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. 

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.