Cooking the Books Retro Style – a Review of Nigella’s Classic ‘How to Eat’

Nigella’s How to Eat is considered to be a cooking bible for many.  It’s held up for it’s beautiful prose and her ability to empower the reader to cook confidently and intuitively. It’s also known for being good for explaining classic recipes in a really straight forward way – roasts, stews, pastry, victoria sponges, trifles – it’s all there.

I fully expected to be wowed by this 1998 legendary cookbook. It had been sat on my shelf for two years untouched apart from a stunning mushroom ragout I made as part of the 69-er cookbook challenge. Neglecting this book had actually been more to do with it not having any photos than anything else. But I felt duty bound to review read it as part of my  ‘Cooking the Books’ series because I’m such a big Nigella fan.

My Nigella experience until this point has been a heady one.  I’ve been cooking her recipes for over seven years and everything I’ve ever cooked (with perhaps two exceptions) has been not just a success, but a true triumph.  Her recipes combine incredible and exotic flavours with an idiot proof recipe – allowing me to be lavished with praise by work colleagues and dinner party guests in exchange for very little effort on my part.  Favourites included the toffiest banoffee cheesecake, the sweetest, juiciest egyptian tomato salad, a fragrant courgette and lime curd cake, a dense chocolate guinness cake and the laziest, but most impressive cherry cheesecake. In fact I could fill the page with my Nigella wonder dishes – she’s done a lot for me (and my popularity!).

But How To Eat was a different deal.  It was classic food (little of her more recent fun stuff) and if I’m honest a little on the dull side!  And the sprawling way it’s written and designed makes it an uphill battle – there’s Nigella ramblings about general cooking and eating advice, interspersed with haphazard recipes on the same page and with NO photos.  I really wanted to like it, but I found it a drag.  However as you can see below we did still enjoy some really tasty food so I won’t knock it too much! I guess I just didn’t find it punchy and inspiring like her other books.

The Favourites

  1. Pea orzotto – effectively pea risotto made with pearl barley instead of rice with loads of cream and butter! Unsurprisingly it was creamy and rather tasty.
  2. Mushroom risotto – just an easy and delicious risotto with some porcini mushrooms thrown in.
  3. Lebanese moussaka – not a moussaka as we know it. In fact barely anything like it.  A stew of tomatoes, chickpeas and aubergines with cinnamon and all spice. Earthy, sweet, spicy – a great dinner.
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Pea orzotto, mushroom risotto, lebanese moussaka

The Disappointments

  1. Vegetable Curry – as curries go this was again ‘alright’ but quite bland for a curry. The raita saved it, but it wasn’t even Nigella’s.
  2. Sausages and onion and wine gravy – I think we didn’t help ourselves by buying crap sausages – butchers’ ones would have made a big difference.  The gravy was just very average if I’m honest – for the 30 mins of simmering you would expect it to pack a punch and it didn’t.
  3. Fish pie – again, I thought – a Nigella fish pie, she’ll take it to another level.  She didn’t.  It had some porcini mushrooms in it which I thought might spice things up, but nope, there was nothing special about this pie.
  4. Beer braised beef – I thought this would be amazing – it was just quite nice.  The prunes were a lovely touch though!
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Vegetable curry, sausages and onion and wine gravy, beer braised beef, fish pie

I’m glad I did this How To Eat immersion, just so I can say I’ve read it as it’s held in such high regard.  But it’s definitely not a book for contemporary recipe inspiration! Yes it was written in 1998 so you can’t expect it to be that modern, but Nigella’s Domestic Goddess was written in 2000 just two years later and is bursting with adventurous, inspiring bakes that still stand up in 2016.  Clearly things got better on the recipe front for Nigella after this first book.  But that’s my slightly negative experience of the book, if you like Nigella’s writing style and want to learn how to cook some classics in an idiot proof way – fill your boots!

Cooking the Books: A Review of John Whaites’ ‘Perfect Plates’

I relished the chance to get cracking with my immersion into John Whaites’ Perfect Plates.  I did a Rustic French cooking course in May at his new cookery school and he was a bubbly delight of a man and obviously an excellent and passionate cook. I expected his book to be as full of personality and great ideas as John himself and I wasn’t disappointed.

