Welcomed with a glass of lemon verbenatini, the rim frosted with lemon verbena sherbet; we chatted to our fellow diners on Lia’s wooden veranda. Trailing with vines, clustered with immature green fruit, it was sun dappled and a lovely way to break the ice. Most were gardeners or, interested in gardens and growing. After that initial feeling of awkward, gawky, nervousness, we began to relax and enjoy the company of some friendly and interesting people.
After drinks and a nosey around Lia’s garden, we took a seat at the dining table in her open plan kitchen. Lia and Juliet busied themselves adding finishing touches to their dishes and plating up. To start, a crystal clear, ham hock broth with fresh from the allotment spoils: rounds of courgette; green beans; rainbow carrots and wonderfully sweet, shelled garden peas. Just savoury enough, the broth allowed the taste of the vegetables to sing.
For most of us, the next course was quite the delicious surprise. Potting meat and fish is a technique we were all familiar with; slow cooked with spices and sealed with clarified butter, it is used to preserve for leaner times. Potted cheese is something certainly I’d never heard of and, I wasn’t alone in wondering how it would work, given that cheese is already buttery, milky and rich.
Served in beautiful glass jars, with slices of sharp, dill-pickled cucumber and sourdough -what a dish. Soft, smooth and creamy, four types of cheese (I can’t remember which now) were used in the making. Veering from acidic and zingy, to pungent and mature with punches of peppercorn and herb; I think this was my favourite course of the evening.
Popular from the mid-18th century onwards I later found out, it was a way to use up oddments of dried cheese and discarded rinds. Pounded with fortified wine, herbs and spice, as Hannah Glasse says in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy -‘A slice of this exceeds all the cream cheese that can be made.’ I would whole heartedly agree.
After staying up all night making gnocchi, a last minute disaster meant that shop bought gnocchi had to be substituted. Served with braised, roasted, baby fennel, slices of incredibly moreish fennel sausage and dressed salad leaves, it was the perfect counterpoint to the previous course.
Following a small pause, dessert. Fresh peaches poached in syrup; fragrant jammy raspberries; a scoop of vanilla ice cream, all served with a piece of homemade shortbread. It’s easy to forget just how delicious peach Melba can be, especially if you grew up on artificial versions like I did. And, although it wasn’t served in a swan carved from ice with a filigree of spun sugar, like Escoffier’s original (I’m kidding), it was dusted with lovely, aromatic, basil sugar!