Clonter opera picnic: what to eat with Rigoletto

October 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Our friends Emma and Andrew organise a trip to Clonter Opera each October for an ever-increasing group of friends and neighbours.  Clonter is the Cheshire equivalent of Glyndebourne and strikes a harmonious balance between serious music-making and jolly social occasion.  Clonter specialises in giving young singers fresh out of conservatoire a leg-up in establishing their careers.  For example, we heard New Zealand bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu at Clonter a few years ago and he’s now made quite a name for himself as an up-and-coming artist.

Enough of music and onto the serious business of the food.  What the Clonter audience usually does is arrive at 6.30 and unpack hampers onto the tables provided in the barn seating area for drinks, canapés and first course.  The performance then starts at 7.30 with a 70 minute long supper interval, just long enough for main course and pudding.  We’re old hands now and know there is never time or appetite for cheese or coffee so we cut the stress and don’t bother with these now.

We were a group of 19 this year and Emma asked me if I might do some platefuls of nibbles to hand round which would serve both as canapé and as first course without the need to be formally seated.  Nice idea but allowing 5 items per person and rounding up, this would necessitate making 100 canapés which is a tall order for a busy Saturday afternoon.  I set myself the additional challenge of theming the canapés with the opera which was Rigoletto.

The opera is set in Mantua and was given its first performance in Venice.  There is plenty of drama in Verdi’s dark tale of debauchery and deception but it is light on frivolous drinking and feasting scenes.  The dreadful climax of the opera comes when court jester Rigoletto realises that the body in the sack he is about to hurl into the river is not that of the evil Duke of Mantua, but that of his beloved only daughter Gilda.

A few minutes mulling over the opera plotline and I came up with the idea for Northern Italian finger-food featuring miniature filo pastry sacks.  Is this in poor taste and taking theming a little too far?  Yes probably but I’m afraid that is how my mind works…..

Anyway without dwelling overmuch on my foibles, the chosen canapé menu was:

Stuffed olives.  Waitrose do some gorgeous large Kalkidis (sic) olives stuffed with fruit compôte – not entirely authentically Italian but nevertheless very good.  Surely these should be spelt Halkidikis or at the very least Kalkidikis?  Looks like a syllable has gone missing.  Maybe I’ll write to Waitrose to point this out.

Twists of parma ham artfully spiralled around rustic breadsticks – both elements picked up at favourite local shop Goose Green Delicatessen

Bruschetta with Gorgonzola dolce, walnuts and slices of fresh pear (painstakingly dipped in lemon juice to stop them going brown)

Mozzarella, tomato and basil bites – individual buffalo mozzarella bocconcini balls threaded onto a cocktail stick with a mixture of red and yellow cherry tomatoes and a single perfect folded basil leaf

All the above were pretty straightforward to put together – essentially an assembly job with deli ingredients.  The pièce de résistance was to be the Mantuan miniature filo pastry sacks – Mantuan because of the chosen filling of roast butternut squash, sage and parmesan.  I visited Mantua on a tour of Northern Italy a few years ago now.  Its most famous dish is Tortelli di Zucca – ravioli filled with pumpkin, served with a simple sauce of sage-flavoured butter.  I took inspiration from this dish for my sacks.  Butternut squash is a pretty good substitute for the local Mantuan pumpkin having the necessary sweetness and depth of flavour once it’s been given the roasting treatment.    I cut the squash into chunks and tossed them in a tablespoon or so of olive oil into which I’d thrown a few snipped purple sage leaves from the garden and some sliced garlic cloves, then baked them in the oven for about an hour.  My baked squash became intensely savoury  before being incorporated into the filling for the filo pastry sacks.

Here is the beautiful orange squash ready to go into the oven:

And here are the finished canapés ready for serving on our Clonter picnic table.  All disappeared in a fraction of the time they took to prepare.

Almost forgot to mention that the performance of Rigoletto was a triumph – fantastic singing and inspired casting.  One of the best performances I’ve seen in ages.

The recipe of my own devising for the Mantuan filo pastry sacks follows.  These would have been best served warm but were in fact still pretty good at room temperature having been transported from kitchen to Clonter.

Recipe for Mantuan filo pastry parcels

Makes 20 parcels


1 medium butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 1 inch chunks
8-10 sage leaves, roughly chopped
3  cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons light olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 oz finely grated parmesan or grana padano

270g pack filo pastry sheets
2 oz melted butter, maybe more if required

Make the filling.  Peel, deseed and chop the squash into chunks.  In a large bowl, toss the chunks with the oil, sage and a little salt and pepper and tip the whole lot onto a shallow baking tray lined with baking paper to avoid the squash sticking.  Bake at 200 degrees C until the squash is cooked through and is become deliciously slightly charred and toasty round the edges.  Don’t take it too far – you are looking to intensify the squash flavour, not burn it.

