Monday, February 21, 2011

Earl Grey & Rose Supper Club, Streatham

The Bitter: Portions too huge to finish.

The Sweet: Everything else.

Sated. That would be the word I would use to describe my first Streatham supper club experience a little over two weeks ago. I could also use satisfied, stuffed, satiated and replete. I’m not just talking about the food though. I’m talking about an evening spent in good company, with the warmest of welcomes from our hosts AND the bonus of some truly excellent, hearty cooking.

The day beforehand, I had been on the bus on the way to work, scrolling through twitter, and I had seen the supper club advertised by @streathampulse. Nothing escapes the all-seeing, all-knowing streathampulse feed, you see, and given that I always like to sniff out a good local meal, I made a mental note to investigate further. When I saw that it was just the next evening, I didn’t think I would be able to go along, although I thought I probably should try to get to the next one. Lo and behold, later that day I received a text from my friend Malcolm asking if I would like to take up a spare ticket he had booked for the inaugaural evening (his girlfriend was poorly). Naturally I jumped at the chance and soon found myself calling the Earl Grey and Rose shop on Leigham Court Road to see if I could snatch one last spot for the Mister to accompany Malcolm and I.

So the next day  - a rainy, chilly Friday evening - we three found ourselves knocking on a grand-looking door on Gleneldon Road, and a blonde lady with a beaming face was welcoming us in to a spectacularly stylish house which was already full of people chattering and clinking glasses. Around 14 other dinner guests were already getting acquainted in the living room; an assortment of couples in their late twenties and early thirties, and several attractive, well-groomed women in their thirties and forties who were neighbours or friends of neighbours. I recognised another contributor to Streatham Pulse, @diddlysquat29, aka Alex, who was there with his other half, and was immediately glad I already knew others, although there was no need to be worried about striking up conversations – everyone was very friendly. 

Our host, Lydia, gave us some ribbons to identify our bottles of wine, (BYO alcohol was specified) pointed out some canapés (smoked salmon blinis, mozzarella, basil and tomato bites, and some chorizo and gherkin sticks, amongst others) and went off to get us some glasses for prosecco. Her husband Mark, a jolly soul who also beamed at us, was soon filling up (and re-filling!) our vintage-looking glasses, encouraging us to nibble and enjoy the roaring open fire in the living room. It was a warm and inviting start, and we looked around, impressed by the tasteful décor and luxuriant furnishings. We chatted to a couple who had recently bought a home in Streatham and were seeking out a bit of the local scene.  It was pleasing to be able to explain the beauty of Streatham in a nutshell to them, and the guests at the supper club embodied this: that Streatham is a fantastically diverse neighbourhood, that people are friendly and unprejudiced, and that although it may not have the aspirational pull of Clapham or the trendy edginess of Brixton, it has a burgeoning scene all of its own, and a much more organically-grown one at that.

Anyway, back to the evening – soon the last of the dinner guests had arrived and we were called into the kitchen/diner, a long room with two tables laid out with beautiful initialled serviettes and more vintage accoutrements, like silver salt and pepper shakers and butter dishes – slightly mismatched, charming, and beautiful. 

Our first course was a hearty and warming Vincisgrassi – a lasagne of porcini mushrooms, parma ham and truffle oil, which could have easily been a main course.  It was delicious – salty and cheesy, and crafted with egg pasta. It warmed us up nicely, and we could see that it was not going to be a night to watch our calorie intake – these hosts meant business with their portions!

Conversations flowed easily and the dining room was soon a low continual hubbub of appreciative noises.  Before long, more ENORMOUS portions were being dished up. The main course was announced as ‘slow-roasted rare breed pork with dauphinois potatoes, cavolo nero and French beans’. Between us all we may have eaten two whole pigs sliced into thick chops with succulent white meat and proper crackling, with creamy, garlicky potatoes and some lovely greens, which I’ve learned are the same as that perennial Scottish favourite, curly kale. Green beans were served in little side dishes to share and were cooked perfectly. For a moment as we all began, the table fell practically silent, bar a few murmurings of pleasure.

At this point, our hosts relaxed visibly. More wine was poured, and they managed to share a portion of the meal between them as they grabbed a rare chance to sit down. By the time most of us had made a fair stab at finishing our meals, we were groaning from being so full. I liked that Lydia and Mark hadn’t skimped on the food. Their cooking was full of heart.

