Bonfires, sparklers and… chilli! Alex Rushmer embraces a new November tradition
Bonfire Night is the first date in the diary when it begins to feel truly wintery. I adore everything about it. Donning wellington boots (even if the ground underfoot is dry as a bone), layering up in at least two jumpers (even if the weather is clement) and spending quality time with like-minded people who also enjoy the full-on cosiness of the occasion.
Every year the team from The Hole in the Wall have gathered at our general manager’s house to spend the night gazing into a roaring fire and oohing and aah-ing with enthusiasm at a terrific firework display.
It probably goes without saying that the food served on this evening is of great importance – at least as great as the central inferno and the fireworks that illuminate the dark sky. It’s become something of a ritual, that starts when two rickety barbecues are lit just before it gets dark. On one sits a pan of wine and spices that mull gently over the course of the evening, eventually reducing to a sticky sweet nectar that is enriched with much brandy. Next to the pan is space for a few dozen sausages that are crammed into hastily sliced chunks of baguette and topped with charred onions. On the other barbecue is the traditional chilli that is a collective effort by the kitchen. It is ladled first into mugs then, later, spooned into hungry mouths, appetite whetted by the warm wine and cool evening air.
Over the years our chilli has evolved into something of a badge of honour. It is inevitably compared, usually favourably, to the previous year’s effort, and is critiqued earnestly by those that made it. Spice levels are neutered to ensure mass appeal, but there is always a bottle of painfully hot sauce on hand to allow those who wish to feel the burn to crank up the heat to diabolical levels.
Making our chilli has become a source of great pride for the kitchen crew. The qualities of different peppers are analysed: heat needs to be balanced with fruitiness. Spices are carefully selected and blended throughout the cooking process, which is usually a full day of gentle burbling. The cut of meat too is a source of importance and recent years have seen a move in favour of flavoursome chuck (never mince) and a touch of beef shin to bring some body and richness thanks to the preponderance of collagen-rich connective tissue that slowly breaks down into sticky gelatin. As much analysis and thought goes into the creation of that one pan as goes into dishes that grace the tasting menu on a Saturday night.
And therein lies the beauty and satisfaction. Cooking for the people closest to us is actually a rare occurrence for a chef. We spend our days putting our heart and soul into dishes to be eaten by people we will likely never meet – but given the chance to cook for friends and family in great number is a special treat. Seeing those same people gathering round the heat and light of a bonfire and enjoying the fruits of our labour is something truly worth savouring. Long may this tradition continue.