Words by Elli Hollington Beyond the basics of sustenance and gluttony, food is emotional – closely linked to memory, imagination, and travel. Supper clubs have cosily diversified the capital’s dining-out options, in which strangers come together along big wooden tables to break bread and share conversation. It is the experience of the intimate dinner party, expanded out, and unlike a restaurant, you know you’re never going to have that evening, those people, this menu in combination again.
Out of London’s growing vogue for supper clubs come two in particular that understand this irresistible lure of food and culture. The Literary Hour, which originated out of a group of friends' Haringey kitchen, lays on suppers inspired by classic writers and books. Kino Vino, a cinema supper club, puts on stylish evenings of feasting from the national cuisine of the particular film screened at the beginning of the night. This is cooking which inspires nostalgia, whilst also sparking visions of unfamiliar places and flavours.
The Literary Hour has been going strong for nearly two years now. Head chef Jude Skipwith started exploring culinary possibilities with her housemates in the summer of 2015. Thumbing through childhood copies of Roald Dahl stories, they dreamed of snozzcumbers, edible wallpaper, and luscious giant peaches. They put together their first menu, and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ golden ticket chocolate bars were sent out to their guests in the post as invitations. Since then, they’ve done ‘Silence of the Lambs’ for Halloween (duck hearts, lamb shanks, and blood-like gazpacho), and then moved on to the stories of the Brothers Grimm, using pumpkins leftover from Cinderella’s carriage, and peas that rolled out from under the Princess’s mattress, presumably. Beatrix Potter inspired last year’s spring supper club, with their dining table laid with an edible vegetable patch of seeds and olive tapenade ‘soil’, and tiny blue felt Peter Rabbit jackets as table settings.
Over Christmas they made the decision to upscale, moving their pots, pans, knives and pile of battered paperbacks to Styx. The multi-purpose arts venue in Tottenham gave them the space for their most inventive and ambitious supper club to date. Diners found themselves in an everlasting Narnian winter, complete with an indoor forest of fir trees with sprayed-on 'snow' and frequent belchings of dry ice. Warming up with steaming cocktails and hot water bottles, we sat down to feast under the most beautiful canopy of branches and fairy lights. I found myself taken back to childhood evenings reading ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ as the courses began to roll out. To start: a deliciously smooth celeriac velouté in a teacup, served with a black pepper scone and horseradish butter to warm our bellies. As we listened to the words of the Pevensies fleeing the wrath of the White Witch (readings between courses continue to be The Literary Hour’s signature touch), we tucked into an adorable 'ham on the run' picnic spread of the sort the beavers might have packed for them, although perhaps their version wouldn't have had the beaver salami we sampled. Of course, there was handmade Turkish Delight. After some boozy hot chocolate and pudding with marmalade vodka, we were ready for home.
Speaking to The Literary Hour’s founder Jude, it is evident that she is utterly obsessed with food, a highly talented amateur chef learning new techniques as she goes. She remembers in particular the challenge of making gorgeously fresh duck egg ravioli, ensuring the pasta was cooked whilst the egg yolk inside remained runny. Upcoming menus are often researched at the bottom of her garden with a picnic basket of cold prosecco and crisp salad, and she has been to every corner of London in her quest for the best ingredients. While her cooking remains essentially local and European, she’s a dedicated foodie traveller, and starts reminiscing about dishes of currywurst in Berlin and chicken heart kebabs in Thailand during our conversation. In her opinion, “Food is such a fantastic way to begin understanding a different country and their different culture. When language might be a barrier, it is the easiest - and most delicious - way to connect to people.”
This is a sentiment shared by Alissa Timoshkina, and put into mouthwatering practice with her supper club Kino Vino. She brings her genius curation skills to pair chefs with a particular film of her choice. Travelling thematically from nation to nation with each individual supper club, last month was all about India. Handed glasses of prosecco at the door, we started with a screening of 'The Lunchbox', the charming Indian film in which a pair of strangers fall in love over a misdelivered packed lunch. India, perhaps more than any other country, really comes to life on the screen: the streets of Mumbai rammed with dabbawalas on their bicycles, office workers inhaling spices from the lifted lid of a tiffin tin as ceiling fans whirl overhead, smoking on one's balcony at sunset. And the food: rich pulpy aubergines in baingan bharta, perfectly simple dal, and stuffed bitter gourd, with fresh chapatis to mop everything up. The heroine of ‘The Lunchbox’ licks her fingers at her stove, and the unlikely hero’s days are transformed as he falls in love with firstly her cooking, and then her (despite some outrageously ungrateful complaints about one lunch being too salty).
While we were watching, we snacked on our first course from Bengal-born guest chef Romy Gill - deep-fried potato balls with flavours of ginger, chilli and mint zinging alive in our mouths. Then, dinner, on the scrubbed wooden tables next door, surrounded by palms, candles and flower garlands. It was the kind of fresh, inspired Indian menu which is a world away from the average British high street curry house - stand-out dishes were the deliciously tangy octopus tentacles with a cool apple, fennel and dill salad, and the hugely comforting goat curry that followed. There were also plates of pork and cabbage momos to be rolled luxuriantly around in a soy and spring onion dipping sauce and stuffed, whole, into our mouths. As the guests opposite me told tales of trips to India, we finished up with perfectly creamy shrikhand flavoured delicately with saffron and cardamom, as live sitar played in the background. Oh, and there were mouthfuls of ruby jewelled pomegranate seeds - on everything!
As Alissa prepares for her next dinner, a Polish feast from chef Zuza Zak, I ask about her particular connection with food, film and travel. “It is the concept of a journey - sensual, emotional, intellectual - that has always attracted me to viewing a film,” she told me. “You start with a blank screen and by the end of the film, your life is no longer the same. This is not too dissimilar to a journey one takes during a good meal – an empty plate is your passport to a unique world of flavours that lifts you out of your seat. The idea of people gathering around a beautifully set table, and embarking on a journey through a film-inspired meal was the foundation for my supper club.”
The Literary Hour: www.theliteraryhour.com
Kino Vino: www.kinovino.org