Sunday, 30 October 2011

In which I slate something I both enjoyed and received for free

I remember watching an episode of Masterchef where they made the contestants cater for a formal dinner at an Oxford college. In classic, overdramatising Masterchef style, they went on about how austere and grand it all was and how the fusty old fellows and overprivileged students would all be expecting amazing food. What misrepresentation. The only thing formal about formal hall is that you have to wear gowns. No one gets off on that (apart from parents when they come to visit) - I'm sure most perceive it as a minor inconvenience. It is a nice thing to do on occasion but I don't think many people would ACTUALLY miss it if it went. And no one treats it as equivalent to eating out. I am attached to college but often, it does feel like the 'most beautiful prison in the world.' Quotation marks because I thought that was a great way to describe it (when you feel negative towards it) but it was not my coinage. Anyway, it's nice to get out.  I still decided it would be interesting to do a review of formal hall food. Actually, this was even better than standard formal hall food since it was for a special dinner where they tend to push the boat out a bit. I don't usually like to pay for the privilege of going to formal hall. Usually if I go it's because it's a special college event - to raise money for charity or when they put on Christmas dinner. My friends made jokes 'hey why don't you put this on your food blog?' but actually I've decided that would be quite a good idea.
Except I only decided it would be a good idea halfway through the starter. Poached trout with a vine leaf stuffed with crab, a dill sauce and some leaves. The sauce was nothing special, the trout was really nicely looked but appeared to have not been seasoned at all. Perhaps because seasoned trout plus salty vine leaf would be overpowering? Who knows. The crab filling of the vine leave was bland but also a bit bitter. I have nothing to say about the leaves.
Mmm venison. Nicely cooked, though a bit cold. The perils of mass catering. The pink fir potatoes were interesting. They were delicious potatoes but the same problem as with the trout prevailed: no salt. Although my friend said that hers was almost TOO salty. So perhaps that's a mass catering thing again where they attempted to season everything at once and it didn't work out. The portabello mushroom and fruit stuffing was interesting. I love portabello mushrooms but it was overstuffed and the fruit did not taste like a sweet part of a savoury dish but a pudding. It went OK with the slightly too watery but richly flavoured gravy. This is the first time I had romesco cauliflower. They look weirder but just taste like cauliflower. Again, there was no salt on mine. This wouldn't have been an issue if it weren't for the fact that they didn't put salt and pepper on the tables and it felt rude to ask.
Pudding. Ah, mousse. Hall is famous for its mousses. It seems to think it's a fancy way of poshing everything up. I still have welded into my memory the taste of tomato and avocado mousse. It was NOT pleasant. When I saw there was mousse for pudding, I was not filled with joy. But the mousse turned out to be the most delicious part of the dessert. Chocolate and hazelnut cake was rock hard. It was so dry it reminded me of the dessert. The taste was alright but definitely what sticks with me is the aridness. The fruit on the side reeked of 'we opened some tins' but I love tinned fruit so didn't feel too incensed by that. Raspberry compote was tooooo tart.

The point of this entry was just that I thought it'd be fun. But also to demonstrate that yeah, formal hall is a nice tradition. Yeah, the nice (sometimes free) dinners that are put on are fun. But I wouldn't miss it THAT much. If getting rid of it meant reducing the deficit of College's catering functions and consequently that future students were charged less, I'd happily agree to its abolishment. And this is me talking about particularly nice, formal hall food: the regular canteen food I could be MUCH more savage about.

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