Where would we be without the beautiful people eh? Seriously, what would we do without them?
I was pondering this question last Thursday night, winging it back to leafy Essex on the tube from Knightsbridge having run into some at Harvey Nichols, that leading international luxury fashion destination. I was making my way out of the bling bling store at the time, waiting at the lifts on the fifth floor, fully aware that some kind of event to do was 'happening'. A vodka launch or something like that. The red carpet was out and I had spotted Noel Fielding walking across the shop floor wearing an IKEA rug and sporting a sexy looking girl on his arm so I figured that it must have been a fairly prestigious party. So, like I said I am waiting at the lift and ping, the doors open. Inside are a group of lithe, hot, bouffant, trendy, Bieberish, skinny, foxy cats, both male and female with slack jaws and utterly vacant expressions. I look at them and smile. And they just stare back. With slack jaws and utterly vacant expressions. For a quick moment I think 'wait, is this the service elevator? Are they mannequins?' but no they're real and I step back to let them get past. However the beautiful people just stand there, staring, eyeballs in unison scanning me from my very tip to my very toe. Only seconds tick past but it really does seem like an age, having to stand and wait there under close scrutiny. I consider informing them the metal box they are standing in is a lift, you know in case the fact was lost on them during the journey up. But I button it, in the vain hope that if we all wait just a little bit longer, the doors will close and they'll all have to go back down. Alas, some master controller flicks a switch and finally they sashay out, hips swinging, lips pouting. I offer my hand to the last gormless soul to exit and say "Hi, I'm Harry Hill". "Harry who?" is the response but by then I am already inside with the doors closing.
Yes the beautiful people, what would we do without them. But what was I doing at Harvey Nicks in the first place? Well I had been invited to sample some dishes that a certain Franck Pontais has been magically pulling out of his pocket at the aptly named 'The Glass Kitchen' over the last month. The word 'dishes' plural is a bit of a misnomer actually, I should have said that I was there to try out his 'verrines' and if that word is unfamiliar to you, well let's clear up any sexual connotation straight away. A verrine casually and simply put, is food layered and served up in a glass. And it's a trend that has gone from strength to strength in France, possibly reaching saturation point but very little is known about this culinary concept in the UK. But of course, there is a lot more to it than my rather blaise definition as Franck was keen to point out when I met him last week Going by first impressions, I would say that Franck doesn't suffer fools gladly, which put me on the back foot when I first arrived at the food hall. I spotted him straight away, so I waved, bounded over and interrupted his chat with a solitary blonde at The Glass Kitchen bar. Having introduced myself, he was a bit perplexed as to what I was doing there so I said that I was a food blogger. Like duh? To which he responded with the definitive "OK" and asked if I had a card. I said no. "OK, so what else do you do besides blogging?" So I told him I work in print. "OK, so you work in print, you turn up here unannounced and you don't have a business card?" "Yes, er yes, well not quite I've been invited by your PR but er no". No indeed and not the most auspicious of starts but luckily Franck's gruff exterior soon melted and he became quite chatty. Especially once I started fawning over the segmented tower of glass in front of me containing pockets of food, vivid and vibrant in colour.
The first rule, Franck explained to me is that you can't just take any old glass to create a verrine. It shouldn't have a stem ("This is not a trifle Danny!") it should be wide, rounded, with a heavy base and should you want to present a verrine as a main course, you would use a tiered set such as those made by Durobor. Franck presented this part with a flourish to some boxes that were stacked to the side of the bar. I enthusiastically nod my head in favour at his sales pitch but silently think to myself that if I ever give these verrines a crack at home, I would do them in our whisky tumblers, wine goblets and shot glasses. Franck then went into further detail about the construction and assembly of the food that goes into the verrine. The layers of each prepared element of the verrine should be considered carefully so that when you place your fork or spoon in and take a mouthful, the combination of flavours should work together rather than stand apart. He used one of his desserts as an example pointing out a small layer of fragrant pomegranate jelly, a healthy amount of rich white chocolate mouse with a medium spoonful of tart cherry confit saying that each component should be measured as such to create a perfect balance. It's a common sense notion when it comes to cooking and creating a dish but I quite liked having it spelled out to me nevertheless. I even let out a Bill and Ted "woah". But the most important thing with verrines, Franck said, was to have fun putting different and sometimes unusual elements together to see where you could go with it.
Thankfully my dinner date, Andre Dang then turned up and we got to ordering straight away going for the smoked mackerel and hot smoke salmon terrine with herby crushed potatoes, cucumber and poached radish salad with fine rustic bread wafer. AND smoked duck breast on a cauliflower flan with puy lentils and lardons, poached saffron quails eggs and crispy fungi mushrooms. AND the aforementioned dessert along with blackcurrant mouse topped with a sharp and creamy lemon posset, semi set mango jam, lavender and lemon shortcake. All served up in glass. It was really interesting to watch Franck assemble the verrines as it highlighted to me, quite starkly the importance of prep or mis en place when comes to cooking. By getting the hard work out of the way, I presume sometime earlier in the day, the empty verrines were transformed into very impressive looking pyramids of food, very quickly. Almost by some sleight of hand. My chosen verrine of duck was described as a bit of a 'Daddy' and it was certainly filling, surprisingly so. The combination of flavours from the robust, earthy lentils to the almost sweet cauliflower worked well with the smokey game and the quails egg when punctured delivered a lovely dribble of yolk over the mushrooms. I always get a little thrill when that happens. I nabbed a forkful of Andre's salmon terrine which was delicate and light with a more subtle smoke taste than that of the duck. For dessert, I leaped with spoon in hand into the white chocolate mousse with cherry confit with black forest fudge and muscovado tuille biscuit. I should add here that Andre had suggested we share the all the verrines but that didn't really work well with my 'focused' style of eating. Scraping the last of the pomegranate jelly into my mouth, my eyes switched to the right to where Andre sat, I was suddenly aware that I should have offered him just a little bit but it was so good, especially the fudge. So I didn't.
Unfortunately, it was soon time to go as the floor was closing for the private party or maybe Harvey Nicks was just closing full stop, I don't really shop there that often. A real shame as I would have liked to have bent Franck's ear some more, especially to talk about his book Terrines and Verrines which is an absolute corker. The pride I felt for some of the meat-loaf style, pork and bacon packed creations that I've rustled up in the past soon palled after flicking through the pages. Evidently there is a whole lot more you can do when it comes to the humble terrine. And when it comes to verrines for that matter also. Without a doubt Monsieur Pontais really does know how to turn it on when it comes to creating visually impressive food. And therein lies the danger that this approach or trend in food could be interpreted as having too much style over substance and that ultimately it just becomes another vehicle to show off. No doubt the beautiful ones would lap this kind of stuff up if you was put in front of them. But having had just a little chat with Franck, hearing his passion for the ingredients he uses, the dishes he creates and his philosophies about food, this is obviously not his intention. Ironically, given that Franck has appeared on Iron Chef UK, he was quite disparaging about the level of competition that is developing in this country when it comes to cooking. He explanation was slightly overwrought but essentially he believed that food should be about enjoyment and fulfilment. It should be fun, it should be social and verrines are just one way of expressing that notion. I am quite happy with that and I hope that Francks influence brings the concept of verrines more into the mainstream into the UK.
And as for the beautiful people, well I've got their next trend lined up.
Layered food.......................in socks. They'll love it.
Franck Pontais' residence at The Glass Kitchen, Harvey Nichols has been extented for an extra week.