Friday, 7 January 2011

Evening Standard Magazine article

I was thrilled to be asked to write an article about Alphabet Soup for the ES Magazine. It came out on 17th December 2010 and here it is for you to read:

No obstacle will come between Victoria Glass and her quest to cook 
her way through the alphabet from aubergine to zebra.

It's 4.30pm and I'm waiting for a delivery of ibex goat mince to stuff my involtinis. I'm serving them with imam bayildi followed by iridescent ice-cream igloos. Yes, tonight is 'I' night n my alphabetical culinary odyssey.

I have always had a passion for cooking and love to play host. At the age of six I'd sneak downstairs at dawn to make elaborate breakfasts for my family, complete with curled butter and orange juice in champagne flutes. I used to enter my parents' bedroom, crashing a cymbal, and present them with a handwritten menu. All this was done with a tea towel over my forearm and the efficient arrogance of a maitre d'.

When I grew up I founded Victoria's Cake Boutique, specialising in bespoke celebration cakes in flavours more exciting than your average Madeira sponge - anything from chocolate and red peppercorn to my cocktail-inspired White Russian confection. But I am a greedy glutton who loves to cook all  manner of things in all manner of ways, so I set myself a task: to cook my way from A (for antelope) to Z (for za'atar zebra) in one year.

Alphabet Soup equates to roughly a letter a fortnight, but it doesn't mean I only eat food beginning with one letter for two weeks at a time. I may wait in all day for ibex, but I'm not a lunatic. To allow my culinary imagination free reign while avoiding bankruptcy, I was going to need a little help from my friends. Alphabet Soup Supper Club was launched for the letter B. A crew of friends and friends of friends who are interested in my project attend, but there are never anymore than eight of us (we only have eight chairs). The cost of ingredients is split between all diners, so my biscuit-based blackcurrant bavarois, topped with blackcurrant liqueur jelly and British berries, and served with baklava, didn't break the bank.

Since then, Alphabet Soup has become a baroque undertaking. Each letter is an event, with themed cocktails (Bellinis, Cosmopolitans, Daquiris), soundtracks based on the letter of the day (eclectic mixes from The Cure to The Ink Spots) and a heightened level of secrecy around my tiny Streatham kitchen. Guests are kept in the dark about the menu until it is served; this leads to an excited atmosphere in which bets are placed. G has been the most expensive letter so far at just over £27 a head. Not too steep for an eight-course meal:

Gin Fizz cocktails served with Gruyere gougeres

A shot of gazpacho

Guinea fowl and girolle terrine with a grapefruit salad and grain mustard vinaigrette

Gem squash gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce

Golden goose with goose-fat potatoes, greens, garlic puree and giblet gravy

Gunpowder granita

Gold glittered green tea and chocolate ganache gateau with ginger ice cream, ginger biscuits and Grappa

A  cheeseboard of Gruyere, Petit Gaugry and Golden Cenarth served with gherkins and grapes

Goose is always far more delicious for Christmas lunch than turkey, and the smoky sweetness of the roasted garlic puree added an extra layer of ceremony to the dish, which I intend to repeat on Christmas Day.

Aside from my micro-kitchen, which has only three working hob rings and three forearm-length work-tops, there is a second hurdle to overcome. Richard, the man I share my life and my kitchen with, has a fish allergy. So to ensure he survives beyond Z, fish must remain off the menu. But it is because of these boundaries that I've made many exciting culinary discoveries. Ceviche is even more delicious when made with scallops. Elk fillet is a red meat-lover's dream. Crocodile tastes like sea bass-y chicken and, as one guest pointed out, we were 'eating something that could eat us'.

I spend hours scouring cookbooks and the internet for inspiration, and while there are a few recipes I have followed on my quest, most of the menu is my invention. All dishes are usually created on the day with occasional prep work on the evening before. Alphabet Soup has a strict code of practice, namely: no cheating. I can't call an aubergine and eggplant if I've already called it an aubergine elsewhere; similarly I can't say zucchini if I've already said courgette. And despite the boundaries, each menu is carefully planned so that flavours balance. The deer and doubanjiang dim sum weren't just thrown together with the pickled daikon. The daikon added a fresh, tangy sharpness that cut through the richness of the dumplings, as well as providing a satisfying crunch.

I've made less welcome discoveries along the way. Eddo is a hard, flavourless disappointment of a vegetable that, alarmingly, contains a toxin beneath its skin that causes your hands to go bright red and itchy on contact.

I have also discovered previously untapped levels of squeamishness. Who knew the preparation of escargot empanadillas could be such a shudder-worthy business? Tinned snails exude a white, viscous scum as you wash them, putting me off forever. I have half-planned next week's J night, but I still have no idea what I'll be serving for the letter X. It'll be a toughie. Xylitol and Xanthan gum, anyone? 

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