I’d rather be in Oxford than St Johns’ take 2

I have a feeling that I reviewed Johns’ formal hall at this exact point last year. Every year Mark Francis has a birthday dinner and every year it is Johns formal. Last year I was particularly scathing about the unnecessary silver service which resulted in a cold, mediocre meal. Since I was more impressed this time round, he Johnians around me requested I write a revised view of Johns’ formal hall so that their college didn’t retain the bad name on my (I’m sure) celebrated blog. One thing I will always say about Johns is that they are always going to be above some formals as they offer wine with the meal for no extra cost, and it is decent wine. While I am sure that those who see formal as a chance to have a whole bottle of wine with a meal will be disappointed with 3 glasses; for the majority this is a nice addition to the meal.
Another nice touch at Johns is an individual menu card for each person, potentially un-environmental; for a birthday, a nice touch. We started with crab bisque which was impressive. A usual economically friendly version of this most colleges would use to make a profit put of students at formal, would be to serve a thin soup with a touch of crab flavour. At Johns I was impressed to see pieces of crab in the soup, no corners shaved here. It was a balanced and delicious starter.

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The main course was a roast lamb, which I have to admit was roasted very well, melting off the bone. It was served with alright roast potatoes (sorry Johns I’ve had better), basic mint sauce and red current jelly, an exciting gravy (there wasn’t enough) and sautéed carrots. I am still not satisfied ( and probably never will be ) with the silver service approach to presentation but overall it was tasty and a lovely version of the Sunday roast favourite.

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Dessert was classic pannacotta with a rather odd coulis but the most buttery,crumbly shortbread biscuit that made the dish. A good light ending after the rich main course. Nothing overly fancy but still presented better than the other courses. After the 3rd glass of wine had been finished, and coffee (or for Mark Francis, tea…..why he just got given a coffee machine is beyond me) Johns ended on a high. I would tell you how after this my shoe was left (and a month later still is ) at the porters lodge in St Johns – disclaimer, I did leave with shoes on- but that’s another story….

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Feastin

The benefits of singing in a choir may not be immediately obvious to those who don’t. There are the weekly hours you have to put in, the pressure of daily performance, the taking care of your voice. But for those in the know, it is all about the free food and drink: in this case, a decadent 6 course meal with rather nice wine in return for providing some musical entertainment. This is a once-in-a-term occurrence, but when the opportunity comes along we grab it with both hands.
So there we are, all dolled-up to the nines, the Fellows in gowns with red ribbons (for no apparent reason) – classic Cambridge madness. Following the champagne reception, and many photos, we traipsed into Hall. Caius’ food doesn’t usually wow me, but in this case it was rather different…

We started with a smoked chicken salad, mango purée and mango pieces. Whilst not a classic combination, it is certainly a modern favourite and was executed well. The chicken was tender, and the mango was not too sweet. Full marks for presentation to a college that normally serves their Formal Hall meals with a selection of sauce sachets on the table.

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Next we were treated to a delicious pan-fried white fish. I am not entirely sure which type of fish, as for some reason only known to Cauis they insist upon putting the menu in French, for those of us who aren’t multi-lingual – this means guesswork). Unfortunately the fish was served with a vanilla and orange cream. This was just too sweet for the delicate fish and resulted in the whole dish tasting rather like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

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Surprisingly my favourite course was the palate cleanser of Mojito sorbet. While admittedly it possibly would have been better as a dessert, it was minty and sweet and refreshing. There wasn’t much of an alcohol kick to it, but I’m not sure we necessarily needed it by that point…

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For the main course, what else but a nice cut of beef. Sadly this was a little over-cooked: not awful, but I’m afraid not great. However the potatoes, classic new potato roasties, were delicious.

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Following this I believe we did a bit of singing, but that wasn’t really what I was there for. It was a shame that the dessert wasn’t anywhere near as good as previous feast desserts, which have mostly been some sort of variation on a Black Forest gateau. This was just a thick and overly-sweet fig jam in a pastry case with sugary cream on top. I was not the only one not to finish it. (There comes a point where even I can’t eat much more!)

