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October 14, 2011 10:08 pm
On the night I cooked in my kitchen for Ferran Adrià, the moment that I will remember longest came about 10 minutes after we had finished our main course of a roast grouse each.
I had taken some of the plates to the small scullery where we do the washing up, and was rinsing them when I heard someone coming up behind me. I looked round and there was Adrià with his empty plate in his hands. He thanked me profusely – a strange honour given the number of meals this famous chef has cooked for me at El Bulli, and the single one I had prepared for him.
My invitation to Adrià had sprung from a conversation with his publishers at Phaidon. After I had accepted their invitation to introduce Adrià at a talk he was giving for his book, The Family Meal, they asked for advice on where to take the great man for dinner. They already had plans to go to Pollen Street Social in Mayfair – but where else should they go? I boldly suggested they should come to our house. Back came the reply that Adrià would be delighted to do so.
My wife’s opinion – that this invitation came from the part of my brain not connected to the well of common sense that we northerners pride ourselves on – seemed to gain ground within hours when I smelt gas by our front gate and inside the house. Seventy-two hours before Adrià’s arrival, our gas had to be cut off. Fortunately, our French cooker, a mature La Cornue, has both a gas and electric oven. At least I would be able to cook the grouse.
As I began to construct the menu, my first thought was to give him the best of something he would rarely eat, hence the grouse. The first course, a beetroot dish, would be light and colourful, easily shared out. Then I had the notion to offer Adrià something quintessentially Spanish on the grounds that if he did not like anything I had cooked for him, then at least he would not go hungry. We would finish with good cheese, local plums and my wife’s favourite chocolates, Paul A. Young’s sea salted caramels.
But the main consideration was to spend as much time as possible at the table – it is unlikely Adrià will drop in for dinner in the immediate future – and so the meal’s success would rest on careful preparation rather than last-minute cooking.
I began by calling Ben Weatherall of Weatherall Foods, Dumfries, at 2pm on the Thursday. He had eight grouse left. By 10.30am on Friday they were in our fridge in London. My next call was to Vernon Mascarenhas, an old friend whose farm, Secretts, outside Guildford, Surrey, now supplies many top restaurants. He offered three types of beetroot – red, golden and a pale white variety – and some curly kale and Charlotte potatoes. (He also volunteered to come along himself if I needed a kitchen porter.)
For the other first course I planned to serve a plate of thinly sliced mojama, wind-dried tuna, that I had recently brought back from a trip to Andalucia. This has a strong flavour which I felt confident Adrià would enjoy. And so it proved. With the plate in front of him he wasted no time in polishing off several slices – comfort food for a Spaniard who today spends most of his time travelling the world.
The beetroots were gently roasted separately, in water and Japanese sushi vinegar, so that their colours did not bleed. I then peeled them and tossed in olive oil and more sushi vinegar before placing them in the fridge for an hour to concentrate the flavour. Finally they were topped with scoops of soft goats’ cheese, toasted pine nuts and chives from our garden. This was all ready and waiting when we got to the table after a glass of champagne.
This is when I put the grouse in the oven. To add colour and moisture I sautéed them on all sides in a frying pan for a few minutes before placing them on a croute of Jewish challah bread (good for absorbing the juices) and roasting in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes.
For the potatoes, I used a recipe from the first Silver Palate Cookbook: coat the veg in sea salt and olive oil, and roast for an hour. The kale I blanched and then threw into a wok with diced shallots, garlic and ginger. Sauce for the grouse would be an old favourite: salad leaves and herbs whizzed in a food processor with sea salt, garlic and olive oil.
While keen to show Adrià one of the best British cheeses, the day he confirmed our dinner date our local delicatessen received a consignment of gorgonzola crema, a ridiculously rich and creamy cheese, produced by Peck in Milan. And this is a cheese for which the quintessentially British Bath Oliver biscuits are the perfect accompaniment.
While Adrià may have been curious about my cooking abilities, I appreciated that his presence was also due to his professional admiration for my wife, the FT’s wine correspondent. She too went to considerable care. On the basis that no chef either of us has ever met dislikes champagne, we began with a bottle each of André Roger, Vieilles Vignes NV and Billecart-Salmon’s new oak-aged Brut Sous Bois cuvée. Adrià confessed that he absolutely loved champagne and that it agreed with him, although when it came to still wine, he could only get excited about the very best.
Three interesting bottles followed. A delicately fruity German Riesling, Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese 2003 Nahe, with the beetroot and mojama; a robust red Rhône, Domaine Santa Duc, Prestige des Hautes Garrigues 2004 Gigondas that my wife had bought a case of after first tasting it in 2005; and a Grignano, Vin Santo Riserva 1994 Chianti Rùfina with the cheese that tasted even better as I cleared up.
There was much to talk about over dinner: from Adrià’s excitement over all he had eaten on a recent trip to China to a lunch he had just had with Pep Guardiola, the manager of Barcelona Football Club. I would like to think that the food and the wine contributed to the genial conversation. But I know that, extraordinary a chef as Adrià is, these talents are matched by the enthusiasm and passion with which he talks. Silence descended only when I asked whether anyone wanted coffee. Ten minutes later he and our other guests were gone – and I was left with some rather remarkable memories.
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