The sky was filled with scatters of grey clouds, threatening to pour down, but in the meantime was just teasing with a drizzle here and there. That didn’t deter the excited foodies standing in a long, wide queue in Regent’s park, in London on Saturday, the 23rd of June 2007. “Seared marinated organic salmon with fennel, shaved asparagus and lemon dressing,” I heard someone quoting from the Menu Cards we received. It sounded delicious. The anticipation could be felt in the crowd; people glancing at their watches continuously, standing on their tip toes, trying to see if the gates have opened yet. Who could blame them? I was just as thrilled, being there 20 minutes early, my stomach rumbling, preparing for the feast ahead. Suddenly people started cheering, a brief announcement was made and the gates opened.
Refreshing cocktails were up for grabs at the entrance. Since not drinking much alcohol for the past year or so, my head was spinning a few minutes later. I still wonder what was in it. White tents were spread across the park with people mulling like frantic ants around them. There were over a hundred stalls comprising restaurants, demonstration theatres and exhibitors, all undercover, safe from rain. At this event, no money was used to buy things, but Crowns were used as the currency. Five pounds bought you 10 Crowns; £10 bought you 20 Crowns and so forth.
Practising difficult self-restraint I ambled past the first few restaurant stalls, but then gave in. Pork belly has always been a mysterious cut for me. As far as I know it isn’t very common in South Africa and I first came across it in England. Knowing it was a fatty cut it never really appealed to me, but I was curious to try it since Neil kept on telling me how nice it is. Live life dangerously as they say. Three restaurants served pork belly:
- Tom Aikens – Braised pork belly with chick peas and paprika squid
- Trinity – Slow-cooked pork belly with smoked garlic lentils, apple and thyme
- Fino – Crisp pork belly.
All of them sounded great, but I opted for Tom Aikens’ version. Now I have to warn you, there’s a reason why the event is called Taste, because that’s basically all you do. The dishes are tiny portions, e.g. the pork belly slice was about 8cm long and 0.5 cm thick, with a few chickpeas and calamari rings. The pork was divine. Succulent says it all. The sauce accompanying it was lovely with the chickpeas. The calamari rings were tough and the odd one out. I was pleased however; I’ve discovered a new ingredient I’d like to cook. Learn from the experts first, you see.
Now I wanted more, speed reading through the menus when something caught my eye. Wagyu beef on hot rocks were being served by Cocoon. I wasn’t sure what exactly the hot rocks meant, but I have read about the strange-sounding beef before. In The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, it is said that Wagyu beef is the best in the world. I just had to try it. Now this was arguably the worst value for money in the whole festival. If you thought the portion of pork belly was small, then you had to see this. The inscrutable description of the hot rocks became clear when I saw them. Pretty, chunky, warmed up, black rocks. Three small, wafer thin slices of beef were heaped out on a pretty, chunky, warmed up, black, hot rock. The seasoning, consisting of sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin and sesame seeds, was great. The meat itself was okay, but for the price (£5) not-so-okay. According to my research the Kobe-style beef contains much more marbling than the average beef. I specifically looked out for the marbling of the beef, but could barely see any. Failing to impress me, I decided to steer clear of Wagyu, unless I hopefully someday visit Japan and get the authentic thing and cough up dearly for it.
I was on a roll and next up was Quaglino’s Crayfish cocktail with Marie Rose sauce. The lettuce was fresh and crisp. There was more than enough meat and they were generous with the sauce. I felt a bit cheated though, because I thought the crayfish would be big, chubby pieces. Instead it was those tiny crayfish you get here in the UK, which are actually freshwater crustaceans. I realised later that various countries name things differently. In South Africa in Afrikaans we say “kreef”, which means “crayfish”, which is actually Spiny Lobster. I learnt something new yet again.
After making fish cakes a few times, I still didn’t feel satisfied with the results and thought it’s time to try the professionals’ cakes again. Inn The Park did a beautiful job with making three types:
- Smoked haddock and leek
- Pollock and Morecambe Bay shrimp
- Crab and Spring onion
I feel inspired to make fish cakes again. Sooner or later I’ll post a recipe when I’m successful.
A colourful restaurant stall, Mocoto, caught my attention and I sauntered over and took a look at the menu. Moqueca in this instance was a monkfish and shellfish coconut stew served with rice. The presentation was gorgeous and the dish was topped off with fresh grated coconut. The monkfish was tender and prawns firm and flavourful. This dish was the best of everything I tried, followed by the pork belly. When I did some research I realised that Mocoto is a Brazilian restaurant, which I should have known looking at the bright colours. South American cuisine is undeniably a bit foreign to me, but after looking at the menu I would definitely like to investigate further.
The stormy, cumulus clouds won momentarily and it started raining hard. Not knowing where to go for cover, since there wasn’t much to choose from, I ran towards a tent in the centre of the huge garden. Cocktails. Mmmmm. I treated myself with a Citrus Strawberry drink which was sweet and tangy. Drinking it slowly and taking my time while waiting for the rain to stop I perused the Menu Card further. Halfway through my drink to my surprise another glass was popped in front of me. I looked at the waiter quizzically about to say I didn’t order another cocktail when something didn’t look right. Taking a closer look I realised it was food on toothpicks. Yet again I looked at the waiter again about to say I didn’t order any food when she interrupted and said it’s on the house. Wow, what a bonus. There were vegetables, lamb and chicken done tandoori style. How I wish I could learn how to prepare such fragrant and tender meat. The cocktail bar’s name is Mint Leaf, unfortunately I couldn’t delve any more information about them, since they don’t have a website.
Luckily the rain subsided after 20 minutes and I was ready to spend my last Crowns. Since I’ve never had ravioli, I tried Refetterio’s duck ravioli with orange and duck jus. It was a day to be adventurous after all. Taste the masters’ first, then make your own. The ravioli was perfectly cooked, i.e. al dente, filled with juicy duck meat. After I finished the ravioli, I saw there was still some jus left. What a waste if I don’t eat this, I thought. Ethics schmethics, a glutton had to do what a glutton had to do. No spoon was at hand and I drank the leftovers out of the bowl. After fleetingly scanning the scene for familiar faces, I wiped my mouth, threw the bowl away and quickly got out of that section of the grounds.
My last Crowns were spent on the Cinnamon Club’s Tandoori Guinea Fowl with peanuts and mango. Yet again this Indian meat dish was aromatic, tasty and juicy, served with peanut sprouts and bits of mango in yogurt as a sauce on the side. On a high note I ended the tasting experience with a scoop of Farmer Gosden’s Toffee Fudge luxury jersey ice cream.
The four hours went by in a flash and I enjoyed the experience tremendously. I do regret not having gone to any of the demonstrations which ranged from Italian cooking to wine tasting classes. I do feel sorry for not taking more photos (like doing the food dishes), but I felt a bit hampered, since I went alone. When I go to big, busy cities on my own I tend to be much more security conscious than out I in the country. Therefore I’m much more hesitant to take out my camera for people to see. Then there’s the added risk of not focusing on keeping my bag safe while I’m taking pictures. An unhealthy case of paranoia you might say, but you can take the girl out of South Africa, but not vice versa. Maybe next year I’ll get someone to tag along with me. I can’t wait!