilly front of house.

Neil Spencer gives a packed house an amusing and interesting talk on food and astrology.

Red, yellow pepper, capers, green pickled peppercorns, pepperonata
Red, yellow pepper, capers, green pickled peppercorns, pepperonata. Mars in Aries.

Sometimes I have to plate up on the floor: salad and pepperonata
Sometimes I have to plate up on the floor: salad and pepperonata

Z list! Caroline Simpson, writer, Trish Walsh Smith, the youtube divorce lady, Michelle Knight, psychic, Anna Richardson presenter of Channel Four's 'Sex Education' show.

Raspberry Air, the Jupiter in Aquarius 'cup of exaggeration'

Venus in Taurus: Negre en chemise, with chocolate stars on top courtesy of Petra Chocstar
Venus in Taurus: Negre en chemise, with chocolate stars on top courtesy of Petra Chocstar.

Leftovers being eaten at lunch the next day, thai soup and gratin
Leftovers being eaten at lunch the next day, thai soup and gratin.

It was fun but exhausting preparing for my astrological dinner, here's the lowdown:

Tuesday: Met with Neil Spencer at his house to try out his Pluto in Capricorn dish of goats cheese (Cap) on black lentils (Pluto). Then Neil introduced me to Earth foods in Kentish Town where Gillian, the wine person, gave me some organic wines to taste. Even walking through the shop I felt healthier, invigorated. It had a special smell. Next we browsed through Phoenicia Food Hall where I bought orange flower water, rose-water, mint water, a big bunch of fresh lemon grass for a quid and a strange Greek substance which I have now lost. Kentish Town is turning into a foodie's mecca.
We also nipped into A & K Warehouse, which has a great selection of cookware at reasonable prices. We were looking for Neptunian forks for our Neptune in Aquarius cocktail but no luck.
Wednesday: Chef Roberto Cortez comes to show me how to make 'caviar'. The original suggestions from Tristan Stephenson was with raspberry 'caviar' but I changed that to Blue Curacao which I felt would look more space-age, futuristic and Aquarian plus the orange notes would match nicely with the lemon vodka, Elderberry syrup, lemon juice and Cava.
The process of how to make the caviar is in the post below. I decided to use the raspberries I had bought for the 'air' dish. I funked it up by adding some Creme de Cassis.
Thursday and Friday: shopping at Portobello market in the morning. Quick break for a coffee and custard tart at Café Lisboa. More shopping, for ingredients for the soup, in the afternoon at huge Chinese supermarket, Wing Yip, near Staples corner.
I receive checks in the post from astrologers who haven't been organised enough to book in advance. I'm panicking. I literally do not have enough chairs and tables. I start to feel irritated. Myself and Jessica Adams, my psychic/astrologer friend organised this dinner 6 weeks ago at the original price of £15 a head for astrologers. The offer ended 3 weeks ago. Astrologers, few of whom have bothered to read my blog or understand my project, are now clamouring to get in. Some of them are even lying, pretending they have paid already when they haven't. Jessica smooths things over and begs me to squeeze in a couple more.
Friday night: Twitter geeks @Hexayurt, @evangineer and @mikepostcap come over plus their mate Gaz whose wife also does 'extreme catering' for an OTO 'moot' in a castle 'Gnosis'. The men help me move a huge table over the balcony into the living room with Hexayurt scientifically directing operations in his Scottish Hindu accent
"this is a problem of mass"
"at all times there should be four sets of hands on the table"
(he has worked in disaster relief and given lectures at the Pentagon). We sit down for snacks and drink. We chat about 'collapsonomics'. I should be getting on with cooking. But it's too interesting. I met @Hexayurt at the Mayfair school of thought and again at @dougald's School of Everything. He's super intense and charismatic. Inspired by the lecture at The company of Astrologers...'Facing the financial winter', I'd like to get financial astrologers, collapsonomic experts and forward-thinking political types together to brainstorm at an Underground Restaurant event. Watch this space.
When they leave at 12.30 am, I feel overwhelmed by tiredness. I have barely started. I call my friend Caroline Simpson, who talks me off the ledge with her comforting mantra "you are doing really well".
Whip up soup mix (lemon grass, galangal, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, tamarind, red chillies, spinach) and dry roast seeds in tamari(shelled hemp, sunflower, pumpkin, linseed, toasted nori sheets crumbled in, a few toasted coriander seeds, cumin, dried mint, crushed pistachios).
Sat: Wake up earlyish. Slice potatoes thinly for gratins. Think thank god I have now invested in a food processor. Rub trays (5!) with garlic and butter. Lay potato slices. Add fresh bay leaves, double cream, salt. (Didn't salt enough though).
Finish soup by adding large tins of coconut milk, tiny pea-like aubergines, mange-tout, fresh mint.
Wash rocket and watercress salad. Make French dressing from Dijon mustard, olive oil, salt, finely minced garlic and lemon juice. A true French dressing, Lyonnais style, doesn't have much vinegar.
Slice up red and yellow bell peppers, onions, garlic for pepperonata. Leave to soften in big pan. Roast cherry tomatoes to add in.
Mix, knead and rise bread dough for focaccia.
At 5.30 Neil Spencer arrives with a vat of black Beluga lentils and gorgeous little Sussex goat cheese. Johnny and Jo, my glamourous tattooed, pierced, front of house couple arrive, a vision of red and black rockabilly. Petra arrives in Jimmy, her chocstar van. She knows the form now, where to plug in Jimmy.
At 7pm a couple arrives early, Food Urchin and Mrs Food Urchin, bearing a gift of wild garlic. It's raining, even hailing outside.
Johnny, dryly:"Shall we kick 'em out in the rain or give 'em a drink?"
At 7.15 pm my parents arrive. My mum is an astrologer, DF Astrol. I can't even seat them because of the last minute astrologers. My mum spends the night washing up and being snapped at by me. Sorry mum and dad!
7.30pm It's showtime folks! Almost a full house. I put on some false eyelashes in lieu of mascara. One of them keeps veering off at the corner.
"Try and keep the guests out of the kitchen for the first couple of courses" I tell Johnny and Jo. "They can have a look later".
I overhear someone say "Do we all have to sit according to our signs?".
Neil has made beautiful menus for the evening on blue card describing the astrological associations with each course and on the back, the chart for the evening, upon which the menu is based.

