My first taste of Stokey Secret Supper on Friday 25th February wasn’t my first experience of underground dining per se (oh no- see/ hear my Bruncheon Club post from last year). But as I’d already met the chef-hosts of that particular home-catering outfit, this latest escapade was arguably the more authentic of the two. However, I’d turned up to eat those delectable blueberry pancakes somewhere on Amhurst Road entirely solo, with no choice but to immerse myself in conversation with my fellow diners- whereas this time I had an ally.
Being seated next to your friend of 9 years standing whom you feel you never see often enough, at an event expressly designed to thrust you into sociable confluence with a random assortment of people you’d otherwise be unlikely to spare the time of day on tube or train, is undoubtedly an impediment. And a huge, welcome safety net. Sense a line of conversation run dry, a joke back-fire, an anecdote spiral into irrelevance or a gag tangibly deflate? Fear not, turn to your right and there’s a familiar face with ready and easy small talk to gloss over the faux pas. Or with deep talk to distract you, for that matter. Arriving at the Church Street flat ahead of the other mystery guests, we’d already cracked open our offie bottle of Chenin Blanc and were deep in the emotionally-rich depths of career development and family finance by the time our table was populated by seven other hungry mouths, all with eager smiles and forthcoming, if formal, introductions.
As cutlery was handed round and momentary acquaintances stifled their rumbling stomachs in anticipation of the 6 course feast, the first ten minutes or so were undeniably stilted. Luckily it transpired that everyone at our table had sensibly come as a pair. Cursory forays into table talk were made, politely: recent holidays, wished for holidays, the comparative merits of bus v.overground to and from the tubeless territory of the ‘restaurant,’ currently our only common ground. As a collective we soon turned to an appraisal of the living room in which we’d found ourselves- ‘Ooh, I like that print- I’d have that… is that a bird or a spaceship?.. I’ve read that… do you reckon he’s got a thing for cars?’ I think it must be a testament to our host Tom Nixon’s self-assurance that, whilst the table wear was spotless, he obviously hadn’t fretted so much about the domestic critique he was laying himself open to to bother about a few stray Christmas cards still adorning the bookcase.
By the time the starter of root vegetable bhajis and sag dahl was served, Jenny, Ben, Jazz, Miguel, Marco, Juan, Esther and myself were all on tentative first name terms, and grateful for the ready-made talking point in front of us. The bhaji was gratifyingly non-greasy and the dahl kicked off the meal with a spice sensation- too much for my compadre but the rest of the company licked their plates clean.
As we awaited our chorizo and tomato soup (which tuned out to be warmingly wholesome, once again with a kick), the conversation became a little more expansive- how much was Facebook worth? Was the original recipe for Coca Cola still secret? Had anyone ever been mushroom picking? What was it like living in Peckham?
The pallet-cleansing homemade lemon sorbet was welcome refreshment for some, a little too bland for others- the lads opposite had already emerged as the class clowns and took great delight in dousing their crystalline mounds in glugs of red wine. I declined the DIY touch but was istantly transported to that inexplicable hilarity of school and college hall dinners, where the jokers always relished breaking the ‘don’t play with your food’ rules parroted at us since we were in high chairs.
Next up was the mango and prawn salad, definitely my favourite of the savouries and really thoughtfully put together- loads of contrasting textures nestling in the bed of seeds, beans, shoots and leaves to compliment the lightly marinaded kebab.
It was a long wait for the main, but thankfully the assembled party were well-oiled enough by this stage in the proceedings to amuse each other with anecdotes of Communist-sympathising fathers newly returned from Cuba, Mad Men work-wear pretensions and the unlikely frugality of bankers, to name but a few.
The lamb massaman curry arrived to a chorus of salivated murmuring as the punchy aroma preceded the plates. It was a chunky vegetable medley and the squash was universally praised (once identified), but only one or two morsels of meat per portion led to some grumbles and suspicion that the neighbouring table had been better fed: cue much cross-table rivalry throughout the remainder of the evening.
After another lengthy interval -it was a very small kitchen and a two-person operation- out came the strawberry pavlova roll- a fun variation on a classic, with a marsh mellow rather than meringue swirl, dotted with pomegranate gems. The banter had risen to surprisingly raucous levels (fueled by a judiciously timed trip to the off license) with riske racial jibes being exchanged and exploded in good faith between the ethnically diverse company- we were as picture perfect a cross-section of contemporary London as the editorial team of Come Dine With Me could hope to engineer. Barbers and bankers, an ad exec, a journo, a student and a chef (he outed himself later), all shared the same grub and gossip, more or less (we could split hairs about the upscale vintage being drunk at the financier end of the table, but that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the bread and boundary breaking palladore, now would it?).
The clock had struck 12 before coffee and brownies were proffered- too late for my supper pal who made a Cinderella-style departure and too late for a caffeine hit for this insomniac, but no one could decline another moist brownie bite. Encapsulating the supping-style of the evening, they were delicate, playful and lovingly made.
After finishing the lion’s share of mine and my absent mate’s BYO bottle, I was then coerced into a round of after dinner drinks at The Lion pub round the corner. Never particularly adept at making polite exits under peer-pressure, and reluctant to break the convivial bond that had sneaked up on us over the last four and a half hours, I happily, if self-consciously, (if incredulously), raised a glass to the kindness of strangers.
Stokey Secret Supper runs a monthly series of dinners and costs £25 a head.
photographs by Kirsty McQuire