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17 November 2003

I've been in full-on cook mode for the last few days. I wanted to try out a lamb cassoulet with confit of duck on the side, so I invited a few friends round for Saturday night. Simple, straightforward stuff: every now and then it occurs to me that I probably go over the top with dinner parties and that perhaps people are actually a little embarrassed by the profligacy, or else they have to go home and swallow spoonsful of bicarb to settle their outraged stomachs, and neither of those is ideal. So no starter, Chaz, nothing fancy, maybe a bit of cheese afterwards, something like that...

And then I remembered that I have this bottle of cinnamon schnapps with genuine gold flakes floating in it, that I rescued from my bewildered sister's shop in Orkney. Been waiting for an opportunity to test that out. So no starter, but a quick shot of schnapps before dinner, that's not extravagant...

And then I found a recipe for Cape gooseberry upside down cake; and I love upside down cakes, and I love Cape gooseberries (or Chinese gooseberries, or Chinese lanterns, or ground cherries, or physalis). And okay, they're a bit expensive, but no one's going to think about that and it's a very traditional English kind of pudding, so good, we'll cancel the cheese and do that instead...

And then my friend Simon the GP comes round with something a patient had given him. This happens to doctors, apparently, they get gifts from grateful survivors (and, rather more unexpectedly, from the relatives of the deceased - 'He'd have wanted you to have it, doctor.' Uh, why? In the circumstances?). This particular gift was a six-pound trout. Simon's a foodie, but he has a large family who aren't, and he never gets to cook. So here I am with a trout larger and fresher and more wild than I've ever seen before, let alone handled, and I have a dinner party planned and people coming. Well, what else could I do...?

So we start with the schnapps, which is surprisingly good; and then before the cassoulet before the pudding we have cold poached trout with a cucumber mousse and a sort of watercress relish on the side (okay, I confess: it was meant to be another mousse, but I was experimenting with vegetarian alternatives to gelatine and it didn't gel). I had the pan to poach the trout, this vast old steamer that a friend gave me recently, and even that I had to bend the fish to fit it in. And I'd never done poaching-for-cold before, and people had always told me it was so easy: boil the liquid, they said, put in the fish, give it just two minutes and then turn the heat off and let it cool in situ. So I did exactly that, in water with a glass of wine and an onion and a lemon and some herbs and pepper, and people are exactly right, it was perfect. And I thought it looked so gorgeous it really needed a proper plate to sit on, to be presented to my admiring friends; so I shopped town and found the last real fish-plate in the city, and bought it, and brought it home, and as I was unlocking my front door it fell out of my bag and smashed on the doorstep. So I said a few things, and then I went back into town and did a whole nother level of shopping, degree-level shopping, and hunted down a very much prettier (and very much more expensive) plate, and fetched that home with the utmost care, but one of my guests doesn't much care for the baleful glare of a dead fish so we didn't really bother with the presenting bit. Still looked good to me, though heaven only knows when the plate gets used again. How often do you come across a fish so magnificent, so deserving? I may have to take up fishing...

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© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.