Sunday, 22 January 2012

A year in supper clubs

It will be Honey Wild's anniversary on March 26th. I have been reflecting on what motivated me to start the supper club last year. I had been coming back to cooking on and off for years and had done a couple of personal chef jobs  in the Borders for prestigious clients encouraged by my lovely friend, Caroline McNairn. As an artist, Caroline believed that everyone should pursue that side of themselves and totally backed my dream to eventually be able to live through my food and cooking. This was  refreshing  in my world where common sense invariably prevailed.  I will always cherish the memory of  stepping out of the real world and visiting  her cottage tucked away up the hill at  Hollylee to sip coffee with her & Hugh and  talk about our hopes and dreams which we resolutely refused to give up on. One evening a couple of years ago, Caroline  arrived at our house for dinner and declared that she had found the name to hang my dream on.  With impressive sweeping strokes befitting an artist (my writing is awful) , she wrote:

Honey Wild and Manna Dew

on a piece of paper and handed it to me. She then pulled a small book out of her bag turned to the correct page and read out loud the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John Keats. When she had finished she placed the book on the table , took her glasses off and said  with  laughing eyes "Anyone can come up with Wild Honey but it takes a poet to come up with  Honey Wild".   Her inspiration came from over twenty years ago when I had tried to start a catering business called Manna inspired by working on various events while working at a gallery in  Edinburgh.  For easily the maddest year of my life, I worked as an "Administrator" at the 369 Gallery, a Bohemian contemporary and frankly sometimes ridiculous  art gallery that had broken away from the Scottish Arts Council and was trying to go it alone. It didn't help that none of us were very mature and ran the gallery as if at one long boozy night out. It was doomed to failure but perhaps looking back now that doesn't really matter. It was the  fingers up to the SAC at the time. Bizarrely,  I don't remember doing a  single administrative task.  I spent most of the time holding off creditors, tripping over drunk exhibiting artists from the Eastern Europe, conflicting with so- called colleagues and hosting several  banquet style events  because no-one else would do them and we had already been paid!  This was where my interest in food and feeding people as a celebration   was born and it has stayed with me ever since.  At that time, I was learning to cook but was still pretty rubbish at it.  However , my friend Annie  was and still is a fantastic cook, a natural (I have worked hard to get here, she just seemed to have the gift).   it was the festival of 1992 that we did about three  banquets together for the Independant, The BBC & John Smith, the nearly prime minister.  We even did a gallery auction hosted by Robbie Coltrane. I can never stop myself  telling my eye rolling 7 year old that I have met Hagrid. "Whatever mum"!  That reminds me Caroline once  told me that she was once Robbie's girlfriend and that she dumped him by leaving him a note, priceless and I didn't say "Whatever Caroline". Back to the banquets. We had just 48 hours, £300 and not a clue what we were doing.  We were going for decadent, sumptious with food presented as though it were  a work of art in itself. We ran around town buying food from Valvona, Argyle Place and Victor Hugo. We hired crockery, crystal glasses, white linen  etc . I am amazed it didn't get nicked although it did takes several hours to locate it all the next day when the gallery resembled a war zone. We threw red velvet drapes over a long banqueting table with an expensive  beautiful Russian bowl as the centrepiece with Langoustines and Samphire spilling out  over the top. We filled large silver platters of marinated vegetables , tray upon tray of smoked salmon, salamis, parma ham, stuffed eggs & tomatoes, huge bowls of salad and an array of sumptious desserts. We dressed in our best party frocks and suits and served oysters and  champagne to guests as they arrived.  It was  opulant, decadent,  elegant and over the top and we loved it. It was Babettes Feast! The gallery setting was perfect with brick walls and black cast iron gates on the windows . with tall gold candelabras  burning evocotively in the corners of the room . They were inspired stunning events partly, I think, because they were impromptu. We even had a fireworks display at one event and I am surprised we didn't burn the gallery down years before it actually happened. Not long after that summer , I was sacked for being a crap administrator. Perhaps my job title should have been Events Organiser?  Ironically and after a fashion, I have become quite a good administrator though perhaps if I had stayed crap , I would now be a  full time foodie . I always say that no-one ever says " When I grow up, I want to be an administrator".Anyway, that is how the name came about though I shortened it to Honey Wild as the Manna Dew was too much of a mouthful. And I suppose it also explains essentially how I got here over 20 years later though obviously  other things have happened in between.

Here is the sad part.  Caroline died of  cervical cancer in September 2010, .It was really  unfair and all those things.We became good friends when she moved back to the Borders a few years ago and is my favourite artist by a mile with her paintings full of colour, optomisim and deeply complex ideas. I will never tire looking at them which is just as well as we acquired a few over the years. 

 In March 2011, I decided I would try a supper club which I had read about.and they sounded fun and something I could do alongside my other commitments. It also offered possibilities of satisfying my erstwhile craving to present food in a lovely setting. We converted an old mill lodge and have an unreasonably grand living room. The room looks amazing set up as a pop up dining area, candlelit  and flooded with my mother's stunning flower arrangements.The first supper  was more like a party with a good number of friends and family present. I read a verse from the poem and dedicated it to Caroline who I feel has been a big influence and has always encouraged me to keep going no matter what. Since the first, we have had well over 150 guests, some repeats and lots of new people. Everyone has been lovely and I can say truly 90% of guests (it isn't for everyone)  have loved the whole set up which is different from a restaurant. Guests who have never met  speak to each other, come into the kitchen to talk to us on the way to the bathroom, I often come and sit with the guests later on, the service isn't as professional as a restaurant and actually I am ok with that though we do aim to get the food out hot  etc. The suppers are alot of work. I produce too much .food for too little money. I just can't help myself. I spend hours trawling through recipes to create the right menu. It is a great excuse to try out amuse bouche such as ceviche, Nicoise Crumbe, Little Tarlets  which I love doing but what a fiddle they are! ,  Starters have included Beetroot & Apple Soup,Creamy Scallops with Pancetta, Moules Mariniere, Chestnut Soup . Guests have loved my palate cleansers to include Lime Sorbet with Mint, Green Apple & Honey Sorbet.   Main courses have included Venison Casserole, Osso Bucco, Pan Fried Pheasant , Cassoulet, Sea Bass, Butternut Squash Risotto . I love making desserts and like to think I have managed to impress the guests in some part with my cakes, pastry, ice creams  and yes choccy mousse! I am often totally out of my comfort zone as I feel I have to produce some food to order much to the stress of everyone in the kitchen. So far I have delivered but possibly at some cost to me and my helpers.  It is true my family help me  as well as some paid staff and I owe them a debt of gratitude which I am pretty sure I have failed miserably to convey.  I do prepare everything I can from scratch  (and I mean everything, rolls, pasta, stocks, ice creams, sorbet etc)   but that is nothing if I don't prepare it 'well' from scratch. Luckily, I am told I do not disappoint  and whilst the little doubting voice in my head never completely goes away, the suppers have finally made me accept at some level anyway that 

I do know how to cook.

And for me that feels really good.

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