So the premise of the book is that all the recipes contain just five ingredients – another reason to like the book – that sounded nice and simple. The rules are that basic ingredients like oil and seasoning don’t count as an ingredient.

I really enjoyed cooking from this book.  It was a little bit of a shock after Anna Jones’ guilt free very healthy cooking to embrace heavier, carbier dishes, but – who cares they tasted good.

The Favourites

It’s difficult to pick out favourites as everything we cooked was impressive but here we go:

  1. Braised Fennel with Halloumi and Grapefruit – I’d just got back from holiday so needed something to brighten my day and blast away my blues.  A simple assembly job here creating a joyful colourful dish singing with flavours.  The sour of the grapefruit and the salty halloumi hit the spot.
  2. Lamb, Cherry and Yellow Split Pea Tagine – Jamie kindly cooked this slow cooked dish while I was out on a ramblers hike in Yorkshire.  I returned shattered and hungry and very happy to devour this tender tasty stew.
  3. Mushroom and Sage Gnocchi – This felt like utter decadence. Fried gnocchi with mushrooms with crispy fried sage. Buttery naughtiness!
  4. Ham and Fennel Pasta – After pre-holiday dieting  being able to eat ham with pasta and cream felt like a heavenly treat.  And those ingredients are lovely together – the subtle fragrance of the fennel with the strong meaty ham and cream in the background work so well.
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1: Braised Fennel with Halloumi and Grapefruit 2: Lamb, Cherry and Yellow Split Pea Tagine 3: Mushroom and Sage Gnocchi 4: Ham and Fennel Pasta

The Very Very Goods

  1. Four-hour Tomato Pasta Sauce – I wanted to use up the glut of homegrown tomatoes we had post holiday.  Luckily we had a lot as you need 1.5kg of them! Apart from having to blanch and skin all the tomatoes this was such an easy dish – just a long wait until serving.  It was sweet and delicious.
  2. Roasted Radicchio and Figs with Stilton and Balsamic Onions – Despite the fact we couldn’t find any radicchio and had to use chinese leaf instead, didn’t stop it from being excellent.  It was a bung everything in the oven and roast type of dish and the flavours were beautiful –  roasted fig and melted stilton is wonderful.
  3. Tahini and Honey Chicken and Paprika Potatoes –  Put all five ingredients in the oven and roast and hey presto you have beautiful nutty sweet chicken and potato dinner.
  4. Roasted Courgettes and Tomatoes with Mozzarella and Basil – Another throw it in the oven dish – lovely and lazy and satisfyingly melty and tasty.
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1: Four-hour Tomato Pasta Sauce 2: Roasted Radicchio and Figs with Stilton and Balsamic Onions 3: Tahini and Honey Chicken and Paprika Potatoes 4: Roasted Courgettes and Tomatoes with Mozzarella and Basil

I think this book is great for time poor people who like to eat restaurant quality food. It’s easy to follow the instructions, the recipes are generally simple and quick apart from a few slow cook recipes which are still straight-foward they just have a long time in the oven. And when you only have to buy five ingredients per dish it makes shopping a breeze. I thought it was a good range of dishes too and they were all dinner party worthy – so a great way to impress friends with minimum effort!   It’s fun, colourful, easy-going and light-hearted just like John.

 

Beautiful and Creative Food at the Brand New Allotment Vegan Restaurant, Stockport

I’m loving that two fancy restaurants are opening in Stockport.  It makes me very happy that I don’t have to schlep all the way into town to get a lovely dinner.  The Allotment Vegan Restaurant opened mid August and the intriguing Where The Light Gets In is due to open very soon.

The Allotment is in the beautiful old town part of Stockport.  The lovely architecture in the old town is in stark contrast to the 70s blandness that is the Mersey Way shopping centre. And the Allotment fits in with the old town beauty perfectly – it’s appearance is unassuming but quietly stylish both outside and in.

