When sandwiches just won’t do

I am not alone among chefs who have found the passion and drama of opera rather welcome after a career in a high-pressure kitchen. We need a bit of excitement in our lives. I cannot claim that a restaurant floor quite matches the romance of the Egyptian desert or the waters of the Rhine, or that the dining rooms we have frequented compare to the salons of La Traviata or Der Rosenkavalierbut we might feel perfectly familiar with the Paris of La Bohème or the London of Berg’s Lulu.

If invited to a country house opera, it rather behoves the chef-guest to help with the picnic. If you think a good spread includes some egg and cress sandwiches, a pork pie, a few tomatoes and a bottle of lemonade, you will have to raise your game, delicious as those items are eaten on a beach during the August bank holiday. Grand opera demands just that, something a bit grander.

I like to get there early. I mean properly early, about an hour and a half before the conductor marches on. That gives me time to grab a good spot, put some final touches to the spread and get a few fortifying glasses of champagne under my belt before venturing forth into Valhalla.

The first course, the gastronomic overture, can be enjoyed standing up as though attending a Notting Hill cocktail party or slumped in a picnic chair, desperately reaching forward to grab another splodge of caviar or smoked salmon. The main thing is to keep the starters rather unstructured and to consider this part of the performance as grazing. (The eagle-eyed will possibly discern that the caviar in the accompanying photograph is lumpfish roe. Sadly, the FT’s budget stops short of supplying its correspondents with Sevruga or Oscietra.) These appetisers are light and playful, more suitable perhaps for Così fan Tutte than Wagner, but even Wotan would manage a few devilled eggs.

© Andy Sewell

With Siegfried’s forest murmurs resonating gloriously in the ears, you will be primed for a main course eaten amid the slightly less primeval surrounds of the southern English country garden, with its well-trained roses, manicured lawns and the sparkling streams in which you have nestled your bottle of Puligny-Montrachet. You will have at least an hour for this: after all, the musicians must have their tea too, and the essential spirit of country house opera is timelessness. That is why the thing starts halfway through the afternoon while the rest of the populace is in an office pretending to work.

The food does not need to be too complicated nor too heavy: there is no point weighing yourself down with roast beef and Crozes-Hermitage only to fall asleep during Brünnhilde’s immolation. The chicken pie makes a good centerpiece and is sufficiently substantial, needing only a couple of salads and a decent glass of wine. For dessert I’d suggest the chocolate roulade that I have supplied in these pages previously and which can be found in A Long and Messy Businesswhich may sound like the libretto for Don Carlos but is a collection of my recipes for the FT.

All the following recipes serve about six.

Deviled eggs with anchovy

A platter of deviled eggs with anchovy

© Andy Sewell

  1. Gently lower the eggs into boiling water and cook on a good simmer for eight minutes. Drain and refresh in plenty of cold water. Peel and rinse the eggs then cut them in half lengthways and remove the yolks.

  2. Pound the anchovies in a mortar to make a paste before adding the yolks. Pound these in turn before adding the mayonnaise. Mix well until really smooth and then fill the eggs, either with a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle or simply with a teaspoon. Place a round of spring onion on each one and dust with the paprika or cayenne.

Peach and pepper salad with cumin

A serving dish of peach and pepper salad with cumin

© Andy Sewell

  1. Drop the peaches momentarily in boiling water and then in cold and remove their skins before cutting into segments. Blister the peppers over a hot grill and remove their skins before cutting them into thick strips.

  2. Toast the cumin seeds before pounding them into a powder. Season peaches and peppers with salt and lemon juice, toss in olive oil and sprinkle over the cumin. Add the mint leaves just before serving.

Chicken and ham pie with broad beans

Chicken and ham pie with broad beans on a serving plate

© Andy Sewell

  1. Cover the chicken with cold water in a deep saucepan and bring to a simmer. Skim the surface before adding the onion, garlic, a few sprigs of thyme and the bay leaves and cook very gently for one hour. Leave to cool in its broth.

  2. To make the pastry, cut the lard into small cubes and rub into the flour with a pinch of salt until it resembles fine breadcrumbs (or use a food mixer as I do). Add a couple of tablespoons of very cold water and continue to knead until the mixture becomes a fine, pliant dough. Divide it into two parts, one twice the size of the other, and chill for half an hour.

  3. Cut open the chicken breasts or breast fillets (the little, very tender pieces that lie under the breasts themselves) and remove every piece of sinew and connective tissue. Chop the meat into small pieces before blitzing in a food processor with the egg white. Slowly add half the double cream, scraping the sides, ensuring you have a smooth and homogenous mass. Transfer to a cold mixing bowl and beat in the remaining double cream to form a mousse. Fold in the tarragon and chill.

  4. Remove the chicken from its broth and take the breasts and legs off the bone (the carcass and bones can go back into the broth for further cooking to make a rich stock). Take the bones out of the legs and cut the breasts into thick slices. Cut the ham into small cubes.

  5. Roll out the larger piece of pastry into a wide circle and drop into a high-sided (3cm) 20cm cake tin, leaving a small overhang of pastry. Spread a third of the mousse over the bottom and stud this with half the broad beans. Add a layer of sliced ​​chicken and then another layer of mousse, this time with the chopped ham. Add another layer of chicken before finishing with another layer of mousse and broad beans. Roll out the smaller piece of pastry. Brush the overhang with the egg wash and cover with the pastry, crimping the two together. Brush the surface of the pie with the egg wash. Bake at 190C for one hour and cool completely before serving.

New potatoes with caviar

New potatoes with caviar on a platter

© Andy Sewell

  1. Put potatoes in cold water, bring to a boil and simmer until tender. Refresh in cold water, rubbing off the skins as you do so.

  2. Gouge out a little cavity in the top and fill with the crème fraîche. Top with caviar at the last minute. The choice of caviar is down to you, but a Sevruga will do very well.

Kipper pâté, toast and watercress

Kipper pâté, toast and watercress in a jar

© Andy Sewell

  1. Place the kippers skin-side up in an ovenproof dish, add a couple of tablespoons of water and bake, uncovered, in a hot (200C) oven for 10 minutes, then cool for 10 minutes.

  2. Peel the skin off the kippers and lift off the fillets, taking care to leave behind every trace of bone. Put the fillets in a food processor and add the butter and cooking liquor, pouring them in through a sieve. Add the double cream and a few drops of Tabasco and then blitz the mixture (scraping the sides occasionally) until completely smooth. Add a squeeze of lemon and check the seasoning, adding more Tabasco and salt if necessary. Pack into a jar and cover the surface with a little more melted butter. Refrigerate. Serve the next day with dry toast and undressed watercress.

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