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You would have thought that would be the end of the meal, however it wouldn’t be a feast if there weren’t more courses than sense. Following some cheerful Wood madrigals, (Charles Wood, GCC 1889-1924), we launched into the cheese course, accompanied by claret, muscat and port. Luckily this is always my least favourite course, as I did not really want to eat much more by this point. Not only am I not a big fan of cheese – Sacre Bleu! – but also I find dessert wines just too cloying and sweet. A glass of port is alright, but any more than that is too much for me. This is why I have learnt to like whisky: my new after-dinner drink of choice.

So that was us quite literally singing for our supper. I think the overall message is that when every course has a sweet component, culminating in a sickly dessert, I would prescribe a low-sugar diet!

The Queen of Puddings

The Queen of Puddings

You know the saying, you never get an invite to Queen’s college formal and then two come at once, or is it buses? I forget. I hasten to add before any of my followers worry I’ve been slacking on my revision for finals, this is a belated review. I am always lamenting that King’s music society has no fancy end of year dinner like many other university societies ( admittedly because it is dominated by the male choir and they get fancy dinners for free), so I tend to take up offers from other colleges when I can get them. Last term it was Cauis (what Cauis lacks on an everyday basis it more than makes up for when they make an effort) this term, Queens. Of course they don’t just invite anyone to these things you have to have made a bit of an effort in turning up and take part in the concerts occasionally but luckily the Gent and I are seasoned college music society hoppers, guest appearing in a number of different concerts mostly coerced by the promise of food and drink. The only down side of this is occasionally there are members of the college you have to explain your presence to, especially fellows or even occasionally the master, in this case we kept our head down on a table with The Organist and a Hog’s head in lieu of The Yorkshireman who was unavoidably detained elsewhere. Unsurprisingly the Hog’s head was not the greatest conversationalist, but we kept it flowing (along with the wine).

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I would say no expense spared, but unfortunately (as I was reliably informed by The Organist) Queens charge down to the name card and it was a choice between that and the menu. This meant I knew where I was sitting, but I’m afraid meant a lot of guesswork when it came to the food. Having said that the table was suitably fancy, the bread was warm and the butter was piped into swirls which I always think adds something a little special. Image

The Gent, the Organist and I started with the white wine (not knowing what we were eating) which was adequate and settled down to enjoy a sung grace in the style of Poulenc which definitely beat a fellow attempting to sing you get at most college dinners. Then came the starter. They had clearly upped the anti presentation wise to differentiate this dinner from regular formal hall, I particularly loved the dough sticks, a step up from bread with the pate. I am guessing the pate was either chicken or duck and it was pleasantly rich, salty and creamy. Unfortunately the ratio of pate to bread was a bit overwhelming and whilst the combination of the salty pate, sweet (I want to say tomato) chutney and the soft dough sticks worked well, there wasn’t enough chutney or bread and you ended up with half a lump of pate on your plate, which (after a bit) you realise is just salty and doesn’t taste of much else.

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We moved onto the red for the main, usually a safe assumption, but we had both got it the wrong way round and the white was marginally nicer. It was pork belly. I was pleased at first because it was something different. A change from the college stalwarts of roast lamb, pork, beef, salmon… well you get the idea. Plus it is very hard to overcook pork belly because it is so fatty. While not the most healthy of meats, it is usually melt in the mouth with crispy crackling on top…..mmmm So I was a little confused as to how Queens managed to over cook the meat to a stringy texture with a fatty rather than crispy top, I suspect (ironically) it was actually cooked for too little time at too high a heat. Having said that I would happily eat a LOT of that mashed potato. It was buttery, with a hint of garlic, a hint of mustard, with the thick, comforting, smooth texture that solves many problems. It was complimented by the sweet and smooth carrot puree, unusually what appeared to be edamame beans, an unidentifiable sauce (which was nonetheless very nice) and crispy pancetta providing a burst of saltiness. Shame about the meat.

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At my last dinner in Queens the highest compliment was held by the dessert. A sweet, warm, orgasmic sticky toffee pudding which would have elevated even the worst meal to delicious in my eyes. Sure enough it came out again (a house speciality in fact). They had clearly taken notes from last time as well (or perhaps it was the extra money) but it was served with sweet, thick and creamy vanilla ice cream, which (as I been told by the Organist when I was instructed to wait for cream last time) really made the pudding even better. While they haven’t exactly showed much variety, if it ain’t broke…. It certainly left me with a smile on my face. Queens are alright at the fancy stuff, but they do the simple stuff really well.Image

Rather be at Oxford than St John’s?

