Wednesday, 28 December 2011

An anniversary food fest

Today is my husband's and my second wedding anniversary, which we happen to be spending in the same county and state where we got married 730 fateful days ago. We are not doing anything particularly exciting to celebrate this occasion--not because we don't care about it, but because we had a premature recognition of this momentous event a couple weeks ago, when we visited the two-Michelin-starred Nathan Outlaw restaurant at the St. Enodoc Hotel in Rock, Cornwall, UK.

(The St. Enodoc Hotel, Rock, Cornwall, UK)

Although the establishment is, apparently, fairly well known--it has been named as the Best Seafood Restaurant in the UK by The Good Food Guide, for instance--I only found out about it by accident because it was featured in an airline magazine I browsed through during a flight to Scotland last spring. Once I knew that such a snazzy place was only just up the road from Falmouth, I knew that I had to find an excuse to go there. For months and months I waited around, trying to find the perfect occasion for a visit, until finally I realized that our anniversary was a pretty good fit: My husband loves food, I love food, and we love each other, so it seemed a match made in Heaven.

Of course, the thing I didn't quite bargain on was how very unromantic it is to eat a 6-course meal (plus an amuse-bouche and bread), since by the time the final plate is cleared, it takes all of one's energy and concentration to get from the table to the car, and then from the car to the hotel room, prior to collapsing in a stuffed heap on the bed. However, it hardly seems fair to complain about being well-fed, especially since the food we consumed, in this case, was absolutely terrific.

(Chef Nathan Outlaw)

Outlaw's fine-dining restaurant experience revolves around a seafood tasting menu which can either be ordered with or without a matching "wine flight." Having already sampled the exquisite but expensive tasting menu at Jamie Oliver's nearby Fifteen restaurant, I was a bit worried at how much the 2-Michelin-starred Outlaw restaurant would charge for something comparable. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was "only" 85 pounds per person (with the accompanying wine tasting, which we did not do, costing an additional 75 pounds per person).

Uncharacteristically, and throwing all caution to the wind, I decided to begin the meal with a cocktail--champagne and gin mixed with lemonade, creating some sort of a lemon spritzer. I actually found it quite tasty, despite my normal aversion to the flavor of alcohol. Because I never drink I immediately became very...well...chatty. We were then given an amuse-bouche--or, rather, two: some raw salmon and horseradishy spread on little toasts, plus some deep-fried crab balls. We were then brought a plate of freshly-baked bread and butter. In retrospect, it would have been a very good idea to have skipped the bread, or at least to have eaten it very sparingly. However, we'd both been starving ourselves in anticipation of a giant meal, and by that point (about 7:30 PM), we were ravenous; thus, we each had a couple slices apiece.

(One of the fish dishes served at Nathan Outlaw's restaurant. Unfortunately, not one of our fish dishes--I took my camera along but was too distracted by enjoying the gustatory delights to remember to get any photographic evidence of our experience.)

The next course was a mackerel cocktail, described on the official menu (of which we received autographed copies as souvenirs) as "smoked mussels, oysters, cucumber, and horseradish." The oysters were fried (a tradition in my family, so an unexpected taste of home) and covered with crumbs that had been soaked in squid ink--my first time eating that particular ingredient. The entire cocktail sat in the bowl of a little serving glass whose stem was filled with a homemade coleslaw.

Next up was a thin strip of cod with piccalilli spices, bacon, and 
puréed cauliflower. The skin had been left on the cod and was perfectly crisped; normally I would have been tempted to peel this off but the entire dish was so delicious that I ate every last bite--even the piccalilli spices, which clearly included little bits of pepper (not my favorite of vegetables).

Perhaps my favorite course was the bream, which was served with brown shrimps and squid and was covered by a saffron sauce. This was accompanied by toasted bread served with what I think was a fish (mackerel?) paté specially designed to work well with the saffron. As pretentious as our waitress seemed while explaining that to us, my first bite immediately proved her to be correct--it was an amazing bit of culinary wizardry of which I could have happily eaten another portion.

(Nathan Outlaw in action)

By this point in the meal, my husband and I were both feeling a bit full--not only from the food but also from the entire bottle of sparkling water that we'd already managed to consume before starting on our second (which we also finished; where did we find the room?). I think we were both quite ready to move on to the dessert portion of the evening, but our next serving was the "main course," if such a thing exists in a tasting menu: brill, served with nuts, beetroot, hog's pudding (not a blood product, as I originally feared, but merely a type of sausage), and mushrooms. This dish was also delicious and the fish melted in our mouths, but I was beginning to feel rather nauseous from all the food and was forced to chew very slowly and take lengthy pauses between bites. I had no idea how I could make it through a further two courses.