 

We were greeted by a warm friendly waitress who explained the menu to us, opened our BYO wine and made us feel at home. It was full and buzzy with an interesting cross section of people, all enveloped in an enjoyably intimate and calm atmosphere.

I was delighted to experience my first ever amuse bouche of multi-coloured raw beetroot sticks and hummus.  I didn’t realise that raw beetroot crudites were a thing – they are not unlike carrots and I’m very much converted.

Jamie’s starter was soup of the day which was Root Veg and Chimichurri. It was super tasty but I definitely won on the starter front with my Shitake Parfait and Seasonal Berries which was OUT OF THIS WORLD.  It was basically a rich mushroom pate which was taken to another level by the berry sauce. Sounds like an odd combo but it stopped me in my tracks – the sharpness and the sweetness of the berries against the creaminess and earthiness of the mushrooms just worked.  The raw mustard seed crackers were excellent too.

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Amuse Bouche of Beets and Hummus, Root Veg & Chimichurri Soup, Raw Mustard Seed Crackers and Shitake Parfait and Seasonal Berries

My main was  a ‘Mixed Grill’ of roasted buckwheat sausage, grilled portobello with smoked cheese, hot fried cauliflower and confit peppered aubergine steak.  It was divine – the stand out piece being the aubergine which really did compete with a real steak for flavour – smoky and rich.  The deep fried spicy cauliflower was also exceptional.

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‘Mixed Grill’

Jamie’s maincourse was ‘Pineapple and Aubergine’ – the same delicious aubergine steak as my mixed grill served with blackened pineapple, lemon grass and tofu cream and all sorts of other goodies.

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‘Pineapple and Aubergine’

I decided to forgo ordering a separate pudding and just share Jamie’s Chocolate Mudpie and Sweet Potato Custard.  Lucky Jamie getting to share his food with me.  However first there was a ‘pre-pudding’ – what a bonus.  Peaches with a hazelnut, tofu cream.  Yum!

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Pre-Pudding of Peaches and Tofu Hazelnut Cream

And then came the exquisite Mudpie and Sweet Potato Custard.  Sounds like it’s going to be vegetably and worthy, but oh no.  This was an absolute highlight.  A rich moist brownie style mudpie with the sweetest creamiest most un-potatoey custard you can imagine.  And it was a huge portion, so Jamie and I both had plenty, although in hindsight, I could happily have demolished my own.

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Semi Demolished Mudpie and Sweet Potato Custard

Whether you are a vegan, vegetarian or hardcore carnivore you will love the Allotment. And whether you live in Bolton or Liverpool or Stockport – it’s worth the trip – this is exceptional, imaginative food served in a lovely, welcoming and thoughtful atmosphere.

To find out more click here: http://www.theallotment.info/

 

Eating Three Courses for £7 at Books for Cooks, the Famous Notting Hill Cookbook Shop

I need to clarify to begin with that I didn’t in fact eat three courses for £7, I ate two courses for £5.  But I needed you to know that you COULD eat three courses for £7. This is such a deal!

My friend Lolita let me in on this hidden gem back in May.  Books for Cooks is a fantastic bookshop entirely dedicated to cookbooks and so it’s my idea of heaven.  And! Even better they have a daily test kitchen where they sample recipes from their cookbooks and serve them to the public at a meagre cost.  I was shown photographic evidence of the food Lolita had eaten and I knew I had to go as soon as possible.

My visit wasn’t entirely straight-forward.  I was accompanied by my friend Vic and her toddler Bella, both Vic and I accepting the challenge of entertaining a toddler during quite a fancy meal.  We could do this surely! Well Bella was certainly as enthusiastic as me about the cookbooks. She merrily pulled as many as she could off the shelves to have a good old look.  As the delicious starter (chilled minted pea soup) arrived, it became apparent we would need to eat in shifts.  One to walk Bella outside, one to eat and repeat!

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Chilled Minted Pea Soup

Chilled minted pea soup then?  Little did I know how much I would like a cold soup – it sounds a bit weird.  But it was thick, refreshing, sweet and delicious – it was a winner.

