Thursday, 3 July 2008

Supper # 40 - Shepton Montague, Somerset

The rain won't stop. It throws down all it has with a kind of glib defiance. I drop my mum at Tiverton Parkway station after a huge lunch and a long, atmospheric walk round her boss' garden. We both agree that it's the most incredible private garden we've ever roamed - even the woodland is landscaped. I'm sad to say goodbye to my mum, I wanted it to be gorgeous weather while she toured with me. I wanted to louche about for longer with her - it's all gone so quickly. Off she goes and on I go - a quick stop-off at Willie's for some more chocolate and a bit of banter and then over to Somerset.

The rain makes me want to curl up and get my cosy on. I don't want to be with strangers tonight so I call and invite myself to uncle Jules' and aunt Di's. A more welcoming response would be hard - the warm wishes of encouragement floweth right through my Sony Ericsson and I attack the journey with gusto. I feel reassured that I'll be amongst family. I wonder if I didn't have the option - which I seem to have had a lot of in the West country - I'd miss it? Perhaps we lean into that which we know will catch us. Yet free-falling is one of my favourite things to do. Maybe I'm just not much of a wet weather free-faller....

So anyway, I arrive back at J&D's in the mid-afternoon. Diana is at work and Jules is running a multi-faceted operation in the kitchen. He's just got hold of the Ottolenghi cookbook and is devouring it in a most hands-on manner. We hang out a while and I offer to decorate the salmon. I realise that I've cooked nothing but chocolate on this entire safari - not a morsel of savoury fare has been fashioned by me so I take to the salmon with vigor, creating for him a translucent ruby coat of sliced tomatoes. I even make eyebrows. It's all very Robert Carrier.

Jules hands the kitchen over to me and I get to work on a sunken chocolate souffle. As it cooks the guests arrive; endless horsey couples from this village or that. Champagne is served in the drawing room, Kettle Chips passed around, the air is awash with the smell of perfume. I'm a recoiler of small talk and am starting to feel a bit like a stuck record:

"I'm having a big, chocolatey adventure in my choc-mobile". / "I look for people to give me supper and then make them a chocolate pudding in return". / "No I don't sleep in the van". / "No I don't have SatNav". / "Yes, I have piled on the pounds and am starting to feel pretty uncomfortable - maybe a more expansive seatbelt is in order"..... I talk to the kids about school and years out and...the tour. On the sofa my grandmother holds court. Dressed in one of her Chinese silk kaftans, her silver hair chignoned expertly, she holds her glass as if she might look somehow incomplete without it. The guests sit reverentially, listening in as she talks of days gone by - of business trips to Egypt, Colombia, Manila, New Orleans. Dinner is ready and we all file through to the dining room, the table laid beautifully, fresh flowers everywhere.

WHO CAME: Jules, Di, one of their kids (Emily), Grandjane, three couples.

WHAT WE ATE: For starters a salad of samphire, green beans, sesame and tarragon - vivid green, glossy and summery. Next the aforementioned enrobed salmon, bright yellow Bearnaise sauce, baked endive stuffed with gruyere and prosciutto and royal potato salad, studded with quails egg and smothered in salsa verde - my favourite thing in the whole world. The fish is pale and super fresh. I can taste its insistent upriver journey working onto my tongue. We drink Puligny-Montrachet and '97 Pauillac.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: I sit opposite a caddish looking guy - very Jilly Cooper and, to complete the picture, am intrigued to discover that he is 'Master of the Hunt'. We dance along the delicate rope of convincing one another that we're not out to get the other. I wouldn't dream of criticising the Master's antics, besides, I'm distracted at the thought of the sunken souffle. Sunk? To go down it must go up and this poor mite simply rigamortosed in overbearing heat. Clamped tight and unyielding it sits next door awaiting an ordinary reception.

THE PUD: Luckily there are strawberries and raspberries and great, voluptuous folds of whipped cream to disguise my lacklustre offering. It passes without remark. Any positive on the S.S. I silently dismiss. I tell myself it was the oven's fault.

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: I help Emily wash up while the rest of the party carries on drinking. Cigarette smoke wafts through, intermingling with the perfume, the wine and the smell of delicious food. It smells like a good time and yet it seems surprising to have the fag smell in there. How quickly we adjust - and how few homes I've been in on this trip where any smoking has occurred.

Bed is cool and reassuring and I sleep as heavily as usual.

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