The Astrologers' Feast

By tradition, astrologers periodically put aside their differences and join together to feast and celebate the cunning and subtlety of their craft.
Unlike the seventeenth century feasts described by Elias Ashmole, there is no 'Haunch of Venison' or 'Jowl of Sturgeon' on this menu. MsMarmitelover, being an 'Aquarian Cook', is committed to vegetarian fare, wholesome and sustainably sourced.
To celebrate tonight's gathering, Ms M has elected to cook the celestial picture prevailing this very evening, following the planetary rulerships of foodstuffs, thus upholding the time-honoured wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus: 'As above, so below...'
Bon Appetit, planet plotters!


Neptune in Aquarius
A divine draught of sparkling wine, tinged with Neptunian mystery
Saturn in Virgo
Seeds and grains fresh from the sheaves of the corn goddess
Uranus and Mars in Pisces
A spicy oriental soup using the red chillies and garlic of Mars, splashing down unexpectedly, in Uranian style, from Thailand.
Pluto in Capricorn
A roundel of mature Sussex goat's cheese on a dark bed of beluga lentils
Sun in Aries/Moon in Taurus
Specialite de la maison: Pommes Dauphinoises with full dairy cream, representing Luna, crowned by a blaze of solar rosemary
Mercury in Aries
A frisky salad of peppery rocket and spring shoots. Plus a dashing scarlet peperonata
Jupiter in Aquarius
An audacious dish in honour of The Lord of Abundance. Fruity and airy, add your own optimism.
Venus retrograde in Aries
A pudding of Venusian chocolate to recall the sensual delights of old love affairs, and to cheer the sweet-toothed goddess as she dallies through detriment in Aries, en route to exaltation and renewal in The Fishes.

My friend psychic Michelle Knight came. She, originally a Somers Town single mum, has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made a fortune partly by writing a "'miz mem', in the Sunday Times best seller list it was" she informed me.

"What's a 'miz mem'?" I ask.

"It's a misery memoire. All about my childhood. It's called 'Touched by Evil: A Childhood Survived Against All Odds'"
She brought along two minor slebs: the warm and friendly Anna Richardson currently presenting a Channel 4 programme on sex education, and slightly raddled Trisha Walsh-Smith, the 'YouTube' divorcee. Trouble is I rarely watch TV so I didn't recognize either of them.
I did check out Trisha's YouTube videos and they are amusingly outrageous. You can sense her desperation, the injustice of her situation. She has written a musical wittily entitled 'Arm candy'. During the evening, I put it on the iPod speaker. It's electro-pop. The astrologers looked annoyed.


When you go to a restaurant you are playing with hierarchy. You, the customer, are the Lord and Lady. The staff are the servants, bowing and scraping. Obsequious behaviour is the order of the day, more so in expensive restaurants. Even when you host a dinner party at home, there is an element of this artificial behaviour. You put yourself out for your guests. You serve them. Clear up after them.
A home restaurant blurs these lines. It's my space which is, of course, like anybody's home, sacred, private, personal. On Saturday night I felt outnumbered in my own home. I really missed my sister. She would have controlled them.
To be brutally honest I didn't feel like they respected me! At one point I went out to the balcony to tell the smokers that the next course was served. They ignored me and the course. Some people were imperious to the staff, acting as if they were in a normal restaurant.
Johnny observed that the astrologers, for instance, were "competing with each other".
The atmosphere was that of an office party. The astrologers didn't 'get it'. One 'princess' asked for her bottle of white to be kept in the fridge, in between glasses.
Jo was trying to find room in the fridge and I said: "No. This is a home restaurant. We don't have the room. Tell her to fuck off."
Once again the issue of valuing yourself, what you do, rose it's head. Some people who had not pre-paid, for themselves, did not turn up. They didn't care that others, perhaps more motivated and interested, could not come as a result.