There is a myth in Cambridge that St John’s college formal hall is a place of outrageous decadence. They only serve lobster, caviar and truffles. Every evening is started with a champagne reception and it is eaten off plates of real gold, or so the Daily mail would have us believe.

I’m sorry to report that there was no such excessive lavishness. however there was a nice meal with nice wine for a very nicely subsidised price. (Take note King’s). They make a wonderful show about it all, with individual printed menus, complete with college crests and wine descriptions. In fact most things had the college crest on it, plates, coffee cups, napkins almost like John’s were trying to imprint on you their presence.Image

ImageThey score pretty high on first impressions, with the waitress served warm bread rolls and wine and despite the fact the grace was particularly lengthy and my chair almost fell backwards due to the weight of my bag, I sat down with high expectations. The Riesling was nice, not too sweet (which I do not like) but not overwhelmingly matched with the smoked salmon starter. Talking of which they slightly oversold that one. While it was smoked salmon, brown bread and butter, dressed salad and lemon wedge, I’m pretty sure even my cooking-phobic father could have put it together. No horseradish necessary. Having said that I am a big smoked salmon fan so I was happy.

ImageI’m afraid the waitress service did start to get a bit old as each individual component was plated over our shoulder. While Mark Francis next to me commentated that it gave us time to enjoy conversation, company and drink our wine (the red, not as nice as the white but still good) before they came around with top-ups, my lamb failed to maintain 98% of its heat. I was impressed with their potatoes (take note Cauis), crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside and well seasoned, although I’m not entirely sure what made them chateau potatoes other than the fact they were served by St John’s. I later found out this means potatoes cut to resemble jewels (which makes a lot more sense). I was equally a fan of the sauce which was sweet and rich and the amazingly al dente green beans, lightly coated in butter. The rather suspicious sounding ‘accompaniments’ turned out to be basic mint sauce and redcurrant jelly – I’m pretty sure all colleges buy the same brand – nothing special. The meat was well seasoned but overdone, I can’t really blame them for that – mass production is not easy.

ImageAt this point I went to the loo and returned to find my seat had unfortunately been soaked by the exuberant gestures of either Mark Francis or Gareth Malone with my red wine. Luckily the fellows had left to an even longer dismissal or the sight of 10 seemingly blood soaked napkins might have been an alarming sight for them. As it is we simply added a little drama to the meal and got an extra glass of wine. Before settling down to dessert. I was one of the lucky few that didn’t have to eat my pithivier with my face (the word gateau was unnecessary). It turned out to be a tasty, well baked almond filled pastry which went well with slightly sweetened whipped cream. Good ending John’s. Moment’s of brilliance – although I am expecting lobster next time. Image

The Queen’s Salmon

The Queen’s Salmon

There is little excuse for how abysmal I have been at blogging lately, well except finals. Exams which will hopefully prove that three years and £9000 wasn’t a waste of time and I shouldn’t have just gone to cookery college or started working in the Pepperberry.. Perhaps post finals there will suddenly be a tide wave of blog posts, or perhaps I will be a bit too busy punting, drinking Pimms or playing croquet, watch this space.

However even finalists are allowed to have a bit of fun so last week I added a new college formal to my modest collection. The organist encompassed the meal in one sentence which fitted rather well; basic food but done well.Upon arrival the ambiance impressed. While Queens may have their hall in the modern part of the college (it’s no 19th century building) it is far nicer than any other modern college hall I’ve been in, the lighting is dimmed but you can see the food and the place settings were very posh.

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The menu didn’t immediately scream Amazing, very different from Kings, simply stated, I think I preferred it to the flowery language, There was a rather weird sounding Meatball, mango chutney and cucumber to start. But I was assured by the lovely lady who had invited me that she had had meatball at formal before and it was of above average quality. She was right….about the meatball. The meatball itself was well cooked, still tender and moist with a lovely mildly spicy flavour. While there was only one, it was perfect portion for a starter. What was lacking was the accompaniment. a far too dot of mango chutney (that complimented the meatball) was masked by a huge dollop of cucumber mixed with yoghurt. I think it was meant to be raita but it was too heavy on the cucumber and was pretty much flavoured with nothing else, I fail to see what it added to the dish. Plus it looked a little odd, like a sort of green egg with a mango chutney yolk.