Next up was beef bourginon with crushed new potatoes.  What’s not to love about a beef bourginon? It was admittedly a small portion, but with pudding in mind and it only being midday, this did make sense.  And it really was a rich, tender bourginon and those great buttery crushed potatoes on top were a lovely touch.

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Beef Bourginon with Crushed New Potatoes

Unfortunately despite having plenty of room for a pud, Bella had reached her saturation point.  I jealously surveyed the three varieties of cake being doled out (guinness cake, apricot sponge and carrot and walnut cake).  I just about managed to be a grown up about it, promising myself that I would return one day and have the full three courses.

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The day’s menu and the delicious cakes I nearly ate
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Delightful Bella, momentarily distracted from pulling all the books off the shelves

I heartily recommend you visit the test kitchen at Books for Cooks whether you are interested in the cookbooks or not, you will be very interested in the delicious and bargain priced meal.  The staff were lively and welcoming and clearly loved having their bookshop crammed with greedy customers.  I will most definitely be back to browse the colourful bookshelves and eat more food.

Find out more about Books for Cooks here: https://www.booksforcooks.com/

Cooking the Books: A Review of Anna Jones ‘A Modern Way to Cook’

I woke up to  what a fantastic range of neglected cookbooks I have during my 69-er cooking challenge. For those not in the know, my boyfriend Jamie and I cooked out of each and every one of the 69 cookbooks on my shelves in just 69 days. The challenge left me craving to return to my cookbooks and to get to know them better. And so a new project emerged: I would spend a week or two cooking recipes from a chosen cookbook then write up a review which I would call ‘Cooking The Books’.

For my birthday in May I received a beautiful looking book called a Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones.  The couple of recipes I had tried had been really delicious and healthy so it was time for a full immersion.

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Anna Jones trained as a chef with Jamie Oliver at Fifteen.  She’s a vegetarian and passionately believes that meatless cusine can be exciting.  And her book really delivers. I found her recipes simple to make but somehow exotic and surprising.

Here are my favourites:

  1. Salted Almond Butter Choc Bars.  These were basically like really fresh tasting bounty bars but better for you! Made of ground almonds and dessicated coconut and coated in dark chocolate (see the header picture of the blog). And I loved the salty after taste. These got scoffed down very quickly.
  2. Nordic Breakfast Bowl. A lovely slow cooked porridge with grated apple, almond butter, raisins, coconut yoghurt and all manner of nuts and seeds.  Don’t make this if you’re in a hurry to get to work. There are a lot of ingredients – having said that it probably in reality only took ten minutes to make – I just left a trail of destruction after me because of the various bags of nuts and seeds I used. A lovely gentle flavour party for the morning and a welcome change to my dull standard brekkie of weetabix.
  3. Curry Leaf and Smoky Celeriac Pilaf – this was like a vegetarian kedgeree – spicy, fragent and unusual, the celeriac adding an extra layer of interest to the dish.
  4. Lentils with roast tomatoes and horseradish – this was a plate of multi-flavoured, multi-textured delciousness!  Wholesome earthy lentils provided the base to sweet squelchy roast tomatoes with creamy horseradish for a kick and garlic and thyme breadcrumbs for crunch.
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Nordic Breakfast Bowl
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Curry Leaf and Smoky Celeriac Pilaf
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Lentils with Roast Tomatoes and Horseradish

Not my favourites but still pretty damn tasty

  1. Courgetti with Pistachios, Green herbs and Ricotta – a plate of light lemony loveliness. A great diet dish without any sacrifice on flavour.
  2. Saffron Polenta Bake – another wholesome, exciting flavour combo – saffrony polenta, chunks of feta, toasted pinenuts and cherry tomatoes.
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Courgetti with Pistachios, Green Herbs and Ricotta
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Saffron Polenta Bake

The dish that bombed!

Frying Pan Squash and Cavolo Nero Pie.  I suspect we might have been the culprits as to why this dish went wrong and not Anna Jones. It was a filo pie that you started in a frying pan and finished in the oven.  We were told we could use kale instead of cavolo nero.  Well our resulting pie was just a disintegrated  pastry mess with big chunky hard to eat lumps of kale.  It was not a success. To be fair it tasted ok though.

