Back in August, I wrote about my impending ten year anniversary of living in Leeds. Ten years. Where has that time gone? Moving to Leeds was the best decision I ever made and so, a decade on, it was only right that that decision should be celebrated in style. As ever, my beloved Leeds came up trumps with the ultimate anniversary present – Leeds Food and Drink Association’s Cornucopia Underground. When I previewed Cornucopia Underground for the Culture Vulture in August, I knew we were in for something special. A food festival with a difference, Cornucopia Underground promised to celebrate Leeds’ well-documented independent spirit with a showcase of some of the best food and drink experiences the city has to offer. With Leeds Food and Drink Association’s Jo and Nick at the helm, I knew we’d be in safe hands, but the reality of Cornucopia Underground surpassed even my wildest expectations. Descending into the subterranean lair of the Corn Exchange at just before midday, there were no immediate signs of anything out of the ordinary. Filling the basement’s centre were stalls laden with all the usual hallmarks we’ve come to expect of a ‘food festival’: mouth-watering cakes, beautifully-presented preserves and enticing cheeses.
These stalls surrounded tables swathed in patterned cloths that were occupied by folk sipping on tea, munching on cake and generally having a good time. Everything was in order. But Cornucopia Underground was about looking beyond the obvious; beyond what you’d expect, and it was the spaces around the edges that revealed that all was not as it seemed. We walked around these edges, discovering strange pockets of activity in the basement’s usually-vacant alcoves. Shadows moved behind closed doors, candles flickered on wooden tabletops, a chef hunched over a bench of uniformly-laid out ingredients and utensils. We passed a man in a white lab coat guarding a closed door, the adjacent wall adorned with a periodic table. An open door released the intense perfume of aged cheeses and meats from one alcove, while another offered a window to a cramped space filled with bottles of wine.
This transformation of the Corn Exchange’s dormant recesses was in preparation for a mixture of food experiences scheduled throughout the event. And they really were experiences. Chocolate robot making, periodic table of cheese creating, yoga brunching – we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto. These were ticket-only events that had to be booked in advance, and such were their tantalising descriptions that I would have booked myself a place at them all if it weren’t for an imminent house purchase looming. But sensibility begrudgingly reared its head so I restricted myself to just one – Spoons and Booze. Dreamed up by Dough Bistro’s Luke Downing, Spoon and Booze promised “fine dining flavours of whole meals in just one mouthful, with complementing drinks.” It was an intimate setting, with just eight of us sat at a bar overlooking a meticulously-organised open kitchen, with Luke at the helm. Luke presented us with our menus, before excusing himself to finish the prep for the first of our seven courses. What a tease. Scattered across the menu were seedlings of brilliance; unusual combinations of seductive ingredients and techniques that incited an instant chorus of oohs and ahhs from the eight of us. On paper, it was looking good, but my first bite propelled that assessment into oblivion. There were thin slices of confit sweet potato, slightly withered after being slowly cooked in oil for hours. The confit process tempered the potato’s saccharine qualities with an intense richness, which was contrasted with a macédoine-style tomato salsa and pickled cucumber. It was served with a Leeds Sparkling wine, infused with fennel and lemon. This added a welcome sharpness which cut through the complex flavours that, by now, were dancing on my tongue like noone was watching. In just one mouthful, Luke had managed to create an undulating raft of flavours and sensations that entire three course meals often fail to deliver. This wasn’t just merely good, it was exquisite.
Six courses followed, mouthful after mouthful of intricate dishes, techniques and flavours that wouldn’t be out of place in a Michelin Star restaurant. Apple bon bons served with rhubarb brown sauce and brie were washed down with basil and rhubarb-infused Leventhorpe Seyval wine, while goat’s cheese mousse-stuffed pickled bell peppers were accompanied by a syrupy, whiskey-laced Yorkshire Flatcap. There was even a fresh cut grass martini, its delicate infusion with a blade of grass summoning the exact scent of a summer’s day picnic.