I think the serving staff must be used to this reaction from their guests, because they did give us a longer break while transitioning from the brill to the first dessert dish--lemon meringue. The meringue--really a frozen yogurt with a sorbet-like consistency--was light and acidic enough to cut through the weightiness of the preceding savory dishes. It wasn't painful to keep shoving additional spoonfuls into my mouth, so I could at least enjoy the flavor (which is on par with cinnamon-apple as the best dessert theme possible, as far as I'm concerned). All the same, I knew without a doubt that I almost literally had no room left for more. My face must have announced this, causing our waitress to chuckle as she collected our empty plates and ask whether we'd be able to handle the last course. I think my response was probably a sickly groan--assuming I could manage even that.

(More delicious fare at Outlaw's restaurant: smoked sea bass, St. Enodoc asparagus, and English mustard. The menu varies seasonally, and this was a dish produced at the restaurant earlier this year.)

The final course, an almond sponge comprising honeycomb, rice pudding, and pear and ginger sorbet, was probably fantastic. It looked lovely, it smelled lovely, and the tiny spoonful that I tried was pleasant. However, I was just not able to eat anything else. My husband suffered through some of his portion, but even he had to give up--and, given that he normally eats about twice as much as I do, that just goes to show how much food we had managed to consume during our three-hour visit to the restaurant. Our waiter attempted to interest us in some after-dinner drinks, but all I wanted at that point was to put on the baggiest clothes I could find--or perhaps just wrap a sheet around my body--and sleep until the new year or whenever my digestive tract had managed to process everything I had just presented to it. First, though, we had to pay the bill, which was, without a doubt, the largest sum I have ever paid for a meal for two people. I'm not entirely certain that ANY meal is worth that much money, but all the same it was definitely one of the most enjoyable collections of food I've ever consumed (enjoyable until the point when I was about to explode, that is).

Of course, part of what you are paying for is not just the food itself, but also the fame and experience of the chef, the notoriety of the "brand," and the fanciness of the setting. The St. Enodoc Hotel is quite an upscale place, judging not just from the décor but also the prices; even in the off-season, rooms rented out for several hundred pounds apiece. Throughout our meal, we had several different serving people, all of whom were very knowledgeable and eager to please. At one point, my husband and I overheard the sommelier giving his spiel to the guests at the next table over; I'm sure he was giving his clients every penny's worth of the extra 75 pounds per person required to experience the wine tasting, but boy did he sound fake, pretentious, and condescending. Actually, as nice as our servers all were, I felt that most of them were a bit condescending--perhaps because my husband and I were younger than the other clientele, or, though dressed quite nicely, clearly not as upper-class as some of the others? Who knows; maybe we were imagining things. There was one waitress, a German who had some difficulty with her English, who was very genuine and friendly and clearly tried to make our evening as delightful as possible--for instance, she seated us at the table nearest the kitchen so that we might catch a glimpse of Nathan Outlaw through the decorative window (which we did!).

(The Tzitzikama Lodge, where we spent the night after our anniversary food fest)

The only real drawback of the evening was that we chose to spend the night in Rock rather than driving back to Falmouth. We'd expected a longer commute, and we also anticipated being more tired once we'd finished gorging. Being unable to afford accommodations at the St. Enodoc Hotel (especially after paying for dinner!), we booked a room at another nearby bed and breakfast. Although the building and the room looked quite nice online and in person, we both ended up sleeping terribly because of problems with the bed and with the ambient temperature. On top of this, they only served breakfast until 9 AM, so on a Sunday morning after a long and incredibly hard week of long, stressful work days, we had to set an alarm to get out of bed in time for our morning meal. That is most certainly not my idea of a good weekend, nor of a good getaway.

All in all, though, the hotel experience wasn't negative enough to mar what was otherwise a pleasant celebration of our 2 years of married bliss. We also weren't deterred by the pre-dinner detour, down a random and dead-ending country lane, on which we were guided by our confused GPS system. Next year is our "leather anniversary," according to the guide I just found on Google. If a giant gourmet feast is an appropriate substitute for fabric on our "cotton anniversary," I'm not quite sure what I'll need to cook up to swap for next year's animal hide theme...suggestions welcome!

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like...

Yes, that's right, it's Christmastime here in the UK, even though the weather patterns make it seem more like early spring. In the US, Christmas traditionally begins shortly after Halloween, with a brief break in late November for Thanksgiving. Here in the UK, however, there's roughly a month-long celebration of Guy Fawkes Day (the 5th of November) that ushers in the start of the winter holiday season. Around mid-October, you know that Guy Fawkes day is imminent because the grocery stores begin selling fireworks and other incendiary implements in preparation for bonfires and effigy burnings and other activities that threaten the integrity of both your home and those of your neighbors. Fireworks are let off with increasing frequency as the month of October draws to a close, and the week that centers on Guy Fawkes Day sees a frenzy of nighttime explosions with, of course, a spectacular display (or multiples thereof) on the 5th itself. This is followed by a roughly two-week period during which you are less and less likely to be given a heart attack as an unexpected firecracker explodes next door at 2 AM. 

