Lesley Draper finds that dining in the dark concentrates that taste buds at a very unusual Sheffield supper society
A BELL tolls, candles are extinguished and through the darkness comes the howling of a wolf…
This is the prelude to dinner in one of Sheffield’s most exclusive locations. Exclusive, that is, because until now it has been impossible to book just a couple of places for dinner at the Chimney House – renowned for its private dining events.
News that the venue was launching a monthly Supper Society intrigued us sufficiently to set aside our qualms over the description – ‘a mysterious society dedicated to the curious consumption of food’ – and the sub-text: ‘Societiers must be prepared to put themselves in our hands and be guided through an evening which is as much about experience and ambiance as it is about food and its presentation.’
The Chimney House was built as an industrial furnace, later became an elephant house and then fell into decay until Tim Hubbard and partner Sally Clark took it in hand.
They lovingly restored the rough brick walls and old oak beams and fitted it out with quirky furnishings, a striking mural and a six-metre boardroom table specially made from salvaged sewing machine trestles, old school science benches and parquet flooring blocks.
For the last two years it has served as a meeting room, pop-up dining hall, party venue and studio, used by everyone from top UK film producers and academics to photographers and cooks.
But though many private dinner parties have been held on the premises, it hasn’t been possible to simply book in for dinner… until now.
For the first Supper Society, hostess Sally joined forces with Glossop Road caterers PJ Taste, who specialise in locally sourced and foraged ingredients.
It was planned with military precision, chef Peter Moulam and business partner John Fitzpatrick rising to the challenge of Sally’s kooky agenda – including a ‘no plates’ rule and a kitchen so small that their 20-strong team had to camp in a marquee on the Kelham Island cobbles.
“We’re always interested in new and exciting ideas,” says John. “This is a whole new format for us, but we’ve really enjoyed it.”
The 44 guests are kept in the dark – literally – as they arrive and excitement mounts as we are ushered up to the meeting room.
Four candles provide the only light, but we can make out two long tables which are gradually filling up with fellow diners.
I have to admit, at this stage, that my companion is less than enthusiastic, but has been persuaded that this is part of the job. Tough!
Waiters emerge through the gloom to deliver glasses of deliciously fruity bilberry mohito and baskets of freshly-baked bread.
There’s also an appetiser of PJ Taste’s celebrated Sheffield Eggs (mini scotch egg flavoured with Henderson’s Relish, chutney and cheddar), served on a tile with a sliver of pork knuckle terrine.
Then, at 8pm exactly, the candles are extinguished and the spooky howl of a wolf heralds the start of the society.
The theme has been inspired by Erin Morgenstern’s magical novel The Night Circus – which gradually comes to life after dark. And, as each course appears, more candles are lit.
First up, ‘from the woods and hills’, is an inspired salad of leaves, roast beetroot, walnuts, little pieces of tangy orange, strips of succulent smoked venison and a dash of hogweed seed sauce.
It’s served in a paper lily on a piece of birch bark and, with hindsight, is my favourite dish: deliciously simple but tasty, with contrasting textures.
There’s something about sitting in the dark that concentrates the mind and enhances the food, even if it is tricky groping around to find the next mouthful.
Next we turn to ‘fields and nests’ for a ravioli of chicken and wild mushrooms, drizzled with truffle oil and served on a huge portabella mushroom. A waiter adds the finishing flourish – and a touch of theatre – with shavings of black truffle.
It could have been hotter, but the musky flavours blend well.
On to our main course: beautifully tender shoulder of lamb served on a half-loaf that I’d have happily taken home for breakfast if it hadn’t been baked hard. It comes with fondant-cut potatoes; curly kale that’s good, with a bit of bite; creamed spinach which is indiscernable; and aubergine purée which just doesn’t work, being cold and rather sour.
By this time things are hotting up. The room is ablaze with candles and conversations have begun to spring up between strangers around the tables.
Enter Sally with her next surprise – a note for each guest bearing a secret about the person sitting next to them.
I discover that my neighbour, a charming chap, works for an international charity and spent part of last summer herding African giraffes by motorbike.
As ice-breakers go, this is well timed and cleverly executed. My companion is won over by the lady architect on his right and admits that he was wrong – it’s a fabulous evening after all.
In great bonhomie, we embark on course four (‘from the hedgerows’): a circular tower of sponge cake, rosehip jelly and hazlenut cream, topped with a flag of crunchy chestnut and roship florentine.
And there’s more. It’s followed by a soft poached comice pear, with a tiny cone of refreshing cider apple granita and chocolate ‘soil’ – another triumph of textures and taste, though I’m not sure about the bottle-shaped block of ice it’s served on.
Finally, another theatrical flourish as clouds of dry ice cloak the tables and giant balloons are held piñata-style for guests to pop… releasing a shower of iced chocolate truffles.
And then it’s 11pm, taxis arrive and the Society disperses into the night.
Places at the Supper Society are £50, bring your own wine.
* Verdict: A night of good food and delightful surprises. Book me a place for the next one!
* Open: Once a month for Supper Society, each with a different theme; next date December 12.
* The Chimney House, 4 Kelham Island, Sheffield (0114) 276 7885 The Chimney House