I have a hard time with my birthday. It is in January, probably the worst month of the year. I am never sure how I should respond to everyone’s well wishes. I am usually pretty grumpy.
This year, I resolved to take things in hand and order up a perfect day. I made a request for a special meal to be shared with just a small few. I decided that the best birthday treat would be to spend a day reading by the fire and watching dinner being made.
Our son Lewis is living with us right now. He has worked as a cook in a number of restaurants. He loves to work with food, and spending a day cooking is his idea of heaven. So I asked him to make me a special birthday meal, with Tim as sommelier and assistant. I didn’t ask about what we were going to have. I just waited for it to unfold.
I stretched out in my oversized rocking chair by a cheery fire, reading Wuthering Heights – something to transport me out of 2013. As I read, Lewis prepped and I watched out of the corner of my eye as ingredients transmogrified.
A dinner requires good food and good company to make it work. I decided on a small guest list: My mother Laurie Lewis, a writer, who has a vested interest in my birthday and was just about to leave for Mexico; our friend Jack Hurd, a musician, who had just returned from hiking the Camino and was heading off for a month in Tuscany; and our friend Jan Irwin, a writer and director, who spent last March with us in Devon and is in the midst of contemplating her next trip. And of course Tim, my favourite writer, gourmand and travelling companion, who has shared the past 38 birthdays with me.
Our kitchen is in the centre of the house, and the cook is at centre stage.
The guests assembled and, after preliminary drinks by the fire, Lewis called us to the table.
A tower of rounds of brown Kumato tomato and mozzarella, with finely sliced basil. Drizzled with blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic vinegar.
“A taste of summer,” said Lewis. And it was. The blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic elevated it to one of those very special summer days. It told us that this was not going to be an ordinary birthday dinner.
Sushi rice with grated carrot, topped with a slice of avocado, red pepper and spears of tempura aubergine. With dollops of Wasabi, Thai sweet chili garlic sauce, and Cucumber relish with lime, Uma plum vinegar and red jalapeno.
Presented on a bright blue and gold Japanese plate, the colours bounced energetically. There is a distinct lack of colour in our part of the world in January. The course gave us colour therapy and food therapy. The surprise hit was the cucumber relish, which was salty and tangy, with a zip of hot.
Baby Portobello stuffed with chevrè, cream cheese and roasted garlic. On a bed of arugula with reduced balsamic.
Lewis explained that if you cook chevrè, you need to add cream cheese to it to keep it smooth. Otherwise it goes grainy. This was like a creamy pillow, the sweet roast garlic keeping you alert for more surprises.
Homemade fettuccini with Oregon smoked salmon, with thin slices of Parma cheese and black truffle
There is really nothing like homemade pasta. I had seen Lewis pressing dough through the pasta machine earlier in the day. He hung it out on a horizontally inverted broomstick to dry. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with it. Turns out it was a kind of collaborative offering. Tim had been given a huge piece of smoked salmon from Oregon. Our son Xan had given us a few truffles for Christmas – I’ve never had thinly shaved truffle. Its musty nuttiness perfectly paired with the soft smoke of the salmon. Topped with thinly shaved Parma cheese, and served in pasta bowls from Positano, it was amazing.
Seared filet of sirloin with Tamarillo on a bed of chicory with thinly sliced radish, drizzled with honey and horseradish vinaigrette.
I am a big fan of steak salad. This took it to a whole new level, playing the sweetness of the Tamarillo (like Passion fruit) with the bitter of the chicory and radish. The sweet honey danced with the horseradish, all supporting the succulence of the steak.
Roast pork tenderloin with grapefruit glaze on a bed of sweet potato puree with curry and chipotle. Served with spears of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.
It’s amazing what a bit of smoky chipotle can do to a sweet potato mash. It lifts the tuber’s richness to a whole new place. The roast pork was incredibly tender and the combined tastes were buttery and dark. The asparagus counterbalanced with its bright colour, crisp snap, and salty zing of the prosciutto.
Scone with honey glaze served with dollops of pear comfit, peach comfit and Devon cream.
“I don’t bake,” said Lewis, as he put a warm scone in front of each of us. What he meant was that he doesn’t bake cake. The soft, honey-sweet scone was “dessert” – plain and simple after a meal of complexity. The perfect dessert course. The tiny dollop of Devon cream a reminder of the rich green fields of the emerald Isle.
Cheese plate. Featuring herbed Cheveè, St. Agur, Aged Gouda, Double Cream Rondoux, Shropshire Blue
Admittedly, this was probably overkill. But birthdays are about excess. I had asked for a cheese course which, when matched with port, is the best way to end a special meal.
The meal didn’t really end there, though. The food ended, but we sat for many more hours, talking, sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. With my mother and Jack just about to head off to other climes, we talked of travel past, and journeys to come.
Last year, our extraordinary year of travel, was one of the best of my life, and it’s been hard to come down. But with this birthday extravaganza, I realize that while I am not literally on the road any more, I can still go on a journey with travelling companions and cook Lewis as tour guide.