The final two weeks of November are a long and painful slog. Every morning, you hear the radio announcers talk about how they can't wait until they're allowed to play Christmas music. Every evening as you walk home, you see council employees hanging unlit Christmas decorations in preparation for the day when they can all be turned on. Slowly, television advertisements begin to feature scenes with snow and songs with jingling bells; shop windows are trimmed with giant paper snowflakes and baubled trees and fake garland. And then one day, when you leave work to walk home in the dark shortly after the 4:30 PM sunset, this is what you see:

The spectacular light display of Penryn. You'll notice the traditional Christmas goat on the left (clearly not a reindeer, otherwise it would have actual antlers), and his calligraphic scribble of a companion on the right. This can only mean one thing: It is the first of December, and the Christmas season has officially begun in Britain.

One thing I love about Britain is the quirky nature of the infrastructure. I have no idea why there should be a little alcove along the main road through Penryn, but someone thought it would be a good place to put a miniature Christmas tree with a single strand of "fairy lights," as they are called here--and, voila, a little dose of Christmas cheer.

You know that you are in a coastal town when Christmas decorations involve anchors and ships' steering wheels--and when said decorations are hung by no less than the local church (which, admittedly, did also feature an angel elsewhere in its display).

This was the scene that greeted me in Falmouth on the evening of the 1st. For weeks I'd been watching the council workers laboriously make their way up Falmouth's main drag, attaching seemingly miles of colored lights to the buildings. They had an interesting mixture of styles. The photo above features the single-line, zigzag, colored-light arrangement, which was interspersed with a fan-shaped, multi-stringed, LED arrangement in a seemingly random fashion. The complete lack of symmetry makes me wonder if they either ran out of materials at some point, or were better able to attach certain styles in certain places. Regardless, the entire street is completely lit up all night, and the effect is rather magical. The weirdest decoration is hung over the center of the Moor, where a giant star is surrounded by individual strands of light arranged in a circular radiating pattern--rather like the spokes of a wheel around the central hub. In the dark, you can't see the wiring by which the lights are attached to nearby structures, and so the entire display appears to be suspended, unassisted, in midair, rather like a net about to fall on unassuming passers-by. Or, if you are feeling more charitable, kind of like a heavenly microcosm in which each light represents a star.
What I only realized at the last minute--because I happened to overhear my students discussing it--was that there was an actual lighting ceremony planned in town on the first day of December. I have no idea how long-standing of a tradition this is, but I certainly don't remember such a thing from last year. The event was over and done with before I made my way into town from work, but I could get a general sense of the festivities by drinking in the aftermath. There had obviously been some sort of procession that culminated in the lighting of the Christmas tree--or, perhaps, trees, because there is one on the Moor as well as one in Events Square outside our apartment. Almost all of the shops were open well past their normal closing hours of 5-6 PMish so that people could begin their Christmas shopping and take advantage of the holiday sales (I keep hoping that the Brits will one day learn how lovely it is to be able to buy things until 9 PM, and adopt it as a normal practice, but I'm not holding my breath on that). What's more, there were vendors pushing around carts from which they were selling Santa hats, cotton candy, and glow sticks. Given that glow sticks are normally reserved for raves, and cotton candy is--in my mind at least--found mostly at circuses and fairs, you can imagine that the overall effect was quite...festive, especially when nurtured by a few cups of the mulled wine that everyone was carrying around.

This was the scene that awaited me when I got home--here you can see the fan-shaped displays that made occasional appearances along the main street. I had known for weeks that these were coming, since I'd watched them being hung beneath our balcony one night. The decorators wised up this year and moved the Christmas tree from its usual location in the center of the square to a nice sheltered area along the wall of the Maritime Museum, to the left. There, it may just manage to withstand the seemingly incessant gale-force winds and rain that have plagued the coast since the beginning of December. I keep telling everyone that if I were back home, all this precipitation would be snow, which of course would be much better than rain. While the latter is certainly true, the former is a slight stretching of the truth--but not by much. All I can say is, we've gotten so much rain by this point that I would actually be grateful for a cold snap that would turn this perpetual storm into a blizzard. It is not easy to feel Christmas cheer with all this dark and dampness stealing its way into your soul.

But you know what? I do feel Christmas cheer, and here is one big reason why:

 That's right, Michael Buble. Don't judge--we all have our weaknesses. I have listened to this album on almost a daily basis over the last two weeks. I put it on during my long, wet, and increasingly cold walks home from work to home each evening, and I picture gingerbread men and decorated Christmas trees and wrapped presents, and I am happy. I may not yet have had time to make any of those things a part of my 2012 holiday, but next Tuesday I board an overnight train to Heathrow so that I can fly back to the States for Christmas. Within days of getting there, you can bet that I will be sitting in front of a lit tree, watching the weather reports for signs of snow, shopping for Christmas presents, and, if all goes according to plan, sipping on some wassail. I'll drive seemingly a thousand miles to see every family member possible and I'll probably take about 300 pictures that look just like the ones I took last year, and I'll celebrate the fact that even if I live in a new and different country on an entirely different continent, there are some traditions that will be upheld every year without fail no matter what other things change. And that is why it's the most wonderful time of the year.

That and all the great presents.