“You could tell it was a good lunch because everyone stayed chatting around the table until after the sun went down,” says Esther Clark, reflecting on the four-course festive meal she hosted with fellow cook and food stylist Clare Cole. “Everybody was relaxed and happy to spend a nice afternoon together.”
Gathered at a table dressed with furoshiki gift boxes and lokta paper crackers, beeswax candles providing light as the sun set, the group of friends and collaborators enjoyed a simple menu. A small pouring of vermouth, garnished with an olive, was presented to each guest on arrival, with Laura Marling’s folk melodies weaving through the welcome chatter.
“We did small nibbles,” Esther explains. “People were standing around rather than sitting and having a starter. I think that's quite a modern approach and it's just a bit more relaxed. We're not super formal cooks, so it felt right.” This first course set the tone for the rest of the meal, which focused on nourishing and unfussy food, incorporating traditional winter flavours like tarragon and sage. Formulating the menu was an intuitive process; ideas were shared through text as they surfaced, and common ground was found naturally. “We said “roast chicken!” at the same time,” Clare laughs. Their contemporary take was bathed in a creamy mushroom sauce, served with lemon and olive oil sprout tops and roast potatoes.
“I think we’re both very natural home cooks, led by seasonality,” Esther says. “We love eating and love beautiful food – it’s not anything with a crazy twist.” Though the hosts share a deep appreciation for comforting cuisine, they arrived at their destinations by very different routes. Esther knew she was bound for a culinary career from a young age, but coming from a family of artists, she couldn’t imagine herself in a bustling kitchen. “I knew there was an element of design that I wanted to come into the job.”
After graduating from Leith's School of Food and Wine, she booked a one-way flight to Tuscany, where she worked as a chef on a farm. From there, she travelled even further afield and was hired as a wedding cook in northern India. “Those two incredible things happened in a year, but the whole time I knew I needed to go back and be a food recipe writer.”
For Clare, it was a path punctuated by twists and turns. “I studied politics at university and worked for an MP. Things shifted, so I went back to the drawing board. When I was in lockdown with my family in the Sussex countryside, I was cooking loads and people were saying, ‘You know this is the thing you seem to love and you spend all your time on, and you’re also figuring out what you want to do with your life. It seems so obvious.’”
Spirited by this advice, Clare took a job on a nearby organic farm. “I was taking big bunches of carrots home and cooking them and I just felt like food made me happy, being around food and talking about food.” She started posting on Instagram in her spare time and came across Esther’s account – six months later, while Clare was midway through an MA in Food Anthropology, the two worked together for the first time.
The sense of camaraderie seems to be what both Esther and Clare cherish most about their industry. “One of the best things is I’ve met stylists and photographers and chefs and so many people who I adore and are a huge part of my life now,” Clare says. “You’ve got this special connection and a shared interest. That’s how Esther and I became friends and started working together.”
Those they’ve formed a particular kinship with were invited to the festive lunch, including author and food stylist Benjamina Ebuehi, cooks Ben Lippett, Kirthanaa Naidu and Sophie Wyburd, food and prop stylist Kitty Coles and photographer Sam Harris. Fostering a collaborative atmosphere, Esther and Clare prompted Sam, a casual wine connoisseur, to take the lead in this area. He introduced each bottle to the group and explained how it would complement the food before giving everybody a taste. The same glasses were used for both the wine and the vermouth: stemless vessels hand-blown by artisans in Marrakesh.
“I used to be quite worried about asking people to do things like that,” Esther says on tasking Sam with this role. “But opening the wine and pouring everyone a glass is a really good way of alleviating the pressure.”
“It helps to de-stress the host,” Clare agrees, “But it's also a nice kind of community thing as well.” Their attitude to hosting is a departure from the former generation, which, Esther and Clare believe, placed undue pressure on each stage of the evening. The expectation that everything must flow faultlessly can detract from the focal point of the event: the food.
“Sometimes, I think stress makes the food taste bad. I think panic can really affect it,” Esther admits. To avoid this, they try to prepare as much in advance as possible. Their apple and mincemeat tart was made the day before, and it was the most popular dish across the board. “The tart was delicious. Everybody gets excited when it's their first taste of something festive.” Displayed on a hand-thrown cake stand by ceramicist Rebecca Williams, the tart was dusted with icing sugar before being cut into slices and doled out to guests.