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Moving on to the main it sounded fairly uninspiring on the menu, Poached Fillet of Salmon with Saffron Cream is more what you would expect as the last resort fish option at an 80s retro dinner party. (Think devilled eggs, vol au vent, sherry trifle) But I am willing to admit when I am wrong and Queens surpassed itself. The salmon was perfectly cooked, (if I was really picky the skin could have been crispy but then I would be expecting to pay £15 for the dish not the meal plus wine) the saffron sauce was really tasty and needed no additional seasoning and the green beans were al dente not overcooked, virtually impossible in mass catering. But the real surprising winner was the seafood risotto. I was expecting overcooked (seafood and risotto), underseasoned and lacking in any actual seafood (a la standard mass catering). It was overcooked, but it sort of worked. The stodginess just made the risotto more comforting, like a savoury rice pudding, well seasoned studded with a surprisingly large amount of well cooked seafood. It was unexpected and potentially not formal but very tasty.

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Finally the creme de la creme (this pun makes sense later). I had been looking forward to the sticky toffee pudding for a while. It may well be my favourite dessert ever… if made well. Well Queens did it. It was sweet, moist but not over the top. Think sunday roast when you were 5 and your mum was learning to be domestic but had learnt Delia’s basics and Delia knows her stuff for the home cook. What would have elevated this dish from family comfort food to smart mid-week dinner party would have been something else, ice cream or cream. This was luckily a view shared by The Organist who insisted that I wait to touch my pudding until he had persuaded the waiting staff to venture into what we can only assume is the secret cream emporium of Queens given the 15min wait, to get us some pouring cream. While I failed to resist trying a small bite before the cream arrived I will admit he was right, the cream made a good dish even better. 

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Queens has nailed the everyday formal experience for students. It isn’t fussy or pretentious, but it’s a step up from cafeteria food. It doesn’t serve you individually so your food gets cold, but it isn’t insistent upon presentation over flavour. It isn’t perfect but it’s pretty damn tasty and comforting. To quote Great British Menu (my latest addiction) it nails the brief. Basic food, cooked well, pretty damn tasty.

This Inmate’s Last Meal

This Inmate’s Last Meal

Three years of pretentious, over-priced but very special 3 course meals and it all came down to a St Paddy’s day feast for my last formal ever at Kings. We’ve had hits, THAT venison steak, and spectacular misses, coffee in the starter…. but Kings has at least kept a consistency of too many things on the plate and geometric shapes, a level of pretentiousness far above any other in a Cambridge. However it is certainly an event every week, nowhere else is black tie virtually the norm for a weekly student dinner, nowhere else is there such a paradox within the generally perceived message of the organisation (nb communist flag in the bar), nowhere else would weekly dinners stop 8 weeks before they should. Lets not lie, I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s more exclusive. I even splashed the boat out on wine – seriously rewarded, smooth balanced taste that was light but robust.
I wasn’t necessarily thrilled that our last ever formal was St Patrick’s day themed but I was pleasantly surprised in some areas, quite disappointed in others.

The menu read as follows
Haddock, cauliflower, squid chowder, smoked bread foam, dehydrated Irish moss and soda bread

Guinness braised beef flank stew, with caramelised shallots, thyme, champ, kale, baby turnip and blackened leeks

Irish chocolate coffee cake, vanilla and white chocolate malt, Baileys ice cream and raspberry glass

The first course had my favourite and least favourite parts. It was generally decided that the moss was possibly the most disgusting thing many of us had ever tasted, sort of like swallowing a mouth of sea water, a dehydrated mouth of sea water. We also believe that that is the reason the soda bread had an after taste of earwax (too harsh?). However the black guinness looking soup with potato foaming topping was delicious. The squid added a savoury element that lifted an other wise delicious but basic haddock and potato chowder to an morish soup that I could’ve kept eating for the whole meal (in some cases maybe I should’ve).

The second course was slightly deceivingly small on the plate – it had body, a huge body of supposedly  melt in the mouth meat, it was alright but it was quite stringy all in all although the caramelised shallots complimented it as did the buttery mash. Plus I love blackened leeks, but once again Kings decided sauce wasn’t necessary, they were wrong.