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Frying Pan Squash and Cavolo Nero Pie

I’d highly recommend Anna’s book – her healthy, colourful veggie recipes show real imagination and flair. Ingredients are thrown together in a way I’ve not experienced before. The food is stylish, subtle, fragrant and beautiful to look at.  And bonus, it’s all really good for you. It was the perfect pre-holiday food for us to get us ready for baring flesh by the pool!

 

It’s damn well bloody over! 69-er is COMPLETE.

And it ends with mixed feelings (and an expanded waistline!).  I’m sorry that there’s no longer going to be anything pushing us out of our comfort zone of routine dinners.  That there won’t be anything that motivates me to whip up a cake or some scones after dinner when I normally couldn’t be arsed.  That it may not occur to me any more to sling together a casual salad or soup for a saturday lunch instead of a sandwich.  However I am relieved that I stand a chance now to lose the weight I’ve put on in the last 9 weeks.  And that I can do other things in life other than cook and pick recipes!

So what have been the wins?

Engaging with cookbooks I normally can’t be bothered to open has been a wonderful discovery.  Who’d have thought that cookbooks without photos actually work?  I love a visual demonstration of a dish to inspire me but a number of my cookbooks didn’t help me out with that. And guess what? The food tasted just as good without the photo.

If a cookbook is old it doesn’t stop it from being excellent – Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef (1999) helped me to make the best beer bread in the world and Nigella’s How To Eat (1998) provided the recipe to an exquisite mushroom ragu.

Even if I don’t particularly like a chef on tv (Rick Stein – I find him very whingey) doesn’t mean that they can’t write an amazing cookery book. I was literally blown away by Rick’s creamy leak cannelloni.

It’s forced me to try different sorts of cooking – I often avoid my Asian/Indian/Chinese cookbooks because the ingredients can be difficult to source.  But we managed and the dishes were a joy.

Conquering bread was a HUGE deal for me.  I’ve talked about making bread for YEARS and with this challenge I made pitta bread, beer bread and potato bread.  My fear of breadmaking has gone.

It’s confirmed to me that some of my favourites will remain favourites.  I refer to them again, but Nigella and Jamie never failed to deliver amazing food throughout the challenge.

And what will I be taking with me going forward?

I’m going to be more curious about my cookery books and not stick to my comfort zone of my three favourite healthy cook books. Different styles of cooking have different merits and it’s fun to mix it up.  I hope to make an attempt to return to as many of those 69 books as possible.

Finally let me talk you through the last eleven recipes of the challenge. They were all pretty lovely – apart from the Basil and Mango Smoothie (Innocent Smoothie Recipe Book) which was a bit bland.  You can look at all the dishes on the collage below, but I’ll pick out my top 3 faves.

  1. Beetroot and Feta and Mint Salad – Fabulous Baker Brothers.  A bit faffy to make as you had to roast the beetroots then de-skin them with rubber gloves.  Messy work I can tell you. But this was a beauty of a dish – fresh and wholesome and deliciously oniony.
  2. Leek Cannelloni – Rick Stein.  This took ages to make and involved four pans on the go at once.  Every element required steeping and simmering and several stages (eg infuse the milk for the cheese sauce for 20 mins with bay leaves, onions & garlic before you even make the cheese sauce!).  And the lasagne sheets we had to boil in a pot ended up stuck together so we had to chuck them out and have a pasta-less cheese bake. However this didn’t matter and the effort was worth it.  It was out of this world.  The tomato sauce was rich, the leeks with ricotta were a great combination and the cheese sauce was so  flavourful and creamy – it was the icing on the cake.
  3. Baked Cheesecake – James Martin.  I went through a phase about six years ago when I’d have people over for dinner and I’d ALWAYS make a cheesecake.  I was obsessed – I must have tried ten different varieties of cheesecake.  So since that overkill, I don’t make cheesecakes, until the challenge that is.  As it turns out I think it’s the best cheesecake I’ve ever made – the lemon zest and whisky soaked sultanas added a subtle and sophisticated twist to a traditional recipe.