Having most of the food ready ahead of time gave them a generous window to set the table, something which is easily left to the last minute. Because the lunch took place in November, the hosts saw it as their opportunity to start the festive season on a memorable note. “The TOAST decorations are so understated you could have them up in autumn, too, but they're just a perfect nod to Christmas,” Esther says. “Seeing crackers and gifts on the table did get us talking about what we were all doing over the festive period.”
This festive flourish comes instinctively to Esther, who has been cooking Christmas dinner for her family since the age of 14. She describes herself as a “wintry person”, in contrast to Clare, who relishes the ripe produce and fresh flavours cultivated in the summer months. “Lots of tomatoes and herbs and the South of France – that’s for me,” she says, adding, “I think we're quite different, but we really like working together.”
As the group ends their evening in a local east London pub, comforted by full stomachs and a warm festive spirit, it is clear that they have carved out a special space in the food industry. “Unlike being a chef in a kitchen, for a recipe writer or a food stylist, skill only gets you so far,” Clare says. “Your success in this part of the industry is actually about how personable you are, and how good you are at fostering connections with people.”
Esther Clark’s Apple and Mincemeat Frangipane Tart
This hybrid apple tart/mince pie/Bakewell is the perfect alternative to a stodgy Christmas pudding. Laden with baking apples and a richly fruited mincemeat layer, it is topped with a light frangipane topping. I like to make this on Christmas Eve, warm it on Christmas Day and serve it with mounds of clotted cream, drizzled with a slick of maple syrup.
300g plain flour
½ tsp salt
170g cold unsalted butter, cubed
3 tbsp golden caster sugar
2 egg yolks
3-5 tbsp cold water
For the filling:
1 baking apple (around 300g), peeled and chopped
3 tbsp caster sugar
For the frangipane:
150g golden caster sugar
150g unsalted butter, softened
¼ heaped tsp sea salt
3 free-range eggs
80g ground almonds
1 tsp almond extract
3 tbsp self-raising flour
6 tbsp mincemeat
A handful of flaked almonds
Icing sugar, to dust
A drizzle of maple syrup, to serve
- For the pastry, combine the plain flour, fine sea salt, icing sugar and cold butter in a food processor; pulse to fine breadcrumbs. In a small bowl, mix 3 tbsp cold water with the 2 egg yolks, add to the mix and pulse to combine – add the remaining water if the mixture still feels dry. Tip into a bowl, shape into a ball, cover and chill for 30 minutes.
- While the pastry is chilling, tip the apples, sugar and water into a small saucepan. Cover and cook for 10-15 mins over a low-medium heat until the apples have broken down a little, stirring regularly. Add a splash of water to the pan if it starts looking dry.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to a 27cm circle about the thickness of a £1 coin. Use to line a 23cm fluted tart tin, leaving an overhang of about 1cm; freeze for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6.
- Cover the pastry with baking paper, fill with baking beans (or dried rice); bake for 15 mins. Remove the paper and beans; prick the base of the tart with a fork and bake for 7 mins. Trim the overhang with a serrated knife.
- For the frangipane, beat the softened butter and sugar with a whisk until combined but not aerated. Add the sea salt, ground almonds, almond extract, 3 beaten eggs and self-raising flour and beat for one minute more.
- Spread the mincemeat on the base of the pastry. Spread the apple compote over the pastry then top with the frangipane, spreading from the centre and leaving a 5mm gap around the edge for the frangipane to expand. Scatter with the flaked almonds and bake for 40 minutes or until golden (cover with foil after 30 minutes if it’s colouring too quickly). Leave to cool in the tin; dust with icing sugar. Serve with a dollop of clotted cream, drizzled with a little maple syrup.
Esther and Clare’s table features the TOAST Stoneware Dinner Plate, TOAST Washed Linen Napkins, TOAST Large Hand Blown Pharmacy Vase and TOAST Enamel Bowl, the TOAST Christmas Crackers and TOAST Furoshiki Table Gifts, the Grace McCarthy Dinner Candle Holder, the TOAST Dip Dyed Paper Rosette Garland and TOAST Blossom Lokta Paper Garland, the TOAST Mini Moroccan Glasses Set, Bert Jones Small Bud Vase and Wax Atelier Set of Four Dining Candles.
Words by Bébhinn Campbell.
Photography by Aloha Bonser-Shaw.