I didn’t realise how full I was going to be by this point and couldn’t finish the rich chocolate ganache they had called a cake.. It did go well with the delicious Baileys Ice cream and the raspberry glass was for once a welcome novelty, but ration of ice cream to ganache probably should’ve been the other way around….

It was a lovely night with my friends but I feel they should’ve let me redesign the dessert, oh and actually the main and why not the starter as well for good measure…

Burns Night

Burns Night

The celebration of the Scottish poet Robert Burns which I only came across in Cambridge, England…..  It is the sort of occasion where the menu reads like a witches chant from Macbeth, the men wear skirts and everyone toasts a sheep’s stomach with what some consider to be the nectar of gods and what others (me) consider to be absolutely disgusting. I’m not entirely sure why this English institution feels like it should celebrate such a scottish tradition but I am very glad we do, I love haggis. If someone had told me at the age of 6 that I would love to eat sheep’s offal minced with oatmeal and boiled in a stomach I probably would have thrown up, but ever since I tasted offal for the first time at 16 (a black pudding stuffed pork loin) I absolutely loved it. (The exception being Tripe which I tried once and never again…) Offal tends to lift a dish with its’ rich, earthy flavour and  works well in small doses such as the lovely offal risotto The Fat Duck serves with its’ lamb dish, or a slice of black pudding pan fried with brunch or even pan fried liver with caramelised onions (lots of iron – good for you). Offal should really be on people’s menus more often, plus just think how sophisticated you’ll look with deep fried sweetbreads on your menu.

We started off as usual scrambling for places on the tables, decorated with topical tartan tablecloths. Settling down with warm rolls and butter and a glass of wine we awaited the first course eagerly; the enigmatic Cullen Skink espuma, home made haddock and oat rumbledethumps. Roughly translated what this actually means is foamy potato and fish soup with haddock and oat fishcake/dumplings. Tasty stuff. I especially applaud the Scottish for their love of strong flavours, it makes a dish so much better. I found dipping the oaty dumplings into the light soup was particularly gratifying. The man with the colourful hair’s vegetarian option was incredibly good (I’ve mentioned my aversion to king’s vegetarian options in the past – a whole slab of goats cheese….) He had a colourful green leek and potato soup along with his own cheddar cheese ‘rumpledethumps’.

Having satiated rumbling stomachs for a little while we were treated to what some might call the main entertainment. The first I heard about the traditional ‘Address to the Haggis’ was about 12pm that afternoon, when I was asked. as a music student, if I knew anyone who played the Bagpipes……I wish I did. Luckily they managed to find some Bagpiper who played the haggis in as it was paraded around the hall in procession. At the top of the hall came the traditional poem spoken to the Haggis (to read the full thing http://www.robertburns.org.uk/Assets/Poems_Songs/toahaggis.htm) which is brilliant when seen alongside the Anglicised translation. The haggis was then pierced and we all raised a toast to the haggis with a shot of whisky. Whisky is possibly the only thing that the Scottish and I disagree on. Then again whisky appears to be the marmite of alcoholic drinks. I have never met anyone who merely likes whisky, generally there are the devotees and those who find it hard to stomach and unfortunately I fall in the latter. Having said this as this was burns night (and egged on by friends around the table) I did finish my whole shot. I don’t know whether it was because I hadn’t really had whisky before or because it was strong but it did slightly knock me for 6. Therefore I was incredibly grateful to have the main arrive. MacSween Haggis, neeps, tatties, giroles, curly kale and Glayva sauce. Translation: Offal minced with oats boiled in a sheep’s stomach, turnips, potatoes, kale, mushrooms and whisky sauce. It was wonderful. The Haggis was peppery and rich, the potatoes were mashed, buttery with a hint of mustard and the sauce was thick and savoury, complimented well by the less strong turnips. It all went together perfectly and was warming and filling. I particularly liked the combination of the mustard and pepperiness. The man with the colourful hair is also allergic to nuts so couldn’t unfortunately have the vegetarian alternative Haggis. However his mushroom risotto was filling and warming if a little disappointing (a bit carb heavy).

