Monday, 8 February 2010

Come Dine With Me 2010: Part 1: Alex and Jessica's Twisted Tea Party, Taggs Island

I first came across Come Dine With Me in 2005 in my final few months as a student and was instantly taken by the concept. The programme's subsequent notioriety in the last few years, has spawned a phenomemon of competitive dinner partying amongst groups of friends, in the style of the TV format. My friends and I, 1) love our food, 2) love being on-trend and 3) love being competitive, therefore the idea that we should host our own competition in 2010 was a source of great excitement and anticipation.

The first of our five dinner parties (with 8 of us involved, we imagine this competition will take approximately a year to compete), was hosted by Alex and Jessica. Expectations were high - Alex has long been known as easily the most accomplished of the group in terms of his culinary skills, (in fact I would say he taught a number of us (me included) how to cook when we lived together as students), and Jess is one of the most creative people we know (she has fantastic ideas which she pulls off in a beautiful way). However, we'd almost been lulled into a false sense of security when we were emailed a relatively simple menu (distributing a menu in advance is one of the pre-requistes of the competition):


Starter- Chestnut Soup

Main Course- Butternut Squash & Goats Cheese Lasagne

Dessert- Lemon Meringue Pie

Dress Code- English Tea Party

It sounded simple - all dishes with mass appeal. I struggled to understand how an evening meal could be carried out in the style of an 'English tea party' but nonetheless, I was eagerly anticipating the evening. The location was also going to be idyllic - on a houseboat on the Thames near Hampton Court Palace.

I was first to arrive (apparently as predicted by our host and hostess). I was immediately struck by the gorgeousness of the elaborately laid table.

Attention to detail and beautiful presentation characterised the evening. As the other guests arrived we caught a glimpse of just some of the preparation (some very complicated looking checklists) that had gone into the (weeks) of planning for the evening. That was when the competitive among us began to worry...

Our fears for how high the bar had been set in terms of the competition felt completely justified as we each unrolled the individual scroll menu waiting for us on the table. It seemed that the previous menu, whilst technically correct, had acted as a decoy! The full menu was as follows:

Warm Gin Punch
Cucumber Sandwiches with Soy and Wasabi
Chestnut Soup with Bacon and Thyme Croutons

Palate Cleanser
Shots of White Russian and Bloody Mary

Main Course
Butternut Squash and Goats Cheese Lasagne
Leafy Salad with Rosemary Dressing
Fresh Bread Buns with Roasted Garlic Butter

Individual Lemon Meringue Pies

Drinks and Petit Fours
Earl Grey with White Chocolate Strawberry
Coffee with Port and Stilton Truffle
Hot Chocolate with Home-made marshmallow
Jasmine Tea with Orangette

We were left open-mouthed in amazement and delight, as we sipped on our warm gin punch from beautiful china cups. Whilst we marvelled, yet another surprise - the unveiling of a special guest (the one and only Woo), who would provide the entertainment for the evening in the form of tricks and and fortune telling!

The cucumber sandwiches (crustless and triangular of course) were a perfect juxtaposition of daintiness with an intensely good wasabi kick (considerately served separately so that the wasabi could be added to each guest's individual taste). There was a short break whilst the croutons were prepared for the soup, but we were kept entertained by a puzzling Portuegese box game supplied by our entertainer Woo. The croutons were most definitely worth the wait - they made a very pleasant soup fantastic. The combination of bacon and thyme worked wonderfully with these crispy on the outside and squigy-in-the-middle cubes of fried bread in the chestnut soup. Many of us learned for the first time that chestnuts are available from supermarkets in tins. Truly, you learn something new every day!

We began to fear that we would be full before the main course arrived, but the miraculous effect of the palate cleansers appeared to remedy that. A creamy White Russian with a perfectly tangy Bloody Mary, served in polka-dot espresso cups and trendy test-tube style shot glasses respectively, created much delight and added to the atmosphere of merriment. (Suddenly the conversation seemed much more hillarious...)

Before we knew it, our stomachs were ready for the next installment of food - the main course: Jessica's Butternut Squash and Goats Cheese lasagne (originally Nigella's although she uses pumpkin), served with some much needed (to abate our feelings of gluttony) salad with wonderfully crunchy pinenuts.

We were utterly stuffed with wonderful food yet still not at the end of our meal! Thankfully our hosts had anticipated that a break would be appreciated at this point by their over-indulged guests and took the opportunity to prepare the meringue element of the dessert, whilst our fortune cookies were skillfully read to us in a comedically entertaining fashion.

As the delectable looking individual desserts were served (with candle adorned birthday versions for Alex and Amie), our delight was tempered with our competitive natures - others in the group had planned to employ the 'individual dessert' strategy after a strategic conversation with a friend in the catering industry!

We'd eaten so much, yet every ramekin was left empty as we savoured the perfect combination of pastry base, lemony filling and meringue.

The meal was still not over - we were intrigued as our after dinner hot drink order was taken, as Alex explained that each petit four had been specifically created and chosen to complement the hot drink chosen. We pondered for a moment...what if we all chose the same option? "Alex, do you actually mean to say you have created 36 of each of the petit fours?" we questioned incredulously. To which Alex responded with more than just slight hysteria in his voice, "Welcome to my world!"

Truly, this time Alex had surpassed himself. The strawberries had been dipped in a thick layer of white chocolate and chilled. The deeply chocolately truffles had the smallest hint of stilton adding to their luxurious flavour. The marshmallows were the first home-made variety I'd every experienced and were professionally light and fluffy. The orangette were tiny slivers of meticulously cooked and prepared orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. We helped ourselves to ample amounts of them all.

Finally, the wonderous feast was at an end. We slipped off to film our video diary responses and scores for the evening (which are not to be revealed until the very end of the competition). This really was one of the most amazing meals I'd ever had. Our hosts had been able to entertain us all whilst producing such intricately planned food and drink - all of which tasted fantastic. Even the intially intriguing tea party theme had been a really coherent concept that naturally suited the evening. The rest of us will now have to battle for second place - assuming there has been no tactical voting, first place it seems has already been won. Given how much I enjoyed the experience - I don't think I mind.


  1. WOW - that looks mouth is watering...

    Sounds like an excellent idea for 2010! I want to tag along....please can I, can I! :)

  2. Maybe you could bring the idea and the craze to New Zealand! What a trend setter you'd be! :)