Stella Pereira is a true artist in every sense of the word. Her artistry is well known in Cambridge and the media, particularly her stunning Instagram. Stella’s artwork and culinary creations are inspired by the changing of the seasons, perfect timing for her latest À Mesa Supper Club held on 25 March. Titled “A Blossoming Spring”, the supper club (or “gathering”, as Stella prefers to call it) was held in her cosy living room. I had the honour of attending two of Stella’s previous gatherings in her home (An Autumnal Gathering) and at Espresso Library (Twelve at EL), which you can read about here and here.
We were a small group of (lucky) people who snapped up a place at À Mesa (Portuguese for “at the table”). Even though I have been to Stella’s supper clubs before, she still amazed me with her dishes, presentation and setting. It’s more than a supper club or gathering, it’s an EXPERIENCE.
Stella is a firm believer that food brings people together so the biggest part of her supper clubs is the comfortable, intimate environment where guests eat, drink, sing, laugh… and leave as friends. She serves modern Portuguese cuisine inspired by traditional ingredients (featuring staples in Portugal such as pork and salt cod) but she presents her dishes with a contemporary twist and this is where her artistic spirit really shines.
Preparations for A Blossoming Spring started way before the food and this was apparent in the little details, meticulously created to make up a truly unique experience. Stella’s tablescape was dotted with freshly picked blossoms, sliced bread (charmingly stacked in glass jelly moulds) and olives, both symbolising peace. We were intrigued by the variety of items handcrafted by Stella herself or her husband Carlos. All of the pieces on the table came together to tell a story, a reflection of Stella’s skills as a gifted food stylist.
Stella’s creations included free flowing fabric for a tablecloth, natural dyed linen napkins, handmade beeswax candles, personalised place settings, handwritten menus cut from the back of her cherry blossoms drawing as well as copper bowls and teaspoons (both painstakingly knocked into shape with a hammer – countless hours of work!).
Talented woodcarver Carlos created the coasters, candleholders, butter knives, dessert stands and serving boards, all made from local fig wood. Carlos also played an instrumental role by assisting Stella in the kitchen and tending to the guests.
Stella’s brother Paulo played guitar and treated us to some mellow tunes and singing. In fact, some of the guests got in on it. What a treat!
The evening started with a caipirinha cocktail made with cachaça (a distilled spirit made from sugar cane). Petiscos (hors d’oeuvres) included bite-sized rissóis (prawn croquettes) and presunto de Lamego (dry-cured ham from the Trás-os-Montes region) wrapped around homebaked olive oil breadsticks.
Then it was time to find our places at the table, open our BYO bottles and enjoy Stella’s 4-course meal. Stella made some brief appearances between courses to explain the dishes and ingredients.
The first course consisted of delicious prawn suado (inspired by a Mozambican dish featuring steamed prawns) served on crispy sourdough.
The second course was a celebration of bacalhau (salt cod), a huge part of the Portuguese diet. Dried salted cod is made and served in hundreds of ways but Stella’s variation showed real innovation and made use of different textures. Beautifully arranged on the plate were two cod croquettes (pastel de bacalhau with shredded cod and potato as well as balcalhau com natas with cream and sourdough crumb) and Stella’s take on traditional bacalhau à Brás with shreds of salted cod topped with cornbread and parsley crumb and finished with a ribbon of carrots.
The third course featured a methodical arrangement of slow cooked pork belly, two types of chouriço, a ball (named “birds”) made of confit quail and chicken in herbs and smoky paprika as well as market veg (carrots, broccoli and potatoes), all served with some cozido sauce (the flavourful broth from the stew).
The fourth course was a succession of desserts, starting with Stella’s homemade ice cream of slow roasted rhubarb macerated in Port, orange peel and cherry liqueur. It was served in little copper bowls with matching spoons patiently created by Stella’s own hand, making it all the more special.
Then came the pièce de résistance, a magical woodland served on a hand carved log. Everyone admired their intricate creations for a good 10 minutes before digging in. It was a work of art we were almost too sorry to eat.
High quality chocolate was used to fashion a cherry blossom branch. Its flowers were little meringues dusted with freeze dried cherries for a burst of springtime colour. A churro swirl looked like a snail crawling between the branches. Traditional Portuguese fios de ovos (egg threads) were incorporated into the enchanting scene, representing grass or hay. They all sat on a chocolate hazelnut patch of earth sprinkled with toasted almonds.
Some excellent orange flan provided a distraction whilst Stella and Carlos sneakily went into the kitchen to mount yet another work of art. What a lovely surprise! I was presented with a delicate chocolate cup that looked like frayed peony petals. This decadent vessel was filled with ginjinha (sour cherry liqueur) and accompanied by an ela (a tiny sour cherry) on a stalk. The chocolate cup served as a shot glass for the wonderfully strong liqueur. The dessert was perched on a handcrafted wooden stand complete with a wire to hold the cherry. A fabulous creation by Carlos and totally bespoke for this dessert.
The music and laughter continued late into the night and we were not rushed to leave. We decided as a group to gather our little menu cut outs and solve the puzzle so we could admire Stella’s cherry blossoms drawing on the back.
Without realising it, we started to appreciate the creative process that went into the whole evening. We valued each piece, each mouthful, each moment. We relaxed and absorbed the amazing artistry and incredible effort that went into the À Mesa experience. The ethos of slowing down, breathing in each moment and creating things by hand is very much a reflection of Stella herself. She is an exceptional woman and artist despite the challenges in her life. I continue to be inspired by her strength and talent.
A massive thank you to Stella, her husband Carlos and brother Paulo for surrounding us with so much beauty.
À Mesa Supper Club were unaware that my experience would be the basis of a written review. It is based on my experience at my own cost and I did not receive compensation for my review.
Unless otherwise noted, I am the legal copyright holder of the content and images on this blog. Please contact me for permission if you wish to use, reprint or publish any material. Some of the photos in this post are courtesy of Meggy Yip, Paola Davies-Romano and Jin Yee Chung.