Dessert came and I was very pleased. It had a wonderful combination of textures and a lovely strong honey flavour. Honey and Oat Parfait with soft chocolate and Drambuie Celtic layer. I particularly liked the parfait, although perhaps the dark chocolate fondant was a little rich considering such a rich main, I would have preferred just the ice cream or maybe more of the wonderful parfait. The best part about the Scottish is after such a rich meal they know exactly what to do, dance. Great fun, although admittedly Kings scottish dancing following a large consumption of wine was possibly a little more slap hazard than the Scottish. Having said that it probably depends how much whisky they drink…

Foundation Feast

Another day, another 5 course free feast, with matching wines. Oh no wait this is the only one, so I was goddamn going to enjoy it. We started with a drinks champagne with pink fizz, not Champagne unfortunately but it was nice and dry, not overly sweet as rose can often be. People always say going to Cambridge is a bit like Hogwarts and while I can attest it is nowhere near as fun, or perilous, there are moments when you walk into a gothic hall complete with giant christmas tree, portraits and old silver, it makes you wonder why the candles aren’t floating.

 

Sitting down at the table, there are two things you notice first. We were given about 12 glasses and there was a beautifully printed menu, with the all the food and wine on one side, and the order of ceremonies on the other side. We started with grace, sung by the choir from the balcony (which on this occasion I happened to be singing in…) Then the food started coming thick and fast. We were first bought Venison, pickled walnuts, beetroot and celeriac Espuma served with Vignier, primavera, P-J Villa, 2011 (a white wine). The venison was smoked and beautifully succulent, the walnuts added a crunch, but it was hard to tell they were pickled, the textures of beetroot worked nicely too, adding sweetness (a favourite of kings) but the Espuma was under-whleming. Having said this, the whole dish was rather good, and this was one time that the tiny Kings portions really worked.

 
Apparently at a feast even the bread is a step up. We were given cute little loaves, not warm but soft with a crunchy crust, and the butter deserves its own mention. It was creamy and salty and better than normal butter, you wouldn’t thing you can taste the difference, but this time you really could (see what I did there) I would happily have eaten that butter on its own.

The next course was fish; monkfish cheeks, cauliflower, parsley root, chanterelles and snails served with a Chardonnay, Hen and Chicken, Ad Hoc, Pemberton, 2011. Whilst I preferred the light red midsummer house served with it’s monkfish, this was still quite a full white so sort of worked. The monkfish was possibly my favourite dish, I was especially pleasantly surprised by the snail and how well it worked in the dish. The onion rings meant that the dish had a crispy finish, the parsley root added body and the single snail added a really interesting additional layer of texture and flavour, my only gripe would be that the monkfish wasn’t absolutely perfect but considering they were serving around 200 people it was quite impressive.


 
The next dish was a Lamb cutlet, sweetbread ravioli, braised chicory, shallot puree, baby turnips and morels served with a Chambolle Musigny, G.Barthod, 2004. I was impressed that they had done things properly and served proper meaty cutlets with very little fat, yet still maintained a juicy, rare finish for everyone. The chicory was a slightly unnecessary addition, as was the random baby turnip on the side of the plate which most on my table seemed to leave. But the ravioli had a melt in the mouth centre, the shallot puree worked really well and the jus was lovely.

 I was a little confused by the next course. Blackberry and rose sorbet, vanilla yoghurt sponge, marzipan, blackberry paper and creme fraiche, saved with Moscato d’Asti, Albino Rocca, 2012. It was called sorbet, fair enough. but I still didn’t understand why the ration of sorbet to everything else on the plate had to be so overwhelmingly large, especially given this was the sole dessert and the sorbet was overly sweet. I liked the cake, and the combination of a little sorbet, cake and creme fraiche which cut through the sweetness, they just got the proportions wrong. I’m afraid I don’t like marzipan so left that bit but the ‘paper’ was lovely and crisp, if a little thick to call paper…. The wine was delicious, a sparkling tasting almost like a sweet champagne.

Finally the whole meal ended with Petits Langres pressed and marinated in Champagne and juniper, fennel jelly, rustic bread served with port and claret ( I tried a little of both and the claret was some of the best I have ever tasted). I was dreading this course as I am not a cheese fan at all, especially soft cheese like camembert. I tried a little and it was strong. The bread was delicious, little rustic slices and so I’m afraid I may have just had that with some more of the amazing butter. In my defence I think even the keenest cheese lover would have found a whole baked cheese hard to eat after such a feast… 
This was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity, and this was a great chance for Kings to shine at what it does best (even if it’s not necessarily what students like…) We all came back down to student life with a bump when the post dinner reception thrown for us was beers in the grand surrounding of our opening reception, leaving the Hogwarts experience firmly behind. 

