Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Café de Mort

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Nobody likes to think about death. Let alone our own. But you know what they say about death and taxes…

I went to Café de Mort and I survived. Organised by Remember A Charity, this two day pop-up restaurant was figure-headed by (an absent) Gregg Wallace and developed by food writer Matt Day and chef Errol Defoe. The potentially deadly menu aimed to make diners consider the fragile transience of life. What better way to ponder the legacy you’d like to leave after you’ve died, than while sitting down to eat what could very well be your last meal. Once you’ve looked after your loved ones, please think about leaving a gift to your favourite charity in your Will. I was a guest of Dogs Trust, so for all you dog lovers out there, you can still help out our furry friends even after you’ve kicked the bucket. 

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Already feeling on death’s door with a bad cold coupled with a hangover, I trudged over to The Crypt at St Andrew’s in Holborn Circus, ready to face my mortality in meal form. I knew the venue well, having acted in a play called Warcrime down in the crypt a few years ago. They’ve poshed the place up since then – the floor is now even and it doesn’t feel quite as damp as it once did. 

When Michael Billington came to review us, he was keen to meet the final remaining unburied body (still unidentified after the enforced excavation of the crypt after the ceiling collapsed), wrapped in blue plastic, who lived just round the corner from our underground dressing room. And I’m delighted to report (sort of) that “Bob” was still there (or so we were told, I didn’t visit him this time round), adding an extra deathly atmosphere to the night’s proceedings. 

The Crypt really is a dramatically macabre venue, perfect for a night promising the deadliest feast known to man. We kicked off the evening with a nod from a serious-looking St John’s ambulance man, before signing a waiver in case any of us died. Then, I was led, in the gloomy half-light, towards a glass of Absinthe and Champagne, to get the juices flowing for what was to come. 

Green tea and sake Martini. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

We sat round black tablecloth-covered tables, sipping the next potentially lethal drink of the evening: sake and green tea Martini. These sounded fairly tame to me, but apparently the Polyphenols found in green tea may cause liver and kidney damage. The Martinis tasted strangely bitter and musty. More exciting was the first course: Fugu sashimi with ponzu. Yes, that’s right, I ate puffer fish and I survived! The gastronomic equivalent to Russian roulette, fugu contains lethal levels of Tetrodotoxin, and, if not prepared expertly, can result in painful and certain death. 

Fugu sashimi with ponzu. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

The taste of the fish itself isn’t particularly extraordinary. In fact, it just tastes like very slightly rubbery textured and delicate flavoured white fish. The dish was prettily presented with what tasted and looked like delicious seaweed flavoured Quavers

I respected the fact that we were thrown right into the deep end with the deadliest dish as the first course. Facing fugu led us all to ponder the precariousness of our own mortality, which was exactly what the evening aimed to do. 

Bloody Hell Mary. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

Next up, we were presented with Bloody Hell Mary cocktails, containing Poitin - aka Irish moonshine. It was outlawed in 1661 due to its adverse health effects, which included blindness, but they stopped worrying about that by the mid 1990s and it was made legal again in ‘97. I can’t say I enjoyed this strangely tangy drink, but the curried ackee patties with ghost chilli washed the bloody awful taste of the Bloody Hell Marys away. Officially the world’s hottest chilli, the Ghost chilli is currently being developed into a self-defence weapon. 

Curries ackee pattie with ghost chilli. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

I was expecting my mind to be well and truly blown, but I was surprised when I found the heat fairly mild. Sitting opposite another diner who was mopping his sweaty brow and knocking back as much water as he could reach, I wondered if I might, in actual fact, be some kind of hardcore chilli ninja, deserving of some kind of red hot medal. There’s no doubt I was finding the whole transience of life stuff quite exhilarating. Either that or the Poitin had kicked in.

Kluwak nut pasta with false morels. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

Next up came a bowl of what looked like a hearty bovine broth with bits in it, but in actual fact, was kluwak nut pasta with false morels. It turns out this earthy soup potentially contained lethal doses of Hydrogen Cyanide.  To wash down the tasty soup, we were each handed a Champagne flute with a liquid that looked like old-fashioned lemonade with backwash in it. Turns out it was a snake wine cocktail and, by God, it was rancid. It was like a glass of Sarson’s with the added sour twang of a fungal foot infection. I tried to get used it, tried to drain the glass, but I think I’d rather have taken a fanging from the snake who’d drowned in it. 

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
They brought round the bottle of neat snake wine next, to see who was brave enough to take a tipple. I couldn’t say no, when else would I get the chance to drink from a bottle containing a steeped venomous snake clutching a scorpion in its jaws? I knocked it back in one and, for a moment, desperately scanned the room in search of the St John’s Ambulance man. It felt almost like a sting, an allergic reaction. My tongue felt pinched and my mouth tingled unpleasantly, before the effects of the venom subsided and left behind the aftertaste of oily fish. Drinking snake wine is like someone snapping an elastic band on your tongue before slapping you round the face with a mackerel. I’m glad I’ve tried it, if only so that I know never to try it again. 

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
The first of two puddings came in the shape of enormous macaroons with unpasteurised bitter almond cream and elderberry coulis. Although each bitter almond contains between 4 and 9mg of Hydrogen Cyanide, after the snake wine I knew nothing short of a live cobra picking its teeth with the rib of a clown could scare me. Light, creamy and sweet, this pud was the perfect antidote to the fishy snake drink and could only worry a pregnant woman due to the unpasteurised milk. We washed it down with a glass of equally unfrightening Amaretto, which can apparently induce symptoms of Cyanide poisoning. Whatevs.

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
For the final course of the night, we ate peanut, cacao and nutmeg sweetmeats, which was billed as “a most tempting trio of potential toxins – Aflatoxin, Theobromine and Myristicin” which can cause vomiting, wild hallucinations and even death. For a moment I thought I could see Gregg Wallace in the distance, but it must have been a wild hallucination brought on by the pudding, or possibly the 84.5% proof rum I’d just necked. They’d swirled it about with cream and nutmeg so that it tasted like really boozy custard, and I do really love custard. And booze.

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
The evening was a blast - the gothic atmosphere, the nervous and giggly camaraderie it induced between diners, “Bob” in the other room and the possibility of someone carking it at any moment. Alright, so the sense of danger wasn’t genuinely palpable, but it did bring home the message of the night clearly and in a fun and original way. It was a meal I won’t quickly forget, not least because the snake wine was still repeating on me for several days afterwards. But you don’t need to drink snake wine to remember a charity in your Will. Go on, do something nice from the grave.

* Huge thanks to Urvashi Roe for allowing me to her amazing photos from the night. Visit her brilliant blog here

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