WHEN you try to arrange a party a year ahead, a party which depends on good weather too, you are running a huge risk. It’s madness, really, and most of us, as we get older, play safe by celebrating big birthdays by going on cruises, or holidays-of-a-lifetime. I am never certain about either; supposing I don’t like my fellow cruisers, or that the big and expensive holiday turns into a nightmare?
So we played it safe. We booked a National Trust cottage in Weymouth, only an hour away from home. The cottage slept 12, allowing us to fill it with people we know and love, and it had room to retreat indoors if the weather turned into a normal April day of showers, or even joined-up rain. What’s more, I remembered that when judging a Taste of Dorset award eight years ago with my colleague Mat Manning, we had visited Lisa Osman, of Provisio catering – shortlisted and rightly so. It was a hot afternoon and we had been driving up and down country lanes for hours, visiting others on the short list, but it was Lisa who provided us with cool homemade lemonade, and lavender shortbread. So I got in touch with Lisa to find out if she would cook for my party, with some trepidation as she hadn’t won first prize. Would she turn us down? Thank goodness she didn’t bear a grudge.
She drew up a menu for a spring buffet lunch for 26 of us, a mixed bunch with the usual problems of various dietary requirements, which was all I could have hoped for, seasonal and largely locally sourced. The wasabi that flavoured the mayonnaise that went with the seared salmon was grown in Dorset, the chicken came from Creedy Carver in Crediton, the tomatoes from the Isle of Wight, the superlative unpasteurised cheeses were made by Alison French of Chalke Valley Cheese, the oil for the dressings was Fussels rapeseed, even the coffee was roasted in Sherborne. The only missing piece of this gastronomic jigsaw was that we were about a week too early for the asparagus from Langton Long that Lisa had hoped to feature on her menu, but that was replaced by purple sprouting broccoli which, in my book, is pretty well as delicious. The beautiful rhubarb compote included blood oranges and ginger, and was served with an orange posset decorated with violas – which epitomised spring.
All this was prepared in a kitchen which was the only low point of that cottage – it had been planned by someone who saw no need for work surfaces. But the sun shone and Portland Bay which formed the backdrop to the terrace on which we gathered shimmered in a truly heroic effort to mimic the Mediterranean and in the garden cherry blossom and wallflowers all merged with palm trees and primroses in a way that only the English Riviera can manage.
Why go further? We all said, smugly, to each other, that this is what being on holiday in this country is all about. Why put up with the histrionics of the French air traffic controllers who were acting up to celebrate the weekend after Easter? Those who had arrived by train from Castle Cary had had a blissful journey, those who had come by train from London had been less lucky, but had still arrived in good order, those who had come by car from Bridport and Wincanton and Shepton Mallet, from Tisbury and Mere, had just absorbed the scenery.
My daughter, down from Cheshire, after a wonderful fish lunch at the Hive Beach Café on the following day, mused as we ate our eccles cakes on Cogden beach. “I think,” she said, licking her fingers, “that food is much better down here, don’t you?” I agreed that we ate well in Dorset and Somerset, both in pubs and restaurants and via the produce available to buy. “Silly of me,” she added, “to choose a county that specialises in beef.” As a vegetarian who loves fish, my ability to go and buy really fresh locally caught fish almost whenever I like, filled her with envy. We’d stopped at Samway’s fish shop in West Bay, after another fine fish lunch at the Watch House Café, and the sight of a huge whole hake, its gunmetal sides gleaming, made her weep with frustration that she couldn’t take it home. But we did buy several cartons of Samway’s home-made fish soup, and went back to the holiday cottage to have that for supper, together with a platter of sea spinach dressed with more of the Fussels oil and accompanied by a spelt loaf from Leaker’s bakery, bought at the farmers’ market in Bridport.
We are going up to stay with her soon and I know that she’ll provide the local floppy oatcakes, with Mrs Appleby’s Cheshire cheese, washed down with one of the fine beers brewed at her local brewery. There is good food wherever you look in this country now, but we do worry about our forthcoming trip to France. There won’t be a feast as good as Lisa Osman’s to be had there.
Lisa Osman runs her School for Cooks and Makers from Wimborne St Giles, and her Event Kitchen from Lytchett Matravers. Check her websites www.allhallowsfarmhouse.co.uk and www.provisio.uk.com
Simone Sekers © April 2015