So yeah, it’s been a crazy week. A week ago tonight I was making pasta with Jamie Oliver in London – and shared a plate of the pasta he made with him, even – and I need to tell you about it.
How, everyone asks, did I come to be in London on an otherwise regular Monday night, wilting stinging nettles to mix with ricotta and mascarpone and stuff into fresh ravioli, alongside one Jamie O? He has a partnership with Sobeys, who as part of their Better Food for All campaign launched a healthy eating/living challenge for which the grand prize was a trip to London to do a private cooking class with Jamie himself. They chose two winners from across Canada (both from out east), and then asked me to come along for the trip, just to tweet and Instagram and generally report on it all. Which, of course, I was thrilled to do.
I hadn’t been to London since I was twenty-one, when I went with my Mom, who now that I think of it, would have been exactly the same age as I am now. Luckily, they had painted-on reminders on every street corner of which direction to look for oncoming traffic.
I arrived last Saturday night, and after taking as many detours as I could on foot between the tube station and my hotel, dragging my suitcase behind me, I checked in and walked over to St. John, sat at the bar and ate roasted bone marrow with parsley salad, capers, thin grilled toast and a pile of coarse sea salt, and skate with chicory, and rhubarb Eton mess. The next day I walked from early morning to late night, trying to absorb as much of the city as I could.
Late Monday morning I met the prize winners and their husbands in the lobby of the hotel, and we made our way over to Jamie’s Fifteen for lunch. We had roast chicken on lentils and fennel, quiche, pale green soup of spinach and stinging nettles, crispy potatoes, rhubarb Eton mess and brownies loaded with almonds with a side of gelato that hid a dab of chocolate ganache hidden underneath.
Later in the afternoon we headed to Jamie’s cooking school/cafe/kitchen store in Notting Hill called Recipease – it’s a beautiful space, with an open demonstration kitchen on the main level and another on the second. Even the staff were giddy he was coming as they closed off the upper floor for his arrival. There were fresh flowers everywhere, and small square pie tins full of antipasto for us to nibble with prosecco as we waited.
And then, he arrived – through the back door, coming in from behind and sliding an arm around my shoulders as familiar as if I’ve always known him. He was friendly, charming, charismatic – exactly the way he is on TV, only in real life. The small group of us chatted for a bit, and then he hopped into the kitchen to show us how to make fresh pasta out of talcum-soft 00 flour and brilliant orange egg yolks. I’ve made fresh pasta often, but you always learn something new watching someone else do it – more so even when it’s Jamie Oliver. He talked about cooking at home for his kids, and the fact that they can be picky too – Buddy refusing sauce for his pasta, and Jamie having none of it – how they handle homemade meals on busy weeknights, what he wishes he had paid more attention to in school, and of course the importance of food education.
Jamie rolled the pasta into a thin scarf so long he could barely contain it, then turned some into ribbons and the rest into ravioli stuffed with stinging nettles wilted down with butter, garlic and chilies, then stirred into ricotta. We talked about what a great vehicle ravioli is for bits of leftovers and wilting things – a perfect way to resurrect leftovers and produce that might otherwise wind up in the compost bin. He showed us how to properly cook fresh pasta, and how to sauce it, pulling it with tongs from pot to plate, still dripping with starchy water, and adding even more by scooping splashes with the end of his tongs, helping to lubricate the butter and Parm. It’s amazing how much better fresh pasta tastes – and it’s not difficult to make, once you get the hang of it. I’ve already made a batch with W since coming home – it truly is one of the most fun things to make with kids. (Or without.)
Then the lovely staff set us up with our own cheese boards, bowls of greens, pasta machines, flour and eggs and Jamie helped us all get a feel for fresh pasta and how to roll it out first on the thickest setting, then turn the dial down thinner and thinner, getting gleeful satisfaction each time it came out that much longer, wider and more transparent. I tried not to have performance anxiety.
Chef Dan Batten, who heads up the cooking school at Recipease, was equally charming and helpful and awesome. We mixed, rolled, chopped, filled and cooked our pasta, Jamie sticking around for a full 2 hours before having to head out to pack for a trip to Greece, where they’re filming an upcoming series. He hugged us all goodbye and left us to sit down to our pasta meals, which I think I ate while still floating; and the kind folks at Recipease even made us platters of dessert – flourless chocolate cake, orange pound cake with the thickest cream, and wee strawberry Eton mess.
Rhubarb Eton mess was everywhere in London – a. because it is a classic British pudding, and b. because rhubarb is right in season – both here and in the UK – I’ve harvested bundles of it from my back yard already, and am starting to encroach on other peoples’ yards and back alleys as well. An Eton mess is something like a pavlova that has been dropped – in fact this is likely how it came to be, at Eton College, a boys’ boarding school in Eton, near Windsor. It’s a layered concoction of fruit, smashed meringues and whipped cream, which together provides the perfect combination of sweet-tart-creamy-crunchy.
Rhubarb is perfect for Eton mess – besides its beautiful rosy colour, it’s perfectly sweet-tart when stewed with sugar or honey until it breaks down into something soft and velvety. The rhubarb I had in my Eton mess in London was different at each location – at St. John it was so pale pink it was almost white, and although it was sweet, it still had its shape and crunch – big, square chunks of it was interspersed through the cream, which is heavier there than here, with chunks of meringue to offset both. At Fifteen they served it soft, stewed and cold, with a dollop of whipped cream, a crisp meringue and then a swirl of soft toasted meringue that looked and tasted like sticky roasted marshmallow. There were two thin stalks of rhubarb laid overtop, which were also soft and sweet yet still intact. Both were divine.
I usually make my own meringue for Eton mess – because it’s easy, and you don’t have to worry about what they look like, but also because it’s hard to find store-bought meringues. To do this, carefully separate 3 eggs (this is easier to do when they’re cold), and put the whites into a clean glass or stainless steel bowl. In a small dish or measuring cup, stir together 3/4 cup sugar and 1 tsp. cornstarch. Beat the egg whites until they’re foamy, then gradually beat in the sugar, beating constantly at high speed, until the mixture holds stiff peaks, like shaving cream. Drop it in dollops on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 250F for an hour, until dry. Peel off the parchment and bash them into pieces once they’ve cooled.
Rhubarb Eton Mess
4-5 rhubarb stalks, chopped
1/2-3/4 cup sugar, plus extra for the cream
about a meringue per person, broken up (or a batch, above)
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
Combine the rhubarb and sugar with about 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until bubbly; continue to cook, stirring often, until the rhubarb breaks down and is very soft. Taste and add more sugar, if it needs it, and set aside to cool.
Whip the cream with a spoonful of sugar until softly whipped. In a large trifle bowl or individual glass dishes, layer chunks of meringue, stewed rhubarb and whipped cream. Serve immediately, or let sit a few minutes to allow the meringue to soften.
* Sobeys paid my way to London and covered my hotel and expenses there – thanks Sobeys for an experience I’ll never forget, and for supporting this important conversation in Canada.