We cannot bear more drive-through or take-out or near-fatal snack. I am convinced of the boredom of my female ancestors, which is another truth pandemic threw out, and eventually all gags run out to dust. I am happy to leave my review of Penzance McDonald’s where it belongs, which is unwritten. Food is love after all; or it should be.
So I email Ollie Dabbous, formerly of Dabbous, now of Michelin-starred Hide and the most gifted chef working in Britain today. His food looks exquisite but — and this is unusual — it tastes better than it looks. He says he will give me a cooking lesson on Zoom from the kitchens at Hide. He sends over menus. We will have pistou soup — a vegetable soup with pesto — and clafoutis, a French pudding with summer berries, sugar and alcohol.
I have a happy day shopping for unwaxed lemons, for blueberries, raspberries and cherries, for radishes, for carrots, for vermouth, for sage.
I rise early and make pesto, which is simple, if you have good parmesan (Newlyn Cheese and Charcuterie has been open throughout lockdown). I wash vegetables for the pistou soup. I fret about the internet connection. I wash cherries.
At noon Dabbous appears on the screen. Like many gifted, self-made men (he learned to cook at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, where I spent my student loan, and the Fat Duck at Bray), he is open-hearted and kindly. I cannot imagine him screaming at ghosts like Gordon Ramsay, and his food is the better for it.
He is aghast when I tell him we regulate the temperature of the Aga by opening and closing the lids and moving the food around in the oven. I was proud of the Aga until I met Dabbous. Now I realise I am riding a donkey.
First the clafoutis: we cover a dish with butter and brown sugar and toss berries and apricots in vermouth and sugar. It smells glorious. My husband, who can bake, warms milk, cream and butter with vanilla, and throws it into the blender with eggs, sugar, flour and almonds. This is poured on to the berries and put in the baking oven with lavender and lemon thyme. It will be ready when the Aga decides it is ready. The Aga will not be rushed. It is older than I am. It is a tyrant.
I have chopped the vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, fennel) for the pistou soup. They must sweat, not fry, so we divine the Aga’s intentions — they must go on the boiling plate, the simmering plate does not touch them. We add water and herbs; then radishes, spinach and blanched green vegetables; then butterbeans; then macaroni. Add the pesto and the parmesan — Dabbous talks about the crystals in cheese, and it is mesmerising — and I have a soup of extraordinary breadth and freshness. It tastes like nothing I have eaten before. It tastes like a garden. I gobble it in front of the screen. He does not.
The clafoutis bakes on, like a novel. I tell Dabbous I do not expect him to stand there on Zoom waiting for the Aga to finish this pudding novel — he is still cooking take-out at Hide — so I will email him a photograph to judge it.
When it is set, I take it out and add icing sugar. It is, like all Dabbous’s food, extraordinarily beautiful, and it tastes like what it is: summer fruits infused with sugar and alcohol, and a consolation for all the ages. I send the photograph. He says I — he means my husband — ‘nailed it’.
So, with the help of a gifted chef, you can cook something you never thought you could. That is another truth pandemic threw out. For the recipes, see below.
- Blend everything together for 10 secs in a blender to a coarse pesto.
50ml Olive oil (about 4 lge tbsp.)
- Sweat the vegetables in the olive oil with a pinch of salt for 5 mins over a gentle heat, using a lid to trap the steam. There should be no colour.
- Add the thyme/sage and the water, check seasoning (add a pinch of salt) and bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 mins until just tender.
- Add the butterbeans, courgette, radishes and spinach and cook for another couple of minutes until just wilted.
- Remove from the heat and add the cooked pasta and green vegetables and mix.
- Remove from the heat from the heat and stir in a generous 2tbsp of pesto per person; check seasoning.
- Divide into soup bowls and scatter over a little more grated parmesan just before serving.
Summer fruit clafoutis with flaked almonds, lemon thyme & lavender; crème fraiche
- Bring the milk, cream and butter up to a simmer then remove from the heat, add the vanilla and cover with a lid. Leave to infuse for 15 mins then pass through a sieve.
- In a kitchen aid, beat the egg, egg yolk, sugar, flour and almonds until smooth; it will be stiff. Add the infused milk mix in a gradual stream to combine to a thick batter.
To line the tins
Salted butter, softened (approx. 50g)
- Rub butter inside of a 28cm cake tin or gratin dish generously all over then scatter with demerara to cover completely, shaking off any excess. (It will look like quite a lot of sugar).
Fruit (Any summer fruit will be fine)
Apricots, cut into 1/8ths
- Mix together the fruit and season with a light sprinkle of sugar and a splash of Moscatel wine (approx. 2 tbsp)
Topping & to serve
Flaked almonds, lightly toasted in the oven until pale golden (approx. 4 tbsp)
- Pour the batter into the tin to 2/3rds way up, then place within this the fruit.
- Bake on a heavy tray at 180C for 25 mins or until set and light golden.
- Sprinkle with the almonds, lavender and lemon thyme and cook for another 3 mins.
- Leave to cool until just warm, then dust with icing sugar and serve with crème fraiche.
To have pre-prepared:
All ingredients weighed out for the clafoutis.
Steps on the day:
1. Make infusion for clafoutis.
Hide, 85 Piccadilly, London W1J 7NB, tel: 020 3146 8666. www.hide.co.uk