Hello, its a post of two halves today because this week has taken an unexpected turn. I’ll move onto that later but I want to start by telling you about the dinner party that I mentioned we were hosting last weekend. You see a little while ago I was contacted by a company called La Belle Assiette. I hadn’t heard of them before but they’re an online chef service. Their website covers most of the UK and it enables you find a chef for hire in your area, read reviews and make a booking. The chef comes to your home, does all of the thinking, shopping, cooking and clearing up – all you have to do is eat, drink and be merry.
La Belle Assiette explained that they’d just taken on a new chef to cover the Lake District area and in order to get him up and running, they needed him to do a ‘validation dinner’ which is where his skills are tested in real life. They asked if we would be open to him coming to our house and my reply was “absolutely!” So let me tell you about it – here he is, Ben Vandenbrink.
He’s a very charming chap and interestingly recently made it through to the late stages of Professional Masterchef so if you watch it, you’ll see him. We communicated by phone and email before the evening – there are a number of menus that you can choose from on La Belle Assiette but I told him that I was happy for him to come up with his own ideas. He was keen to focus on local, seasonal produce which sounded great to me.
He arrived an hour before our guests and assessed the kitchen – I’d already warned him that it’s very ordinary. He’d brought along the specialist equipment he needed as you can see below but otherwise he used ours (much to my chagrin when he pulled out the pans that I’ve been meaning to replace for at least five years).
And it was as easy as that, he soon made himself at home and we left him to get on with everything. All that we were required to do was relax and enjoy ourselves. If you’re wondering why we’re all huddled by the door it’s because we were trying to keep out of the way of the photographer who’d been booked by La Belle Assiette to capture Ben at work.
We’d invited friends that we haven’t seen for ages. Two of them used to live just around the corner from us and so we were constantly in and out of each other’s houses but since they moved to a new village (hopefully not to escape us), we hardly ever see them. All of our children go to the same schools though so we often catch up via them. I didn’t get an outfit shot but I was wearing the Finery jumpsuit that I bought earlier this summer – you’ve seen it a few times.
So, just as our glasses were getting low, Ben brought the amuse bouches to keep us going. They were English muffins served with oyster mushrooms, pickled radish and garlic purée. It was a good start, they were delicious, even the radish-dodgers in the group enjoyed them.
Back in the kitchen, Ben was busy putting the starter together – ravioli of soft shell crab…
… served with fresh peas, British runner beans and truffle butter. Once again it was good, a subtle mix of flavours and textures.
The main course was always going to be a little contentious. Because he wanted to focus on very local produce, Ben explained that he was keen to do lamb. Now I’m not mad about lamb and he was happy to adapt the menu but also keen for me to try it cooked sous vide which he suggested would change my mind. So here we have the main course: sous vide lamb, potato purée, chantenay butter confit, pea emulsion with sloe jus.
I loved the vegetables but I still don’t like lamb. I think we all felt it was tougher than expected for something that had been cooked sous vide and it lacked flavour. I feel awful saying this when we had such a lovely experience for free but as you know I’m always honest and this course didn’t quite match our expectations. The other thing to add is that the portion size was a bit ‘southern’ – I could feel Mr MC weeping inwardly when the plate was put in front of him!
There was still dessert to look forward to though. Ben explained that this was a completely new dish that he’d been experimenting with based on apple pie textures: profiteroles with apple gel, compressed apple, Lancashire cheese set custard and crumble.
You can tell we’re northern – look at the joy on everyone’s faces in anticipation of ‘pudding.’
Ben talked us through each course when he presented it, explaining a little about his inspiration and the ingredients he’d chosen which was a really nice touch. He must have been exhausted by this stage – he’d already cooked a huge brunch at another house in Cartmel that lunchtime so it was a long day for him.
And yet as we tucked into our dessert and then moved on to port and armagnac, he carried on working away behind us, clearing everything up. So when I went back into the kitchen in search of the gin that someone had requested it was as if magic elves had been at work. Everything was sparkling and Ben was ready to go. When the photographer left we were able to relax and so the evening went on late… very late. But it didn’t matter because when I got up the next morning, there was nothing to do other than wash the last few glasses we’d used and distribute the empty bottles across the recycling!
La Belle Assiette was perfect for me because I really enjoy the hosting side of dinner parties but not the cooking. I hate being in the kitchen and missing out on all the chat – people always know that if they’re coming to us, the food will be good but very simple. So do I recommend it as a service? Well as I said at the beginning – absolutely!
(Warning: this next part is distressing. It deals with sudden bad news and if you’re feeling fragile, you may prefer not to read on)
So I want to thank La Belle Assiette for such a wonderful experience, our friends too for their fabulous company and willingness to be photographed. You see it was fortunate that we had good times under our belt because the very next day our lives spun on a sixpence. After lunch, Mr MC had popped across the road to help a friend move some furniture and I was sitting relaxing with the papers when the phone rang. It was one of Mr MC’s brothers with the unthinkable news that their other brother had died, suddenly, an hour earlier.
His wife and daughter had both gone out for the morning and he’d had a huge heart attack whilst doing some gardening. He was fit and healthy with no history of any heart problems so as you can imagine, it has been an indescribable shock. Mr MC headed straight over to Newcastle – the pain for the immediate family is unbearable. My heart aches for my distraught husband and also for my niece who was the one to find him, my nephew, my sister-in-law and of course my poor mum-in-law. This is the fourth of seven children that she’s lost.
So this week has been a truly terrible one, especially coming on top of our recent time with my friend T. I’m sharing it here because it’s probably going to affect Midlifechic for a while – and anyway, lots of you have become friends over the years. For the last few days I’ve felt like I’ve taken my feet off the pedals after cycling fast, I’ve been freewheeling but somehow momentum has got us all through. We’re slowing down now though and I suspect we’ll come to a complete stop next week when we face the reality of the funeral. I certainly don’t feel as though my brain is functioning properly so I hope this post is making sense.
Mr MC came home late on Monday night because on Tuesday we were due to take the middle son to LIPA (Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts) for the day. It was also Mr MC’s birthday – but not a very happy one. Being somewhere completely different was probably the best thing we could have done though because for a while, it took his mind off things.
Apart from that it’s been a week of just keeping going and trying to support the family from afar. To add to the chaos, the Midlifechic bag delivery has just arrived from Istanbul but at least it will help to keep our minds occupied this weekend as we photograph them all. I may just keep on working and send the shop live before we go away next week, I’ll let you know in a quick post if I do. I’ve put so much time into these new bags, I really hope you like them.
In the meantime, it’s been comforting to watch the boys with their dad. Their relationship with him is usually based on father/son banter but they’ve been so solicitous and gentle, even though it’s hit them hard too. Since they were little, they’ve had to deal with far more loss than I ever did at their age but this time they’re all cognisant young men so it’s tougher. However the small comfort that experience brings is the knowledge that we’ll get through it.
This picture from Tuesday sums it up. Mr MC suddenly spotted this tiny bit of graffiti as we were walking past it in Liverpool and told us to stop for a quick photo. It was a brief moment of light in a dark week and it says it all.
The loss of someone we really loved is the reason that we’re so very sad. However love is also the thing that will pull the whole family through in the end. I’ll be back soon. Thank you for reading – as always, it really helps me to write everything down.