"Did you enjoy it?" I asked one woman as she left.
She glared at me then spat:"No. I missed most of it. And I hate chocolate."
I was speechless. Was it my fault that she arrived late (and drunk)? The real issue was that she didn't get to sit with her friends. Mixing with others is part of the charm of a home restaurant. First come, first seated. You have to ask your friends to save you a place if you want to sit with them.
No astrologers apart from Michelle Knight left a tip.(It's significant that people who are poor or who've known poverty are always the most generous). Earthy behaviour from celestial types...
Petra chocstar's van outside looked magical, twinkling pinkly like a secret cave in the dark. The negre en chemise was yet another treat for the guests. Neil Spencer wants to write a children's story based on Petra's chocmobile.

On a culinary and cultural level the evening was a tremendous success. It's certainly a steep learning curve this restaurant.

The chart of the evening Sun, Venus, Mercury (competitiveness) are close together in Aries in the 6th. Work. Service. Squaring my natal Mars.
Pluto squaring it all from the 3rd house of communication. Power stuff. Moon which represents the people, in 7th house of partnerships/open enemies. Opposite my natal moon at 5 degrees of Scorpio. Saturn in the 11th, barriers going up between people.
Composite of my chart and the chart of the evening: Pluto/Saturn in 1st house in Scorpio, intense competition. Four planets in Aquarius. T square to Sun/Merc from Uranus/node. Very cliquey.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Wine and food pairing at Tsuru, Southwark.

Wine and food bloggers gather at Tsuru
Wine and food bloggers gather at Tsuru

Damian Tillson of Sotheby's
Damian Tillson of Sotheby's

tuna sushi
Reds obviously pair better with meaty fish like tuna

gyoza dumplings
Delicious 'momo' style dumplings

At Tsuru Japanese restaurant, near the Tate modern, they have drafted in Damian Tillson, Deputy Director of wine at Sothebys to pursue the wine buff holy grail... what wine do you drink with sushi? Damian chose six different European wines, three whites, one rosé, two reds.
"I'm a Europhile", he explains. "I chose these wines because I love them. Matching wine with sushi is not easy" he admits"fish is delicate and a big powerful wine can knock sushi out of the water. One also has to work with the unique textures of sushi and sashimi, the wasabi and the pickled ginger."
The usual pairings with sushi are beer and sake. Tsuru are aiming to:
"break the rules a little", says Damian. "80% of food and wine go well together. 10% can be stunning. 10% can be awful, the food and wine kill each other. "

Damian spent a long evening with Emma Reynolds, the owner of Tsuru, trying out wines. Dirty job but someone's got to do it eh? 
We had a sheet of paper in front of us with numbered squares. Each square contained a generous 'pour' of wine. Damian would pose us questions as we tasted. In fact it was a bit like a wine pub quiz but in rather more classy surroundings.
The first two white wines cut through the acidity of the fish and the rice.
The third white wine, the Macon, was soft and buttery. To drink alone, I liked this the best. However it probably didn't go as well with the sushi.
Damian, realising he had both wine experts and novices there, gave us a little talk on how to taste wine.

"Hold up your glass. Check the wine is not cloudy, has no bits.  Smell it. Don't agitate it. Taste. Only after smelling and initially tasting, give it a swirl. This will amplify what you originally tasted. To taste properly, take a teaspoon amount in your mouth, slurping it up. After maintaining the wine in your mouth for a little while, spit it out into the spitoon provided".
I used to photograph the celebrity wine tastings for Cosmopolitan magazine. It was great. You'd be amazed how much slebs open up when they are pissed. I also got to taste some very good wines under the tutelage of their wine expert Rosemary George, one of the first female wine masters in the UK. I had to make sure I only tasted at the end of the session otherwise my pictures would be out of focus. But I could never get the hang of the slurping, and was understandably reluctant to spit out.
Most of the people at this Tsuru wine tasting session were women. And us girlies do not like to spit in public. The spitoon remained unused. 
Damian talks about the "friendly prices" at Tsuru. Their mark-up on both wine and food is very low compared to most restaurants. 
The 'Entre deux mers' (Domaine de Ricaud 2007) Bordeaux is pale yellow, fruity and acidic. Damian gets poetic "This is a 'nervous' wine. Tingly". It's mesmerising hearing him talk about wine, his passion.
Next up is a Sancerre (Domaine Bailly-Reverdy 2007) from the Loire. One hundred per cent Sauvignon Blanc, this earthy wine probably matched the best with the sushi.
However I preferred the Chardonnay Macon Verze (Domaines Leflaive 2007) fermented in oak barrels at a finely priced £29. My kind of wine. Oily, floaty, slippery.
Damian"I chose this to not have an acidic wine but one which will still stand up to the sushi. This is rather racy." 
 I hear Damian say "Everybody likes rosé". Only chavs, I'm thinking. I only like rosé when it's hot weather. But have too many memories of kidney-hurting rosé sessions when I lived on the Cote d'Azur. This Provencal rosé (Domaine Pique Roque 2007), pale salmon in colour, is nicely paired with rice wrapped in sweet tofu pouches. Damian admits that this wine is "not too intellectual"
I'm starting to have difficulty in retaining concentration. I really should have used the spitoon. People are getting noisier, a teensy bit rowdy. Damian has to tell us off.
Moving on to the reds, we are given a Cote de Brouilly (Domaine Georges Viornery 2007).

