Parlour tricks

Louise Brogan-Hewitt of Love to eat and Katie Pask who have formed the Secret Supper Club.
Louise Brogan-Hewitt of Love to eat and Katie Pask who have formed the Secret Supper Club.
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Eating in is the new eating out, as Jill Turton found out at the opening of a secret supper club in York

A text confirmed our booking with the Travelling Parlour’s secret supper club which was making its debut at an undisclosed location in the centre of York. It went as follows:

The Travelling Parlour

A chill has entered York’s night air,

As the Travelling Parlour start to prepare,

To greet their guests with food and cheer

In elegant rooms as the nights draw near.

As the Minster strikes at seven

Our host will meet you there and beckon

You to supper, where new friends await

So dress up, wrap up and don’t be late.

Supper clubs, pop-ups, underground restaurants, guerrilla dining… call them what you will but eating in is being hyped as the new eating out. Dine in shacks, tents, private houses, anywhere but a regular restaurant.

At this year’s Keswick Mountain Festival, guests were invited to a £125-a-head black-tie event deep underground beneath Fleetwith Pike for a dinner in the Honister Slate Mine in the Lake District. At the Edinburgh Festival we watched a table of two dozen diners being winched 50 metres up in the air to enjoy Dinner in the Sky, complete with chef, waiter and entertainer.

There’s something seductively cultish about it all: the mystery location, the fellow conspirator guests, the unknown chef and – with some – even the whiff of illegality. It all started a couple of years ago, when Kerstin Rodgers, aka Miss Marmitelover, launched an Underground Restaurant from her home in north London. She is now so successful she has become part of the mainstream with a blog and a book Supper Club: Recipes and Notes from The Underground Restaurant.

Now the expanding network of supper clubs include some 15 in Yorkshire with new ones being added all the time. The Crab Apple Tree is run by Dave and Louise. He is a trained chef while Louise runs front of house or in this case the front of their living room in Chapel Allerton in Leeds.

Dinner at the Manor is another Leeds supper club. Martini Man and Sticky Pinny prepare themed dinners based on their favourite cookery books, so in February there will be recipes from Nigel Slater’s Feast while March will be Mrs Beeton. Harrogate has the Cooking Fairy while the Secret Teacup claims to be “an underground tea room somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales”.

Supper club dining is always a risk. Your dinner may be prepared by an enthusiastic amateur or a Masterchef finalist like Sara Danesin who runs a sophisticated set-up from her home in York. Even Harvey Nichols got in on the trend this summer with a pop-up restaurant in a marquee at Swillington Farm near Leeds.

While it appears there’s nothing illegal about cooking for others in your home, Miss Marmite advises taking out public liability insurance and using a pay-in-advance ticketing system so you are sure of getting paid.

The Travelling Parlour’s £45-a-head offer brought 16 of us in posh frocks and black ties to the Minster steps on a wild and windy night. As the great cathedral chimed seven a gowned figure appeared with a lantern to lead us to our secret location. Given her accent, it was a neat inversion of the norm to have a bunch of York residents being led around by an American.

The secret location was so secret that the Travelling Parlour made me promise not to reveal it so they could be allowed to host another secret supper there. Suffice to say it was splendidly old and august, tucked away off a main thoroughfare and worth dressing up for; York’s well stocked with such places. In the tiled hallway, among glass display cases, we were served Prosecco and canapes: smoked salmon and crème fraîche on slices of crisped baguette. So far, so familiar.

Then, after another little rhyming ditty, doors were flung open to reveal an elegant period dining room. It was hung with portraits of whiskery Victorian gentlemen, furnished with mahogany sideboards and down the middle a majestically long table was dressed for the occasion: white cloth, candelabra, vintage crockery, silver cutlery and our place names written on luggage labels and tied to a blousy sprig of late flowering hydrangea.

It would be nice to report that the food matched all the build-up and the setting. In truth, it was workmanlike when we were hoping for a little more magic, a little more inspiration. The starter was a cold goat’s cheese tartlet served with a glass of Pinot Grigio. The main course was pleasant enough but perhaps a bit too homely for a star turn – a slow cooked beef cassoulet comprising tender beef, soft carrots and melting beans with a glass of middling Merlot.

So what sort of people track down these dining clubs? Not surprisingly it was quite a foodie bunch. Our end of the table included a designer, a vivacious hairdresser, a couple of academics and a glamorous American from the deep south who hickory smoked her own pork and made sweets for a York deli. We were just loosening up and swapping restaurant recommendations and hickory smoking tips when we were silenced for some salon entertainment. A harp or a violin would have graced the room but a ukulele? Three numbers and polite applause and then we were on to pudding, an espresso cup of rich chocolate glamorised with edible gold leaf and accompanied by a glass of Amaretto.

There was time for a stroll around the lovely walled garden, prettily lit by lanterns and tea lights. Through one leaded window were the books of a leathery, clubby library and there waiting for us was our best and most generous course of cheese, celery, grapes and port. It was a gorgeous room. We relaxed into our armchairs and put the world to rights by candlelight over a second glass of port.

We had fun. We liked Katie Pask and her Travelling Parlour team for their commitment, their bubbling enthusiasm and the overall care they took over the event and the service. Paying £45 for four courses and four glasses in such a privileged setting felt fair enough. But looking around at other supper clubs, I saw more exciting food offers.

For ventures like this to take off, the secret supper clubs have to have something original to say, have something special about their food as well as their location or we’ll all go back to restaurants and home cooking.

You can find out about the Travelling Parlour’s next supper club and others in the region from www.supperclubfangroup.ning.com