Gentlemen, take your places for a domestic feastCharles Campion
I first met the Gentlemen Gourmets of London when researching my latest book, Eat Up! Britons are unfairly pigeon-holed as bad cooks but actually good home cooking is alive and well. Over 18 months, I travelled the country, dining in the homes of strangers — civilians all, no professional chefs.
The Gentlemen Gourmets, or GGoL, are an excellent example of the breed: good amateur cooks who are fascinated by and passionate about cooking. Every two months, they hold dinners at each other's houses. The head chef, creator of the previous winning dish, chooses the theme for the next meal and nominates five members, who cook a course each. At the end everyone votes for their favourite course and, with due ceremony, the grubby chef's jacket passes to the victor.
TV programmes like Come Dine With Me may have established the concept of the dinner party as a competitive sport but the GGoL are much more to do with jollity than fancy presentation. On the evening I am their guest, previous winner James Montgomery has chosen a Six Nations-themed menu.
“The first GGoL evening was held a couple of years ago and we got it hopelessly wrong,” says Montgomery. “Everyone served large helpings of filling food and we were all stuffed long before pudding.” Ronan Cantwell adds: “More often than not the pudding course wins simply because everyone likes a good pud. That gives crowd-pleasers like a decent chocolate cake an unfair advantage.” So saying, Cantwell has chosen a classic crowd-pleaser — an Irish rack of lamb — for his winning bid.
Adam Smith kicks off with ribollita, cavolo nero, good stock, cannellini and borlotti beans, tomatoes, carrot, a whiff of chilli; a lot of thyme is poured into an earthenware dish lined with wholemeal bread. This is a hearty Italian dish with adroit seasoning and good flavours.
Slightly soggy puff pastry over an almost redeemable rich mixture of leeks and bacon was a suitably squelchy starter from Ed Elias. The topping on Montgomery's English fish pie was inspired — a potato and celeriac mash with Parmesan. Cantwell's Irish lamb is perfectly cooked — pink and tender with crisp golden skin.
The accompanying jus, however, was salty due to over-reduction. Jonas Andersen's meticulous interpretation of crêpes suzette involved a sauce of orange juice and Grand Marnier plus some nibbed roast almonds.
I voted for the ribollita but once again pudding won and Andersen accepted the winner's jacket.
All the GGoL are able to cook, but what lifts their dishes out of the dreary dinner-party category is that they season food properly, so even the less successful dishes were a delight to eat. As Cantwell puts it: “Dishes that look nice do better but there is never any prissy stuff here.”
Eat Up! Seeking out the Best of British Home Cooking is published today by Kyle Cathie (£16.99).
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