Supper club: Bristol Cookbook Club

by Crumbs

22 August 2017

"The guests soon hurry in from the arctic weather and begin pulling saucepans, Tupperware boxes and books from their bags; two of us reheat food on the hob, whilst a third person squeezes past to reach the oven"

As co-founder of this local food event, Joanna Clifford reveals what happens when you cross a book group with a supper club…

On a bitterly cold January evening, I arrive for dinner at a house in St George, Bristol. The 1960s facade conceals a clean, contemporary interior: minimalist, Scandi-style furniture, cosy shaded lighting and bursts of colour courtesy of decorative accessories. The table is set and my host for the evening, Franky, is preparing an aromatic curry. However, unlike an ordinary dinner party, she is about to be joined in the kitchen by eight keen cooks…

The guests soon hurry in from the arctic weather and, after exchanging lively greetings, begin pulling saucepans, Tupperware boxes and books from their bags. Two of us reheat food on the hob, whilst a third person squeezes past to reach the oven. Somebody else frantically whips cream with rosewater and, in the dining room, another guest adds the finishing touches to a salad.

“It’s funny watching everybody rush around,” says Franky’s twelve-year-old daughter, who stands looking slightly bemused at the edge of the kitchen.

Welcome to the seventh Bristol Cookbook Club. Set up by myself and a friend (also named Joana) the group is based on the Oxford Cookbook Club run by Ailsa Pater, who now owns The Mill Kitchen in Farsley. The premise lies somewhere been a dinner party and a book group: we cook the recipes of a chosen cookbook or food writer, before meeting at one person’s house to discuss the book over dinner, with everyone bringing along their favourite dish.

“One of the few things I missed when I left Oxford was Cookbook Club,” says Joana M, a youth worker in Bristol. “It had been an absolute godsend when I found it – an evening every six weeks where people who enjoy cooking, thinking and talking about food, get together.

“I assumed there would be something like it in Bristol, but I couldn’t find it – there were supper clubs, there were evenings where a restaurant cooked from one book, but there was nothing like the Oxford group. I wanted to set up my own, but was worried I wouldn’t have enough time or be able to galvanise enough people. When I met you , I knew I’d found the perfect Cookbook Club partner,” she tells me.

The hot dishes soon come together and there is a flurry of activity as pans, bowls and serving platters are squeezed onto the table. But, before we eat, a Cookbook Club ritual must be observed: guests rearrange the table and contort themselves into strange positions around each other to take photos. For the bloggers, creatives and social media addicts in the group, this is one of the few places that standing on a chair to snap your food isn’t considered rude...

When our stomachs are groaning as much as the food-laden table, and even the most avid photographers can no longer resist the enticing smells, we begin. This time, the theme has been slightly different; we’ve each cooked from a book that we received for Christmas: “It’s like the best type of all-you-can-eat buffet,” says Kym, a local photographer, blogger and social media consultant.

We pile our plates with chickpea curry from Fresh India , tomato and coconut rice from 26 Grains and sticky harissa beets from Stirring Slowly . There is ’slaw by local café Spicer & Cole and spicy pork by Little Kitchen Cookery School, both by way of The Bristol Cookbook. Anna Jones’ cucumber satay salad from A Modern Way to Eat provides welcome freshness and bite to counterbalance the softer, heavier winter foods.

Despite their diverse origins, the common themes of Indian spicing, root vegetables, pulses and grains mean that the recipes complement each other well. My favourite dish is the winter cabbage rolls stuffed with spiced leek, parsnip and red lentils, and grilled in a rich tomato sauce. The topping of crumbled feta, pistachio and dates brings the sweetness of parsnip into focus and provides the crunch needed to complete the dish. It’s a knockout from Anna Hart’s The New Vegetarian .

As we eat, we talk about the cookbooks: the style of writing, recipes that worked and kitchen disasters. The conversation flows naturally to broader food topics – the movement against ‘clean eating’, vegetarianism, the courgette crisis – before veering away from food altogether to focus on ear-piercing, the use of swear words and our other halves. At some point there is even a spontaneous rendition of “I wanna sex you up” by Colour Me Bad, followed by a fit of laughter. Don't ask...

We’ve eaten so much that it may seem surprising to find we’re still hungry, but the excitement is palpable as dessert is brought out. There is Sabrina Ghayour’s spiced carrot, pistachio and almond cake from Persiana, and Diana Henry’s bitter dark chocolate cake served with the piece de resistance, a whiskey-laced coffee cream, from Simple . These might be proper grown-up desserts, but they induce child-like delight among the diners.

The evening slips away (perhaps helped along by the whiskey…) and we suddenly find it is after 11pm. The group departs for their cars, bikes and buses, but not before a final Cookbook Club custom is performed: leftovers are heaped into Tupperware boxes for packed lunches or patient partners, waiting at home. It certainly hasn’t been your average evening meal.

“Nobody really has dinner parties in the way that our parents did,” Franky says. “The fact that everyone contributes makes it more relaxed and informal, as well as less work. My mum’s dinner parties were full on: tablecloths, fancy napkins, three courses, a wine for each dish… I don’t think that’s what our generation looks for when we want to share a meal with friends.”

The following morning she sends me a photo of her son eagerly tucking into my chocolate cake (minus the boozy cream!) for his ‘breakfast pudding’. I take the photo as a firm seal of approval from the next generation of keen cooks that this relaxed, shared form of dining is the modern way to enjoy and celebrate food.


You can follow Joanna on Twitter , and via her website