Friday, 4 September 2015

Quo Vadis Grouse dinner September 10th

I am so looking forward to spending a day in the kitchens of Quo Vadis next week. I will be helping Jeremy Lee cook grouse accompanied by the best fruit and vegetables London's new wave market gardeners can supply plus some from my own wildly overgrown end of summer allotment.

Quo Vadis’s grouse dinner is part of a long and noble tradition; for hundreds of years London’s private clubs and restaurants have celebrated the finest produce of this sceptred isle; one of our most singular ingredients is the flavourful dark meat of the red grouse.  The season is short, the Game Act of 1831 forbids the killing of grouse before August 12th and the first grouse always arrives with a fanfare. Once there was a London chef who flouted this law. His name was Louis Eustache Ude (1769-1846). Ude was the original temperamental French chef; apprenticed in the kitchens of Louise XVI in his long working life he worked for many rich and demanding patrons starting with Napoleon’s mother. He achieved his immense fame as chef in the kitchens of Crockford’s, a semi-legal gambling club in St James run along the lines of a fashionable gentlemen’s club it was the capitals’ most dazzling den of vice.

Opened by a former fishmonger, William Crockford in 1827, this lavishly decorated palace of infamy was and designed to lure in wealthy gamblers. Beneath domed ceilings, glittering chandeliers set with stained glass and panels painted in the style of Watteau, the celebrity’s of the day from the Duke of Wellington to Disraeli met to eat and drink to excess as a prelude to the club’s main purpose; the gambling away of vast fortunes at the fashionable game of hazard.

As an accompaniment to the extremely rich dinners, vast cellars stretching beneath the streets of St James held 300,000 bottles of the finest wine. Ude was a high-handed fellow who had already left one employer who dared to season the soup and eventually walked out over money (he was then earning £4000 p.a. about £400,000 today). It was during this time that Ude was taken to court by a Scottish laird, the Marquis of Queensberry for serving grouse the week before the glorious 12th. Fined but unabashed Ude put it back on the menu the very next day under the title Salmi de fruit défendu." (Salmi of forbidden fruit).

Despite his reputation for vanity Ude’s book, The French Cook (pub 1813) is full of very sound and still eatable food. There is some good advice for either a cook or their employer “the Cook must use in preference the produce of the farm and gardens. The futile search after novelty in Cookery, is the running after the philosopher’s stone. Everything is equally good when done in perfection.”

This brings us to the produce that accompanies the grouse. Autumn is the most fruitful of seasons and this meal will feature produce of inestimable freshness picked and plucked just hours before eating: damsons with the bloom still on them, tender squash, freshly dug potatoes and tomatoes of every hue. Sourced from the allotment in East London I have worked for fifteen years and from two remarkable vegetable and fruit growers working on the outskirts of London (Organiclea and the Dagenham Starter Farm) this meal looks back to the past and forward to the future with the resurgence of London’s market gardens once again providing Quo Vadis with vegetables worthy of the grouse.

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