Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lonely success

The only thing I have eaten all day is the finest three-course meal I’ve ever made. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed a bit of it. It was by no means a delight to put together, for instance, and I barely savoured a mouthful. This is what happens with a meal of this nature, which basically took a day and a half to make: I end up gobbling it down in mere minutes because I am running high on mild adrenalin as I sit down before it.

It must have been a different experience altogether for my guests to be presented with spaceship-shaped ravioli stuffed with fresh crab meat tossed in melted butter ready for take-off on a mound of pea puree and coated with a truffle cream sauce. After all, these were not your run-of-the-mill guests -- a university friend who is much more successful than I and who is no stranger to high-end cuisine. I remembered how pointless the pursuit of percieved success is when he politely interjected as I poured a welcoming glass of chilled Cava and asked if he could use the taller, slightly more slender article he spotted on the shelf above. Now I know that Tesco value balls-on-stems aren't the last word in table glassware, but was it really neccessary for him to make his stand there and then? It wasn't as if the Cava was up to his usual standards no doubt.

In any case, I knew that expectations had to be met today, so I threw out the frenchy stuff as best I could. Gastronomic grammar my guests could understand. The crab I picked up at the farmer’s market this morning, the peas a pack of sugar-snaps that happened to be in the fridge and the sauce made from reduced beef stock with white truffle paste and double cream mixed in at the end. The dish completed with a neat pile of flat-leafed parsley.

But rich and fine as it was, the main overshadowed it by far. It was all thanks to the venison saddle that I had ordered from the game bloke last week, a foot or so of prime roe spine, from which I gleefully slipped off and trimmed two dark striploins to be tied up with string, wrapped in cling-film, twisted into a cylinder, and left to set a bit in the fridge. And with the vertebrae I hacked them off and boiled them up in a good half pint of veal stock with some shallots and red wine for half an hour. They imparted a deep gaminess to the sauce, which I countered with a tablespoon of redcurrant jelly and a few cubes of ice-cold unsalted butter towards the end.

The loins I browned off in a hot pan and then threw into the oven for about 8 minutes, and then sliced and arranged them in overlapping discs on a large white plate. They were soft and reddish purple, perfectly cooked at rare and coated with the deep brown hot game sauce. Next to it sat a small pile of red cabbage that I had braised with apple for about an hour, topped with a quenelle of celeriac puree that had been cooked in aromatic stock, and a small pile of rocket and herb salad. The colours were rich and classy, the food similarly. I don’t recall ever eating a more tender piece of meat, and one with such a deep flavour for such a lean cut. It was gamey without the sulphur; it was fucking mind-blowing. The rest of the stuff was up there with it, with definitely more precision involved than usual.

The finale was an(other) almond-studded apple pie, served warm with a few curls of fresh vanilla and cinnamon ice cream. It was a show-stopper. The ice cream is unbelievably good, even if I did commit the ultimate culinary sin by leaving my guests to wrestle with the dish with nothing but a clumsy soup spoon. How could I? We wrapped up at about 5 and I have been in a dreamy state ever since.

But that’s a biological thing. From kneading pasta dough and baking-blind a sweet pastry case while in my dressing gown, to melting down the stock for the sauces four hours later, putting this meal together felt robotic and mechanical - perhaps a sign of how it must feel to do this for a living. I knew what had to be done by when and there was lots of it, but although I took little enjoyment in each task I felt satisfaction when it had all been done. The actual cooking time was very short. As will be the duration of my life if I continue to eat like this. T h e r e w e r e 1 3 f u c k i n g e g g s a n d p i n t a n d a h a l f o f d o u b l e c r e a m i n t o d a y ‘ s l u n c h . . .

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