Let the baked squash cool a little then tip it into a roomy bowl and go in with a crinkle-cut chip cutter to reduce the squash to a chunky not too smooth purée.  Add the cheese, nutmeg, and egg yolk, mix, then taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.  If you are concerned about eating raw egg yolk, do the tasting bit before mixing in the egg yolk.

Now form the parcels.  Melt the butter in a small pan and allow to cool a little.  From memory, the pastry packet contains 10 large sheets folded pastry.  Begin by cutting these 10 sheets neatly in half to make 20.  Put aside and cover 10 of these half sheets and work with the other 10.  Filo pastry is very thin and dries out quickly so you need to keep covered what you are not using in the next few minutes.  Cut your ten half sheets in half again to make 20 smallish squares.

For each parcel, take 2 squares and lay them out on a pastry board.  Brush each square scantily with melted butter and lay one one on top of the other at a 90 degree angle to create a rough star shape.  Place a generous teaspoon of the squash filling in the centre and pick up and roughly twist the pastry together to create a sack or money-bag effect.  Dab the formed parcel with some additional melted butter.  Place the completed parcel onto a metal baking sheet.  Continue until you have 10 parcels then gauge whether you need some more melted butter and repeat the process with the other half of your pastry.

Bake the parcels at 180 degrees C for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and becoming crisp in parts.  Cool on a rack.

Train picnic: dining in style

September 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

It was my birthday on Friday 11 September.  Until recently this was not a noteworthy or memorable date and sadly it is now for all the wrong reasons.  I chose to celebrate quietly this year by attending the finals of the Leeds Piano Competition.  Music may be the food of love but I have been married to Tim now for 16 years and I need more solid sustenance.  A picnic on the train as we journeyed across the heather-clad Pennines from Manchester to Leeds was the obvious solution.

Where to look for inspiration for this special picnic?  First stop was New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser’s book “Cooking for Mr Latte” a chronicle, with recipes, of her courtship with future husband.  Chapter 26 is entitled “Fine Dining in the Sky” and contains some excellent advice which is easily transferable to a train journey.

Hesser’s general advice is “the food must be compact and light, yet it cannot be skimpy.  It must include favorite food like cheeses, cookies and olives, and it should in some way be lavish.”  Suggestions to pack include salted nuts, especially delicious salted almonds from Spain, a chewy country roll and a nutty, soft cheese.  Further recommendations are excellent cured meats, salads prepared with aged vinegars and nut oils, fresh herbs and homemade mayonnaise.  Bought treats are suggested to complete the meal – a tart, cake or petit four or a caramel-filled chocolate.

Next stop was the unlikely sounding “Constance Spry Cookery Book”.  Chapter XXXIV is “Menus, Parties and Food for Special Occasions and contains an apt little section headed “Train Food”.  Who would expect that an English cookery book first published in 1956 could be such a repository of enticing food ideas?.

Ms Spry’s general advice about train food is as follows: “The primary qualification about such food is that it shall taste fresh and be really appetizing.  It should never the bear the faintest trace of paper flavouring, something not so easy to avoid as one might think.”

She goes on to describe a delicious meal made by a family member for  small party going up to “the far north” (Manchester? Scotland perhaps! the destination is never specified).  It makes delectable reading:

“Each of us was handed when we got into our sleepers a small, neat cardboard box containing two little screw-top cartons and other small packages.  In one carton was a perfect freshly made lobster salad in a delicious dressing, the second contained fresh fruit salad of peaches, strawberries, and orange.  Crisp, poppy-seed-sprinkled rolls were quartered and buttered, and a Porosan bag held the crisp heart of a Cos lettuce.  There were small cream cheese rolls made by taking two short pieces of celery, filling the hollow made when they were put together with cream cheese, and rolling the whole in brown bread and butter…”

Suitable inspired, I made by own preparations.  Visits to the deli and greengrocer provided me with Spanish salted almonds, extra large stuffed green olives and thinly sliced meltingly soft Bellota ham accompanied by crisp celery sticks and crunchy radishes.  These would be served with chilled champagne to begin the meal.  Next, I took my cue from Constance Spry and prepared a simple but delicious lobster salad, combining new potatoes, soft-boiled quail eggs and squeaky blanched green beans with the diced lobster meat.  The whole lot was packed into a carefully lettuce lined food storage box and topped with a dollop of wobbly yellow homemade mayonnaise flavoured with lemon zest and a little chopped tarragon.  Next was a ripe St Marcellin cheese served in its own dinky indivdual terracotta pot.  I then put together my favourite simple fruit salad of sliced white nectarines in passion fruit pulp. A quick trip to the bakery provided us with fresh rolls and cherry and almond tartlets, which along with half a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape completed the preparations.  The whole lot was packed into a small wicker basket along with forks and a couple of glasses and we were off!

It was all just as good as it all sounds as I hope the pictures below demonstrate.  It definitely beats the usual railway offering of a pack of peanuts and a curled-up pre-pack sandwich hands down!



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