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.
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
Shots of White Russian and Bloody Mary
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!
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.