What makes a stand-out dish? What elevates a plate of food from being great to truly memorable, something you will talk about for days or weeks or years to come? I’ve eaten lots of great food, and by and large I’ve forgotten most of it.
Longevity of memorability isn’t the be all and end all. In bluntly biological terms, food is first and foremost sustenance; and sharing it as part of friendships and relationships is sustaining too. Just as most interactions in a friendship are ephemeral, so too is most food. I don’t remember every conversation I’ve ever had with friends and family, but cumulatively they are what constitutes the relationships’ nourishment. Many of these conversations have been undertaken over food. Many have been about food.
But still, there are stand-out dishes that linger in the memory.
Possibly the best thing I ate last year – and certainly the one that most easily comes to mind – was a dessert at The Swine That Dines. This small set-menu operation is well worth a visit anyway, and late last year I rounded off a delicious meal with a serving of Leeds Blue cheese with beetroot ganache, granola and pink peppercorns. I can be foul-mouthed when I want to be, but on the whole this is by choice; this plate of food elicited an involuntary (though fortunately fairly softly-voiced) swearword of delight. Leeds Blue is a sheep cheese made by Mario Olianas, a Leeds-residing Sardinian who makes the pecorinos [or pecorini, to exercise my Italian grammar] of his upbringing with local Yorkshire sheep milk. He’s justifiably been winning serious cheese awards. I’ve been eating his produce for some years, and will tell anybody who will listen (friend, family or otherwise) about how good his cheeses are. Somewhat like the farmyard quality of goats’ cheese, sheep cheese has a natural funky depth that Leeds Blue enhances with its mouldy veins and offsets with creamy opulence and a satisfying kick of salt (already this dessert was onto a winner, as you can tell). The beetroot ganache – at a guess made with beetroot and white chocolate – provided a sweet counterpoint, as did the nubby clusters of granola. But what made this dish a stand-out was the sprinkling of crushed pink peppercorns that adorned it, their fragrant piquancy unifying the sum of the parts into a greater whole. Absolutely inspired, absolutely delicious. Quite why this dish made such a strong impression on my memory I’m not sure – I say it is possibly the best thing I ate last year, but without any certainty that I didn’t eat something better that has slipped my mind – but make an impression it did.
One of the ways in which it made an impression, in which it was joined a few months later by a goat’s cheese ice cream I had in a small restaurant in Hereford, was as part of the inspiration for a supper club plan. This is the hiatus in this post’s title: there was a plan to run this in September, but it is now on hold. To much else on at the moment to do the plan justice, whether or not that justice is a whole night of stand-out dishes. Goat’s cheese and beetroot is a combination that people find to be one of: a classic that never fails to delight; a dreadful idea because goat’s cheese is farmyard-y and/or beetroot is earthy; an over-used vegetarian option that has become a cliche that show’s a kitchen’s total lack of imagination. [I say ‘one of’ – for some people it’s the second and the third.] The supper club plan is to base a whole menu around goat’s cheese and beetroot.
With two such distinctive ingredients there is a risk of every course just tasting the same. (This would definitely work against the possibility of the dishes being stand-out.) To mitigate against this there might be a course that uses goat’s cream rather than goat’s cheese, or (as in the photos accompanying this post) a fresh home-made goat’s curd that hasn’t had chance to develop strident caprine notes; and featuring the beet family rather than just beetroot allows for the use of spinach or chard, quinoa (who knew quinoa is part of the beet family!?) and sugar from sugar beet.
Hopefully I’ll have more time and brain space very soon to return to the supper club plans. All sorts of ideas, some fairly straightforward (smoked beetroot and fresh goat’s curd – see pictures), some willfully ‘cheffy’ (savoury desserts), and some that are a great excuse to invent a new word (arancini made of quinoa = aranquini).