We were given a brief respite from the calorific onslaught before being presented with perfectly set, largeish portions of panna cotta, speckled with vanilla and served with raspberries. All were in shock when Mark announced that they had been lovingly crafted with no fewer than fourteen pots of cream. A glamorous doctor we were sitting across from had eyes as big as saucers and joked about heart disease. This was seriously rich stuff, and not many could finish theirs, despite it being delicious.

However, there’s always room for some cheese, isn’t there? The penultimate course had been sitting on the counter behind us, wafting a scent every now and then to remind us of it presence. A surprising number of us gave a cheese plate a go. Somehow a few grapes made the load feel lighter.  And by then, bottles of wine were being drained and many of us were past caring about our waistlines. I was having a thoroughly good time. Lydia and Mark seemed to be too. And as the hosts relaxed, it all started to feel like we were at the home of old friends. They told us a little about their former businesses, and their holidays, and foodie inspiration, and it became clear (as if it hadn’t already) that they were lovely people who really cared about what they did. They also introduced their two adorable West Highland terriers to the table and won everyone over even more. I made a mental note to visit their shop on Leigham Court Road as I was sure it would be every bit as charming as their home was. 

By the time Mark was offering coffees and petits fours it was getting on for midnight, so Malcolm, the Mister and I drained our glasses and decided we weren’t going to be those people who left last and kept the hosts up after an exhausting evening of cooking and entertaining. We paid the balance remaining for the £35 per head suggested donation. Lydia remarked that taking payment felt odd, and I saw that as a triumph – we all felt we had eaten with friends. We had eaten our fill, and more.

Before staggering onto a bus home, we still tried some homemade meringues in pretty pastel colours (the Mister declared these the best he’d eaten) and a couple of chocolates.

Well, it would have been rude not to, wouldn’t it? 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Opening Windows

Before I turn 30, I've promised myself, I'm going to see where all four of my grandparents and all four of my great-grandparents came from. 

With 18 months still to go, I'm not far off. I've seen my maternal grandmother's tiny fishing village in the west of Norway, where her mother was raised, in turn, on fresh mackerel, sea air and goat's milk. I've stood on the spot where my paternal grandfather and grandmother built their little raised house with the corrugated iron roof on stilts in the verdant, wild bush of Trinidad (more goats here, too). I've walked many a mean street of Bermondsey, where my mother's dad knew every bus route going in Southwark (apparently this led to a degree of popularity with the young au pairs who happened upon his particular patch in Rotherhithe to go to the Norwegian church). 

But there's one part of my heritage I've never been able to experience first-hand. A part of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother's stories I'd been desperate to see. 


When I was about seven or eight, I remember my father pointing out the northern and southern tips of the vast landmass on the map pinned to my bedroom wall. He marked two asterisks on this; his unmistakeable scrawled capitals marking the top: "MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER WAS BORN IN KASHMIR" and the bottom: "MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WAS BORN IN MADRAS." Both places sounded so exotic and so far away from each other, let alone from my childhood home in south Florida. My father had never been to these places either, but his dark face and poker-straight jet black hair belied his roots. He contented himself with Kipling and Naipaul's literary versions of India, and I never knew if he would have liked to visit his diverse family beginnings at the top and the bottom of our map, but the foods of my childhood were certainly squarely tied in with his original ancestry (as for most Trinis): roti, paratha, chana dhal, okra, curried chicken, and plenty of hot pepper sauce on everything.

My first visit to India, at the end of last month, was to neither of the places on our map. I'm not ashamed to say it was to a place set squarely in the middle of the tourist (and hippy) trail; a place that Thomas Cook flies to twice a week and a place many Brits flock to in search of sun, sea, sand, and sex. I was certainly looking for sunshine, but more than anything, I wanted to get the measure of the people, and open a window I hadn't ever been able to look out of before. 

In most of the places we went while we were there, I was asked if I was Indian. And for once (unlike in other European countries this happens to me in - Greece, Italy, Spain), I could say with some conviction that this country was woven somehow into my family history. And I liked that. 

I'm already planning for our return journey. Next time, we'll definitely see more than a holiday resort and I hope to be able to open that window a little wider, look a little deeper, and take the time to try to visit those asterisks on the map of my childhood. I hope, with my return visit, to see a little more of the people who can already see quite a bit of me in them.

I have no more words. Just pictures.