"People are snotty about Beaujolais. Red are difficult to match with delicate food because of the tanins" he continues.
Not me. I fucking love Beaujolais. But then I've spent considerable time in the region and it's always better when you visit the vinyards, Fleurie, Brouilly, Chiroubles, St Amour, Julienas, Morgon, Mercurey, Moulin à Vent (latter on the border between Beaujolais and Bourgogne). Just writing the names down puts me into a similar reverie I experience when I hear the shipping forecast. Every Sunday in the Beaujolais region, you get car loads of pissed people trying to sober up on the lawns outside the 'caves de degustation'. 
Lastly we move on to an Italian wine, La Tunella (Colli Orentali del Fruili 2005). I taste green pepper, peat, leather...
Krista of Londonelicious food blog, who is sitting opposite me quips

"Baked beans?" I reply
We are getting silly. 
My last recorded note for this session is of Damian confessing sweetly "I can't afford to drink the wines that I sell" for Sothebys. 

Aquarian cooking

Roberto Cortez taught me to create 'caviar' from Blue Curacao liqueur
Aquarian chef Roberto Cortez taught me to create 'caviar' from Blue Curacao liqueur for an Aquarian cocktail. Spherification class on April 7th.

 A chef and his laptop
chemicals for spherication
The chemicals
Calcium chloride Hand whisk
Step 1
hand blender to emulsify the blend
 Step 4
Step 6

Step 7
Step 7
Step 9

To turn a liquid into a sphere:
Step 1: 
Take 1 litre of water
6 g of Calcium chloride
Hand whisk it until fully dissolved.
Step 2: 
1.5g of Sodium Citrate (Sodium salt of Citric Acid) This is important for regulating the ph balance.
2.6g Sodium Alginate (this reacts with the lactate)
30g of caster sugar
100ml water.
Step 3: 
Add sugar to Citrate then add the 100ml water.
Step 4:
Use a hand blender to emulsify the blend. Do it in something tall and narrow, this way you have a better distribution of the chemicals.
Step 5:
Add the Sodium Alginate. Use hand blender until slightly thickened and dissolved.You get a funky reaction. It doesn't dissolve easily.
Step 6:
Boil the Citrate/Alginate mixture in a small pan with not too much water. Whisk it as it boils. After 30 seconds it looks like wallpaper paste.
Step 7:
Strain it always to get rid of any bits, into a jug.
Leave to cool to room temperature.
Step 8:
Then take 350 g of Blue Curacao (or whatever you have decided to use). Incorporate it into the Citrate/Sodium Alginate mixture. If you can leave this mixture a while to settle.
Step 9:
Using a squeezy bottle (smell first) or a syringe to make droplets into the Calcium Chloride and water. Do it in small batches, say 20-30 at a time, otherwise they will all have different 'cooking' times. The first drops will have a thicker skin than the later drops. Leave it 2 -3 minutes. Scoop them out with a sieve or tea strainer in a scooping motion.
Step 10:
Rinse the droplets, which have now turned to 'caviar', liquid with a skin membrane which remains liquid inside, in fresh water, to take away any residual chemical taste.
The Raspberry Pomegranate 'air'.
Take 600m  juice
5g Soy Lecithin powder
90g sugar
A box of fresh raspberries
Raspberry Pomegranate 'air
Big slug of Kir.
You mix all the ingredients together with a hand blender in one corner of the bowl. This way the froth consists of similar size bubbles.
Raspberry Pomegranate 'air

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Vauxhall Gardens community centre

aubergine paté and tomato brown bread sandwich
A bare large hall. No effort gone into making it cosy. The café has good cheap food though. I chose an aubergine paté and tomato brown bread sandwich for £2. It was thick, fresh and tasty.