Nothing can beat a delicious meal. Whatever your tastes, good food can hardly be surpassed by any other human pleasures. However, I always believe (almost compulsively), that the right setting in which this food is consumed is equally important. Even when I have the most delicious plate in front of me, I simply can’t enjoy it if the table is not set in the right way or there is something in the surroundings that just does not ‘work’ with the meal. In addition to that, I love a meal that tells a story. The words ‘curate’ and ‘experience’ have been recently overused and have become a trendy cliché of sorts. Yet, I really do think that an element of curation (a carefully thought-out and sustained theme or idea) always elevates the meal and gives it this little extra, which might not be strikingly visible to others, but makes a whole lot of difference to the dinner host (me).
Having been indulging my obsession with finding and creating the ‘perfect’ setting for a dinner through the KinoVino gatherings, I wanted to take this pursuit further by starting a series of master classes on how to style a dinner party. It is always so rewarding and comforting to meet a kindred spirit who takes the colour and texture of the napkins, and the height of the candles as seriously as I do. I have found one in interior stylist, Hannah Bullivant, who co-hosted three KinoVino workshops with me. Her collection of props is my dream come true and any object that she pulls out from her old wooden crate (a piece of art in itself) that she uses to carry the props makes me want to jump up and down with joy (I do restrain myself though). As well as having found Hannah, I was equally lucky with having found the space for these events, as creating the perfect dinner table in a room that does not have the right vibe would be simply useless.
Green Lens Studios is a small venue/photographic studio, former stables just off Green Lanes, that has hosted some of the most memorable private and public events in my experience. Its owner, Yev Kazannik, has injected a lot of his own vibrant personality into the studio, making it a unique, cozy and characterful space, as versatile as your imagination allows it to be. Over the years, we held some film screenings, gigs, exhibitions, private dinners and discos, and now the new series of workshops. Giving off a vibe that’s evocative of a quirky loft and a rustic canal boat, the space has an amazing woodwork and is frequently flooded with most beautiful natural light; in addition, Yev’s amazing collection of vintage cameras and his own skills as a professional photographer, just make you want to take pictures as often as you blink, and not surprisingly most of them turn out pretty good. So it really was a no brainer when it came to the choice of venue for these workshops.
The last of these was thematically connected to the most recent KinoVino gathering with Eleonora Galasso, dedicated to food and film from Rome. Having served an Italian feast and delighted our guests with the screening of Roman Holiday, starring the inimitable Audrey Hepburn, I wanted to carry this mood over into our master class. As well as taking inspiration from the ancient city, both Hannah and I wanted to reflect the change of season in the theme for this event. We have both spent some time browsing Pinterest but the best inspiration came from simply looking outside the window or taking a stroll in the park. The colour scheme was pretty clear – earthy, rich, natural browns, dark yellows, deep reds and a bit of golden touches. By a great coincidence this colour scheme was prevalent in Eleonora’s cookbook too. Hannah created some truly delicate arrangements with pressed leaves, some spray painted copper and golden others natural, as well as some twigs and branches. When it came to food, there I was trying to tie in all those themes and moods (Rome, autumn and Audrey) into one or two dishes. Challenging myself to a bit of an invention test with the ingredients that were left behind the main KinoVino dinner (no waste!) and taking a brief flip through my treasured book ‘Audrey at Home’, I decided that an Alpine rosti with a chard, spinach and feta topping would perfectly marry all these concepts – it’s seasonal, thematically and gastronomically tied to both Audrey and the KinoVino meal, plus the colours of the dish would work so well with the colours and textures of our dinner table.
So when we gathered around the table there was a perfect sense of harmony, joy and playfulness (perhaps perceptible to just me but hopefully to all of us) in having created, dare I say, an experience of a meal, where each element was as important as another, and had a specific part to play. Would the meal itself have tasted any worse if instead of the rough grey linen napkin we had some disposable ones in different colours? I genuinely think it would have. So here’s to being slightly compulsive and approaching each meal with care and imagination, striving to create an ultimate harmony between the food, the setting and yourself.
An Audrey-inspired seasonal meal: an Alpine rosti with a chard, spinach and feta topping.
For the rosti
2 large potatoes
6 small or 4 large sweet potatoes
a few springs of thyme
a tsp of fennel seeds
Grate the potatoes into a bowl and strain the liquid. Add the rest of the ingredients, apart from the olive oil, and mix well. Lightly grease a non-stick oven-friendly frying pan with some olive oil and place on the hob. Once heated tip the mixture into the pan and distribute it evenly forming one thick ‘crumpet’. Fry on medium heat until the bottom starts to crisp up (aprox 5 minutes) then place in a pre-heated oven at 180C for 30 minutes.
While the rosti is in the oven prepare the topping.
1 large onion
1 red pepper
500 gr of chard
500 gr of spinach
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp of chili flakes
juice of ¼ lemon
sea salt / pepper
Cut the onion into feathers and fry until softens in some olive oil, salt and chili flakes. Cut the pepper into long strips and add to the pot together with the onions. As the peppers begin to soften add thinly sliced garlic, and roughly chopped chard and spinach, add more salt to taste, lower the heat and let it cook for 5-10 minutes. Once the spinach and chard have wilted take off the heat, add the lemon juice and stir thought.
When the rosti is ready (it should be crispy and golden, with a slight charring effect in places) flip it out of the pan onto a wooden board and top with the spinach/chard mixture and crumble a generous amount of feta on top. Add a last sprinkle of pepper before serving.
We played some David Gray to accompany the meal. Not particularly Italian or Audrey-esque, but felt rightly autumnal and appropriately nostalgic.