Cancer; the sad reality is we’ve probably all been affected by it in some way, big or small, so the connotations around it are rarely positive. Along with politics and religion, I don’t think it’s the most ideal dinner party conversation but last week around the dinner table, we talked about just that. Pancreatic cancer to be precise. This disease affects over 8,000 people in the UK every year and unfortunately only 4% of people survive more than five years, a statistic which despite modern medicine’s best efforts, has not changed much in the last forty years.
Pancreatic Cancer UK is a national charity dedicated to supporting patients and carers, funding research, and campaigning for better care and treatment; a worthy cause indeed. This year, the charity launched their fundraising campaign ‘Host for Hope’ and asked if I’d like to be involvedâ€¦ all I had to do was host a dinner party and spread the message, and they would give me a huge helping hand with the dinner party in the way of Michelin starred chef John Campbell of The Woodspeen. How could I refuse? It’s for a good cause after all!
I arrived at The Woodspeen Cookery School in Newbury bright and early along with fellow bloggers Daisy, Alex, and Emily, donned our fashionably purple ‘Host for Hope’ aprons and focused on the task at hand: prepping a five course dinner for six people. While I love throwing a dinner party, three courses has been my limit and always with dishes I’ve made before. This time, it was all new but John and his team were on hand to guide us through all the mise en plus, the par-cooking, and even the timing for cooking and plating on the night – it really felt like we were working towards a real restaurant service!
Our day started with a quick run through the menu before launching into the bread and pastry making; we would do some bloomer loaves for the soup course, a rye loaf for the cheese course, and a rough puff pastry for the main. In between the knocking back of bread dough or rolling and folding of pastry to layer up those laminations, we made our pumpkin veloute and stock, and even took a tour of The Woodspeen kitchen to see the chefs in action! As someone who loves sitting near the pass and watching chefs cook in restaurants, the walk through the working kitchen was quite the highlight; yes, total food geek.
After that little break, it was back to the kitchen to bake our bread, check on the soup and stock, semi-cook our risotto, and then have some well earned lunch! The Woodspeen put together a fantastic spread of nibbles such as terrines and grilled salmon slices, cheeses, breads, and a delicious treacle tart for a sweet treat.
Then it was back in the kitchen to prepare our truffles and the chocolate fondant mixture, then watch John demonstrate how we would finish our risotto, cook and plate the chicken for the main course, and cook and plate the fondants. To wrap up the day we went through the plan for the next evening while all our food was being carefully wrapped and packed into a large cooler bag, ready for the journey home.
It was a long, intense, tiring day but I enjoyed every bit of it; John was a fantastic teacher and his team were extremely helpful and patient throughout the day so I really didn’t want to let them down, but I was definitely nervous about executing all those dishes the next evening. Luckily for me, my sous chef (a certain someone, if you hadn’t guessed) paid attention to my rambling plan of action, managed to buy more bowls and pudding tins, get the kitchen organised, and set the table, so as soon as I arrived home from work, it was full steam ahead with the cooking!
Our guests arrived, we cracked open the wine and beer, then started with the first course of pumpkin veloute with bloomer loaf, before heading back into the kitchen to finish cooking the wild mushroom risotto. While I loved both these dishes, I had to agree with the rest of the table, the pumpkin veloute with the hint of truffle was spectacular, and I don’t even like pumpkin!
Then it was back into the kitchen to carve the crown of chicken and confit legs, to finish off the tart fine with greens, and the most delicious chicken sauce. I was a little disappointed that my pastry didn’t travel so well so lacked a bit of its puff, but it was still buttery and crisp. With the slightly caramelise shallots on top, it was the perfect base for the moist pieces of chicken and side of the kale and tenderstem broccoli.
The cheese course allowed us to take a bit of a breather before heading back into the kitchen for the final course – chocolate fondants with fruit of the forest, chocolate soil and vanilla creme fraiche. I’ve made fondants before and they’re turned out pretty well but I’ve never made six and with new pudding tins too; I needn’t have worried though as they slipped out of the tins like a dream and upon tasting, put a smile on everyone’s face. Success!
And with that done and dusted, we sent our guests home well fed and watered with a little bag of chocolate truffles, and collapsed onto the couch! We love having people over for dinner, but this dinner was just that little bit more special – I had a wonderful evening and I hope our guests did too, and I’m extremely proud to be supporting such a worthy cause and helping them raise awareness of pancreatic cancer in the UK.
You can find more information about Pancreatic Cancer UK and their ‘Host for Hope’ campaign here and more information about The Woodspeen Cookery School or their Michelin starred restaurant here.
We love theÂ concept of Host for Hope and have decided to keep hosting our dinner parties for a cause, to make a small difference in our own small way… I’ll keep you posted!