After having written an article on this year’s Vamos! festival for Narc magazine, I knew that the only way to start off summer properly was to get to plenty of food and music filled Vamos! events, and be around people who really enjoy and appreciate the good things in life.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend the Mardi Gras parade which sounded magnificent despite the weather, but was lucky enough to be invited to a Cuban Pop-up restaurant at Newcastle College’s Lifestyle Academy. Here the food is prepared by trainee chefs to the highest of standards in the Chef’s Academy, and today their challenge was to produce a Cuban communal dining menu to showcase the many flavours of the country’s cuisine.
The menu was guided by Paco Rivera, chef and musician extraordinaire who sampled the students’ food prior to the event and deemed it “stupendous.” Vamos! festival organisers Nik Barrera and Sara Lourenco approached him about the collaboration with the College and he didn’t need much persuading to get involved with the project. He told me that “the food was of the same standard as what you would expect in a five or six star hotel in Cuba – not street food, but real haute cuisine.” Talk about raising expectations. I don’t think anyone was disappointed.
Live Cuban music was provided by Geordie Latinos Paco and his cousin Carlos Rivera between the courses, the sound of the drums was a perfect interlude to the sublime flavours and treats that were paraded before us. Upon arrival my friend and I were handed Havana Special cocktails which resembled Tequila Sunrises – fantastically fruity and a taste of things to come.
Canapes were brought out on afternoon tea like stands – I loved the Papas Renellos, which looked like tiny pancakes and were stuffed with chopped vegetables and meat, the Pincho de Pollos were like mini kebabs with chicken and chorizo. We had time to order some wine before the starter, Fishcake a la Cubana Salad, arrived. The fishcake was delicately spiced and melted in the mouth, with a tasty seaweed like cabbage salad which complimented it perfectly, and a garlicky aioli.
During the musical interlude provided by Paco and Carlos, staff brought out amazing Cuban style tear and share bread, which was a perfect accompaniment to the huge pans of paella which arrived next. The meat option included large chunks of chicken on the bone and chorizo, plus giant juicy prawns, clams and mussels. I reluctantly opted for the veggie option (stealing some seafood off the meat option in the process). It was probably the best paella I’ve ever tasted, it had a good kick and the rice was cooked perfectly. Paco told me that Paella is not exactly a traditional Cuban dish, but the students gave it a Cuban flavour by adding coriander and cumin and more spice than usual, and he was pretty taken by it as well!
Paco was also impressed by the dessert, which reminded him of his childhood. Bananas coated in batter and rolled in a cinnamon sugar served with Dulce de Leche (a South American style caramel) which suited each other perfectly. He added guiltily that it was better than his mum’s version – another compliment for the student chefs!
If all that wasn’t enough, the students blew us away with their divine Petits Fours, presented beautifully with a handwritten chocolate “Vamos” written on the plate. The Coconut Fudge was like a little fudge lollipop, with the end dipped in coconut and the surprise element of popping candy. The fruit cocktail jelly was cleverly served in orange segments, tricking the eye into thinking they were just slices of orange. The rum truffles were wicked (I could only manage one which is not like me – they were also given an honourable mention by Paco and Carlos). Cuba Libres and Mojitos topped off an amazing gastronomic experience which showcased the up and coming culinary talent in the region, inventive young chefs who produced a menu from a faraway place like they had lived there their whole lives. Bien hecho!
Paco is also in charge of providing the masses attending the festival with quality Latino food with his Pica Pica project – another Vamos! inspired collaboration with the talented Alan McKenna of McKenna’s restaurant and his crew at Northern Stage. They are showcasing their mouthwatering Arepas at Friday evening events at Hoult’s Yard (Friday 20th) – think corn buns filled with pulled sweet chilli pork, pulled spicy beef, Brazilian meatballs, lemon and coriander chicken and a veggie option (if you’re not converted by all of the delicious sounding meat). The long terms plans for the project include taking Pica Pica on the road for UK events and a permanent outlet in Newcastle city centre. They are also looking to expand the menu with additions from other Latin American regions and the Caribbean (I am available for taste testing if needed)!
For more information on Vamos! Festival events please go to vamosfestival.co.uk
Photos courtesy of Alex Zander – Zander Photography http://www.zndr.co.uk
For more information on upcoming Chef’s Academy Events – ncl-coll.ac.uk/lifestyle/chefs-academy