Plans for 2017: food and art history (!) blogging

I completely failed to blog the festive hype; I was exhausted in the lead up to Christmas and by the time I felt recovered I was celebrating at my family home – and my parents have an oven that can only be set to one temperature (180°C) and one operating hob that actually ignites out of six – if you’re reading this mum and dad, this is a plea to invest in a new cooker. I’ll cook you nice things in thanks.

My exhaustion was probably a remnant of the utter shambles 2016 has been – politically, not personally – on a global widespread scale. We’ve lost many heroes: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, to name a few. We’ve been defeated by a scare-mongering racist campaign dubbed “Brexit” enacted by the Tories and UKIP. And a clueless bigot named Donald Trump has gained the title of the most powerful man in the world, though with no appropriate credentials apart his privileges as a white male and the luck that he was born into excessive wealth. To ease us into 2017, to cushion us from the triggering of Article 50 and when Trump takes over presidential office, comfort cooking is surely the way forward.

I blame the political turmoil of 2016 for why I didn’t cook AT ALL over the Christmas period. With special thanks to my lovely mum for buying me the M&S butternut squash and pecan nut roast for Christmas dinner to compensate. The cat Christmas crackers from Paperchase were also amazing.

I did, however, manage to squeeze in a little creativity over the holidays. For presents I made loved ones personalised baubles for their trees, featuring my favourite photos of them, with added jewels and sparkles.

I also went on festive film photography trips at Knole Park, a National Trust deer park, which is luckily only two miles from my house.

So this blog post is more concerned with post-christmas blues, my apprehensions and intense excitement for the New Year. Thus far, I’ve had to throw away my chilli plant, and I’ve managed to buy a calendar (in the sale, it pays to be disorganised) and I’ve made it back to my kitchen in Exeter in one piece.

A few things I would like to achieve this year:

  • Write short fiction
  • Write blog posts with greater sentimental value
  • Pick up the paint brush again

More pressing concerns:

  • Graduate
  • Obtain a graduate job
  • Pay off that hefty student loan

In terms of this blog, I intend to combine my burgeoning predilection for art history alongside food journalism. So watch this space…

 

Rose petal and pistachio cake

Rose petal and pistachio cake vegetarian; serves 10 

Bottled rose water and dried rose are incredibly exciting ingredients. I bought them about a year a go for a mere couple of pounds from an International food supermarket, and they’ve been a little neglected at the back of my cupboard, amongst the things I told myself I’d always get round to using. And once I practised this recipe to perfection, they were all gone. 

Ingredients:

  • 225g baking butter, softened to room temperature (I am forever loyal to stork)
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 2 large free-range eggs
  • 1 tbsp rose water
  • 40g unsalted pistachio kernels, chopped

For the icing:

  • 125g sifted icing sugar
  • 2 tsp rose water
  • 2 tbsp warm water
  • 1/2 tsp pink food colouring
  • 40g unsalted pistachio kernels, chopped
  • Dried rose petals (optional)

Method:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C and prepare a non-stick loaf tin with baking parchment or butter.
  2. In a mixing bowl, cream together the baking butter and caster sugar. Gradually sift in the self-raising flour, add the eggs one at a time, and combine well.
  3. Stir in the rose water and pistachios so the flavours are evenly distributed through the cake mix.
  4. Pour the mix into the loaf tin, and even out the surface with a spatular. Bake in the oven for 50 minutes, or until a knife through the centre comes out clean.
  5. Once cooled take the cake out of the tin. Create the icing by combining the sugar with rose water, warm water and pink food colouring. Smoother the top of the cake with it. Sprinkle on pistachio kernels, and dried rose petals if you’re feeling decadent.

Circa 1924 – a dining experience

Exeter is fortunate to be home to Circa 1924, a rare and eloquent gem of a restaurant, hidden amongst the myriad of chains burgeoning in the city centre. I was aware of its presence, near the entrance to Northenhay gardens, because it had taken over the sister chain to Harry’s restaurant approximately a year and a half ago. That it is a relatively new and entirely unique establishment the menu is surprisingly robust, and the restaurant incredibly distinct. Behind it’s creative initiative is an approximate date – in the midst of the roaring 20s.

Upon entering my host took the liberty to reserve me a table at the downstairs speakeasy, where pinstriped mixologists in braces delivered flavour combinations so good they should never have survived the prohibition. I learnt that the 1920s thrived as the golden age of cocktails to disguise the poorer quality spirits available, sparking experimentation in alcoholic concoctions. And Circa 1924 house cocktails are certainly experimental. Take the ‘Rum & Raisin Flip’, consisting of pecan and raisin infused Doorlys 5 year old rum, with date nectar, egg and cream. Or the ‘Dill & Fennel martini’, accentuating my favourite herbs in a gin based beverage. I started on the ‘Licorice Espresso martini’ for a pick-me-up before the meal for optimum concentration as hopeful food critic.

There’s a theatre to Circa 1924. The cheerful waiters served flawlessly and attentively whilst dancing around the room. Meals came out served immediately, without a second wasted  – no odd dishes sitting on the side in the kitchen. I watched astounded as a waiter poured my date’s Brixham crab bisque starter from a height into a bowl near her lap – without a single drop of it out of place.

When attending restaurant reviews my philosophy is to try the best thing that menu has to offer. Sometimes that means I have to bend my vegetarianism. Once I was told by my server that Circa 1924’s policy is to only sustainably farm fish within a <50km radius from the restaurant building, I felt a little more morally reassured about the plethora of seafood and fish I was about to consume. The clues in the title – ‘Brixham crab bisque’ gives you an indication of just how fresh that starter will be. Each evening there is an availability of 3 fish (on this particular evening lemon sole, mackerel and whitebait) which is hand selected by the restaurant’s own fish monger from fish markets across Devon, ready to be grilled for a succulent main.

 

I started off with the ‘crispy softshell crab’ which was a whole crab cooked in a very delicate batter, garnished with a fiery chilli and spring onion salad, drizzled with a dark aromatic sweet chilli sauce and wasabi. The crab was so tender and soft, and perfectly matched with an inventive twist of the Japanese style salad.

For main, I just had to have moules marinière as the mussels were farmed from the river Exe. The white wine sauce with parsley, lashings of double cream and caramelised onion. Testament to how exquisite it tasted, my date, who is terrified by the texture of mussels, kept helping herself to more.

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My instinct was to go for the white chocolate panna cotta for dessert, but then my date was adamant to have that – so I opted for the dark chocolate truffle torte, served with raspberry sorbet and coulis. Potentially this was the richest chocolate dessert I have ever tasted, so it is not for the faint hearted, but this was beautifully offset by the crisp raspberry sorbet. The petite panna cotta would have been a little too sweet for me if not accompanied by the thick, tart gooseberry coulis and biscuit crumble. The panna cotta was definitely the best option to end the evening meal on a delicate and light note.

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Having dinner at a restaurant that boasts such a decadent menu – complete with oysters and rare-breed steaks aged for a minimum of 28 days – seems a faraway and abstract concept for students such as myself. However, Circa 1924 also offers ways to experience such luxuries without the expensive price tag. On Tuesdays, it’s free corkage. On “hump day” Wednesday, steaks and cocktail infusions are 2 for 1. And from Tuesday to Saturday, you can have an express 2 course lunch for only £10.95. Please take full advantage of this offers, as I can vouch that it is the best dining experience I’ve had whilst living in Exeter.

Click here to see the full menu, and restaurant details