So now 69-er is over, what next? Well certainly for the next two weeks before my holiday I’m going to be doing a lot of healthy eating recipes to lose those extra pounds I’ve gained. So expect a post about that.  And for the next challenge – I’m not quite sure yet, but it would be nice to start another juicy challenge in September.  A food waste challenge or mastering a cuisine are appealing ideas.  Do comment and let me know if you have any suggestions for me!

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Posca Supper Club at Trove, Levenshulme

Last Thursday I took Jamie out for a surprise birthday dinner.  I’m amazed I managed to keep up the secret for so long – even insisting that I buy his train ticket out of earshot so he wouldn’t know we were going to Levenshulme.

We arrived bang on time (7.30pm) with our BYO bottle of wine to a completely empty restaurant.  We felt a bit conspicuous as we were shown to our table in the sea of emptiness. However it didn’t take long to fill.

I booked the supper club last month without really knowing anything about it other than it was going to be vegetarian.  I just trusted that if it was happening at Trove it was going to be good AND I love a supper club – so what could go wrong?

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I wasn’t disappointed.  The food was EXCELLENT and really unique.  And Trove is such a nice intimate chilled setting – so the perfect backdrop for this kind of event.

Emma Tillyer is Posca.  She’s a pastry chef by day and wanted an excuse to experiment with cooking techniques like fermenting, pickling, smoking and cheese making. She tries to make everything from scratch and throws in some foraging too. Emma wants people to enjoy her food and have a good time eating it, but she also want to challenge people and give them something different.  Which I think is a great ethos and was beautifully reflected in the interesting food served.

Our first course were Injera breads (Ethiopian fermented flatbreads), tomato stew and tomato salsa. They were like tasty crumpets!  Next up Mozzarella curds, battered and deep fried with poached gooseberries and watercress.  Emma had made the curds with rennet and citric acid, hung them for a few days and mixed them with salt and cream.  And oh yes! They were fine.  Crispy battery delicious cheesiness.

The third course brought us butter poached romaine lettuce, endive, nasturtium leaves, veggie Parmesan and sourdough crisp.  I’ve never had a butter poached lettuce before and I can confirm I REALLY like it.  Never thought I’d say that – but it was a very subtle dish and I liked the contrast of the slippery melty lettuce and the crunch of the sourdough croutons.

Fourth course: Home smoked jersey royals, ricotta gnocchi (with homemade ricotta), spinach and nettle puree, spinach and sunflower seed pesto, rocket and borage flowers. At this point I can honestly say I felt like I was at the French – not only was the dish exquisitely presented (see lower right pic above), with pretty purple borage flowers artfully scattered around the plate, but the flavours were off the scale. The smokiness of the potatoes was to die for and blended brilliantly with the pesto and the lovely squidgy gnocchi.

Finally came the puddings.  There was a bit of a wait for this – I was certainly getting a bit tetchy in anticipation – dessert is an important course for me!  It turns out that Emma had never made vegan ice-cream before and hadn’t anticipated how long it would take to churn a non-dairy ice-cream.  She nearly didn’t serve it due to it’s sludginess.  I’m glad she did: beetroot halwa, sweet beetroot puree, sunflower seed milk ice cream and candied horseradish.  The beetroot halwa was not particularly sweet but had a lovely earthy flavour with nuts and raisins that you discovered as you bit into it.  And the sunflower seed milk ice-cream was a lovely sweet compliment to the halwa.

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And a sweet touch at the end were the petite fours – raw chocolates.  I have to confess that as they looked like rolos I was expecting a sweet hit and they weren’t very sweet at all.  I think I’m too much of a sugar fiend for these pretty little chocolates!

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It really was a fabulous and impressive evening – and what a bargain for £25! Emma’s passion and flair for food was literally dripping off the plates.  And I always love the chilled, minamalist arty vibe in Trove.  Have any of you been to any good supper clubs? Do let me know about them – I’m keen to try more!