Painting home comforts

The Open Eye Gallery, an independent and commercial gallery in the heart of Edinburgh, exhibits and sells walls worth of postcard-sized artworks by artists from all corners of Scotland. The delicate and tiny artworks range in subject and style, but when arranged all together they collude to form something beautiful and grand-scale. Though not explicitly intended to be in juxtaposition, somehow it seems that the paintings always intended to be in conversation; when an individual piece is sold, something new will take its place. The experience of cross-examining all these individual pieces is immersive, but I had a certain predilection for the simple still-life artworks which depicted objects from the kitchen, like lemons, pots and pans, and chopping boards.

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From the sight of my food posts and the inside of my kitchen cupboard, it is safe to say that I have a slight obsession with amalgamating pretty and unusual pieces of crockery – thankfully Exeter’s charity shops never fail to intrigue. Since my trip to the Open Eye Gallery, I’ve invested in a heap of 5×7 inch canvas boards, and am busy painting quaint kitchen scenes with acrylic. Using mostly earthy colours, and uneven block shapes, the painting style is not what I’m accustomed too.

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Fish on plate, acrylic paint

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Prawns in pan with lemon, acrylic paint

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

 

Dry cider and tarragon prawn linguine

Dry cider and tarragon prawn linguine pescatarian; serves 2

marinating prawns in traditional pub flavours, cider and mustard, works surprisingly well…

Ingredients:

  • 150g fresh king prawns
  • 100ml dry cider
  • 1 tsp dried tarragon
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 2 tbsp creme fresh
  • 100g long stem broccoli
  • 200g linguine

Method:

  1. In a bowl, pour in 100ml dry cider, dijon mustard and tarragon and stir well. Add in the fresh prawns, and allow to marinate in the fridge for an hour.
  2. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, and cook the linguine. While this is cooking, drain the marinade from the prawns into a saucepan and reduce on a low heat for 8 minutes.
  3. Heat a frying pan with a glug of olive oil and stir fry the long stem broccoli for 5 minutes. Add the prawns, and continue to fry for a further 2 minutes.
  4. Once the cider marinade is reduced by half its size, stir in 2 tbsp of creme fresh. Stir this sauce into the linguine, topping with the broccoli and prawns.

Anchovy and caramelised onion rustic pizza

Anchovy and caramelised onion rustic pizza serves 2; makes 2 individual pizzas 

all the favourite, albeit acquired, Italian flavours rolled into a single pizza

Ingredients

For the pizza bases:

  • 175g strong white flour
  • 120ml lukewarm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp dried yeast
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

For the toppings: 

  • 1 medium sized brown onion, finely sliced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 8 fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 tin of anchovy fillets in olive oil
  • Capers
  • Olives
  • 100g mozzarella, torn into 10 pieces

Method

  1. Begin by caramelising the onions. Heat a saucepan with 1 tbsp olive oil, and drop in the finely sliced onions. Add a clove of crushed garlic and a bay leaf. Cover the pan with a lid, and leave to stew for 45 minutes, stirring frequently.
  2. While the onions are caramelising, pre-heat the oven to 190ºc and make the pizza bases.
  3. Sift the flour into a bowl with the salt and yeast. Make a well in the middle of the bowl, and then pour in 120ml lukewarm water, followed by 1 tbsp olive oil. Mix with a wooden spoon until it forms a smooth dough. On a floured surface, knead the dough for 5 minutes. Pop the dough back in the bowl and leave to rise for 25 minutes in a warm place.
  4. While the dough is rising, make a basic tomato sauce for the bases. In a saucepan, cook 2 chopped tomatoes with 1 tbsp tomato puree on a low heat. Add the basil and chilli flakes at the end.
  5. Once increased in size, roll out the dough and shape into two individual pizza bases. Place on baking paper on a tray, ready for the oven.
  6. Assemble the pizzas! Coat the bases in tomato sauce, then spread over the caramelised onions. Drain the anchovies, and line them in a criss cross pattern. Add the capers, mozzarella, and olives – alternating to form an aesthetically pleasing pattern.
  7. Bake in the oven for 18 minutes.