Sidney Formal Hall

Sidney Formal Hall

So after the pomp and circumstance of Kings and they relative casualness of Cauis, I was relieved to be attending a mid priced, tasty meal with the air of formality aided by a compulsory suit dress code and fully plated courses. The first impression of soft white bread with a moderate amount of butter was tasty and simple.

 Since it was the last formal of term ( and the red haired lady was visiting)  I splashed out and got the most expensive wine, a £10 bottle of merlot. (plus the food was free because I’d just sung for 4 hours that afternoon for the college).

You also tend to feel quite special at these formals because they write out the menu in a fancy card with a short history of a particular aspect of the college. We were all a little bemused as to why we would need a fish knife for a prawn cocktail, but we figured that the college had bought a set and decided that they would therefore use them as much as possible, with any excuse.

 

The prawn cocktail itself had a nice sauce, tangy marie rose with a spicy kick on the top with a little paprika, but it was let down quite a lot by the sad, freshly defrosted prawns which felt as fake as the ones you pick up in sainsburys under the premise of ‘fresh fish’ that taste far to fishy for freshly peeled prawns. The lettuce leaf selection could also have been a bit more exciting.

I do like Sunday formal because it generally means a roast, which nostalgically reminds me of my childhood when this would happen every sunday. Todays roast was Pork with Apple sauce. Sidney usually does ok on the cooking front, its not as chewy as Caius, but it’s certainly not absolutely perfect. Likewise the veg was pitifully watery and under flavoured, requiring a lot of salt. But there were two things that however completely redeemed this dish, the gravy which was plentiful and fairly tasty, and the brilliant roast potatoes, well seasoned (herbs and all) and so crunchy and fluffy, very tasty.

The pastry chef at Sidney has a flair for presentation and often it is almost restaurant style, with its mousses and printed chocolate. (Never over the top on foams etc but well presented and tasty) This dessert was tasty, I particularly enjoyed the bite in the apples, which were quite sweet against the creamy creme fraiche and then the pastry was well cooked, there was clearly a good attempt at presentation, but a simple apple tart would be just as smart and probably less weirdly constructed.

Dinner of Kings

Dinner of Kings: Thanksgiving Formal

Formal Hall at Kings carries an aura of mystery, partly because it happens once a week, partly because it sells out online within 2 minutes and partly because it is incredibly difficult to get a ticket if you are at any other college. You would think for the most expensive formal in Cambridge (£15 without wine) that it would be absolutely mind blowing. But I have to say often Kings is a bit more pomp and circumstance than actually substantial. They have the mindset of a michelin chef with foam here and jelly there, but often they mismatch the flavours, ignoring the basics and focussing on showy presentation, forget about the textures or fail to pay attention to vegetarians and allergies. For example I was sitting next to my friend one time who is a vegetarian and allergic to nuts. Whilst we were given a fancy looking pigeon salad with hazelnuts, popcorn, pigeon breast and leg, raisins and dressing, he was given a large slab of goats cheese (no bread) a few salad leaves and some popcorn. In fact goats cheese is a pretty standard kings fare, but you would have thought for a college that prides itself so much in its culinary prowess that it refuses to lower costs for students because it would be “changing the nature of the event”, might be able to think of something interesting to do to goats cheese other than serve it as a huge raw slab. 

However often Kings often steps up to the plate (my halfway hall dish of pigeon pastille was particularly tasty) so I entered this ‘ Thanksgiving Superformal’ with high expectations. Besides I sometimes secretly wish I was American because Thanksgiving seems like such a good excuse for a huge meal a couple of weeks before Christmas. Plus it is rather exciting going to Kings formal, because it only happens once a week, everyone dresses up )some even in black tie) and it definitely feels like a big event rather than just a meal. 