Spoons and Booze was about challenging expectations, reimagining flavour combinations, and demonstrating the complex flavour possibilities that exist even within just one tiny mouthful. Luke Downing – remember the name. Genius. Bereft at the end of such a perfect food experience, I sought solace in another that I had equally high hopes for – The Grub and Grog Shop. The Grub and Grog Shop have been familiar faces on the Leeds’ food event circuit for a while now, but it was only recently that I had my first encounter. It was at Manjit’s Kitchen’s Yellow Horsebox Lauch, and I’d just stuffed myself silly with everything on their menu. I was about to give in, when an item on The Grug and Grog Shop’s all-vegetarian menu caught my eye. Courgette Fritters. I’m a sucker for a courgette fritter, so I immediately ignored my stomach’s protesting gurgles and ordered myself some. Mind blown. Where courgette fritters are usually stodgy and deep-fried (which, let’s be honest, is never a bad thing), these fritters were soft and falling apart. The courgette had a depth of flavour not normally detectable in a fritter, you could taste the heat of chilli, and there was an added dimension from the malt sprinkled on top. Bloody marvellous.
I digress. As you can gather, I was very excited for the prospect of more veggie wizardry from The Grub and Grog Shop, but what I wasn’t expecting was to eat it in a pop-up monastery. Yeah. Lit by cream church candles and tapers dripping onto gold candlesticks, The Grub and Grog Shop (in collaboration with Northern Monk Brewery) transformed their tiny alcove into a medieval den that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Robin Hood. Food was served at a hessian-covered table adorned with silver and bronze platters, overlooked by the formidable silhouette of Northern Monk Brewery’s sinister hooded patron.
Atmospheric dining at its most surreal, it provided a fantastic backdrop for the food which, as expected, was bloody marvellous. There was one vegetarian option on a small menu of light bites, and it read quite simply: Carrot Fritters. Now, I’m not usually a carrot kind of girl. I’ll tolerate them in a roast dinner (roasted with garlic and rosemary, thank you please), but I generally find them a bit meh. Not when The Grub and Grog Shop get their hands on them. These carrot fritters were a soft medley of yellow and purple carrots, crisped up by a stint in the frying pan and served with a delectable dollop of lemon-infused mayonnaise. Simply glorious – no more words needed. I probably should have stopped here. I was starting to feel the warning signs of getting full, that most horrifying of inflictions at a food festival, and the skinny jeans I’d stupidly chosen to wear were NOT helping. I should have stopped, but I didn’t, thanks to four little words. Sela Bar Pizza Menu. Sela Bar’s pizza is shrouded in reverie in Leeds, and it’s easy to see why. Crispy edges, a fluffy dough and topped with simple, quality ingredients – in this case, creamy ricotta, spinach and oozy, sweet onions – they’re everything a good pizza should be. Gluttony, you win. Ok, so I really was full now, but there’s always room for a liquid refreshment, right? Propped up to the left of Sela Bar’s pizza stand was a pop-up bar from Leeds’ favourite wine and spirit merchant, Latitude, emblazoned with one of my favourite words in the Italian language: Prosecco. I walked over to the bar with that most beautiful of words curling at the back of my mouth, but something stopped me. That something was a black tray, filled with little tasting glasses and scrawled in white chalk with two little words: Try me!.
Who was I to argue? I knocked it back, and instantly the word at the back of my mouth transformed into two others. Americano Bianco. A wonderful example of the Italian aperitif, it was a refreshing, sweet concoction: three parts prosecco, two parts Cocchi Americano, one part soda and an orange garnish. Sipped in the comfort of a pop-up Prosecco Lounge with the acoustic delights of Silverlode in my ears, it was the perfect end to a pretty perfect afternoon. The antithesis to the tired old food festival, Cornucopia Underground was a celebration of food at is most thought-provoking, unexpected and mysterious. It was a celebration of food’s ability to inspire us, to tell us something new, and make us smile. And above all, it was a celebration of what can be achieved when fabulous folk like those behind LFDA’s member organisations get together. Well done to everyone involved – more like this please, Leeds.