Kings hall was certainly meant for these sort of events and getting to eat in a hall that resembles Hogwarts more than any other college hall is almost worth paying the extra money for. (The price you pay for this ambiance however is that the mood lighting sometimes means you can’t see what you’re eating, so if the photos are a bit fuzzy I apologise). They certainly hadn’t stinted on the decorations. There were American flags everywhere, hats, turkey pictures, napkins, hats and american flag boppers which entertained us while we waited for the fellows to enter. Included in the price of formal was a cocktail. It looked good, but I don’t think anyone knew what on earth was in it. On my table there were rumours of champagne, rum, whisky, cranberry, orange….I’m pretty sure not all of them were in it. U4 who was sitting next to me protested it was to sour and promptly added two large spoonfuls of sugar to his. 
 

The starter looked pretty interesting with a twist on the classic thanksgiving pumpkin pie in savoury form with minced up cranberries, I was impressed with the garnish and the cranberries with toasted pumpkin seeds were the thing that lifted the dish from an okay rather un-flavoursome mushy tart to a rather tasty dish. While the filling for the tart could have been made better, the pastry was crisp and the whole dish had a wholesome feel to it, not sure it was worth the extra £2 for super hall….. On the bright side I could have had assorted textures of vegetables which my gluten free friend, Stornoway, got as a substitute. They had made a bit of effort, cutting up the beetroot into odd shapes and pureeing some of the veg, but that was literally all it was, no protein or anything…. One thing Kings has got up on the other colleges is their bread and butter. Not only is the bread soft (and occasionally warm), but also they shape the butter into lovely little flower shapes, which are so much better than those awful, hard little wrapped cubes of butter most places will give you.


For the main we were presented with a roast chicken breast, garnished with a sweet potato ‘fritter’ (which tasted and looked surprisingly like a dumpling), collard greens (essentially cabbage) a little jug full of sauce and a chargrilled piece of corn. My main gripe with this dish was the corn. For a place that wants to maintain a strict formal atmosphere, Kings really shouldn’t have given us a piece of food you can only eat by picking up with your fingers and unattractively munching on, getting food all over your face. The malt (male-alto) opposite me decided to to compare it to finding David Cameron in Kings bar, not suited to its surroundings. It could have done with a ton of butter, or really anything to lift it from just being a piece of corn. The chicken breast was cooked really well though. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I find that a kitchen has managed to mass produce well cooked meat and this chicken was succulent and flavoursome and tasted even better with the gravy (plus I always find it incredibly satisfying when I get to pour things myself, and I love mini sauce jugs). The collard greens were pretty boring to be honest but the sweet potato fritter (whilst having the odd texture of a thick mashed potato cake ) was actually really tasty even if the texture didn’t really add much. It was sweet and salty and bursting with sweet potato. I was very pleased that this time kings didn’t overcomplicate this by adding too many unnecessary foams/popcorn/jelly. In fact the only hint to Kings nouveau cuisine approach to formal was a little smudge of sweet potato puree which was likewise really tasty, sweet and salty. I thought that this was a reasonable portion (Kings formal can occasionally leave you feeling hungry). I think Kings are finally starting to get the message that students want simpler, tastier and bigger amounts of food. 

After a little light Acappella entertainment (another perk of super hall, I presume this is where my extra £2 goes), we were brought the dessert. I honestly had no idea what key lime pie was before, and Im not necessarily sure I know what it is now. As far as I can tell from Kings, it is a cheesecake with a faintly lime flavoured cream. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t appear to have put lime zest in any of it, which might have made it taste more limey. It was delicious, but it wasn’t key lime pie. In order to add a nouveau cuisine twist, we were treated to a really good, thick dark chocolate ganache but a disappointing ‘chocolate soil’ (another favourite of Kings) was just bitter to the point of tasting like a burnt crunch, it probably would have been better to have extra biscuity base for crunch. The imagination again appeared to have run out for Stornoway. The gluten free offering was textures of fruit (balancing out textures of vegetables from earlier), again they had cut them up into interesting shapes, but it seemed a shame that whilst they were paying the same amount, those with allergies weren’t given a dessert with similar substance. 



 

On the whole Kings did seem to have toned down the pointless foams and jellies, the portion sizes were satisfying and the overall impression was of a tasty, filling meal. However they did fall short a few times on flavour and execution. I’m still not sure that they couldn’t do more with the money they have (the price we pay is subsidised by college). Nevertheless I’m still excited for Christmas formal next week.