Sunday, 27 November 2011
The last time I visited Gravetye Manor, in the serene Sussex countryside, was nineteen years ago for my father’s 40th birthday party. My memories are as fuzzy as a well worn jumper, but my overall recollection is of old world charm and friendly sophistication. I remember trying to be patient during what seemed like a very long and grown up lunch and then being set loose in the garden where I was allowed to run around and hide in the flower beds whilst my parents and grandparents talked about the finer points of William Robinson’s gardening aesthetic.
It was a defining moment for me – as I have a very soft spot for country estates with ideas baked into them and good food. But it was more importantly a seminal experience for my parents. They clicked with Robinson’s English Natural Gardening style and Arts and Crafts period design which have inspired a fair bit of Mum and Dad’s garden at home.
So when Gravetye invited Cowie and I for lunch I said a nostalgic yes and enjoyed our brief tour of the garden which reconnected me with my previous experience. The garden and house tie together seamlessly with views from inside over ethereal and natural planting schemes. We loved the informal and relaxed way the plants wispily jostled with each other for position – as if telling the gardener where they should be rather than vice versa. And whereas many country house gardens pretentiously follow French and Italian formal garden design, Gravetye takes a more natural approach which pervades the whole experience.
The dining room is serene and civilised, with a gentle hum of old school conversations bumbling about rugby, art and travel. I suspect the same themes have been talked about in this room for generations and will continue to be repeated forever. The food is true to its setting, but also exhibits a modern flourish with supremely fresh and local ingredients – with some coming from the estate itself and the surrounding area.
I stated with a small tranche of pristine turbot that had been laid on top of some Dorset crab and then doused in a rich shellfish bisque. It’s not often you get a chance to commence a meal such a fine fish, but when you see it on the menu as a starter it seems rude not to indulge. The waiter sealed the deal as he explained that the fish wasn’t farmed like many turbot are these days, but instead was a stunning specimen that the whole kitchen were enthralled by. Needless to say, it was pretty special.
Cowie’s quail salad was a work of meaty and eggy art. Warm, rare, quail lay strewn amongst runny little eggs, beetroot salad leaves , baby leeks and a sauce gribiche. When you cook like this there isn’t any room to hide. But it had everything that Cowie seeks in a starter and it managed to keep her away from trying to steal too much of mine!
My veal fillet with a cep from the local woods and some horseradish cream was very special. I’m not an enormous fan of foams with main courses, but when the veal is cooked this well you could serve it with a bag of cement and I’d be happy. But the real highlight was a solitary cep which had been sliced in half and then roasted to bring out it deep fungal flavour.
Cowie’s sea bass came with a slick of mushroom sauce, a scattering of cute little girolles and some bacon wrapped fingers of oystery salsify. It brought back memories of Sweden – where we first encountered salsify at Kok & Vin – and worked brilliantly with the meaty sea bass. The combination of deep, brown flavours was quintessentially autumnal.
After such a savoury main course, I was drawn to the dessert menu like a mosquito to a juicy limb. My fig custard tart with gingerbread ice cream was one of the best puddings I’ve had in a long time. I even liked the marshmallows which I normally hate. Whereas some figgy puddings are cock teases with a sensual and seedy allure but no action, this little minx should have it’s own store on Brewer Street. The deep, sultry flavour of the fig kept you coming back for more.
Cowie’s plate of banana desserts was spectacular too if a little OTT. Of the cake, cannelloni, tuile, popcorn and cream, it was the cylinder that was the most exciting experience. I was hoping that there might be a Bananaman badge in the bottom of the cake, tucked away like a ha'penny in a Christmas pudding.
Many country house hotels leave you feeling like an extra from Poirot and have trouble keeping up with menu trends. But not Gravetye. Without being aloof, stuffy or cringingly modish, it manages to offer a warm, convivial and special experience. You get the impression that it has a very loyal following of people who regard it as their unofficial club. It would make an ideal place for a celebratory weekend, a stop over before a honeymoon or simply as a great place to revel in an important birthday – just like my family did 20 years ago. Apparently 80% of the people who visit Gravetye come back again some point in the future. And I am sure we will too one day.
Many thanks indeed to Gravetye and Quintessentially for inviting us both for lunch – it was a very special afternoon and I wouldn’t have written about it, had it not lived up to the memories of my first experience there as a nipper. Find out more details about their rooms, rates and special menus by visiting the Gravetye Manor Wesbite.
Tuesday, 22 November 2011
We spent an idyllic week in September eating fresh figs, amazing cheese and indecent prosciutto in Italy’s Le Marche region. Our swish villa came with a communal veggie patch which generously yielded the tastiest tomatoes that have ever entered my mouth – they made the extortionately priced Swedish tomatoes I’ve tried to avoid for the last year and a half taste of gravel by comparison. Mini aubergines, sweet little peppers and not so sweet chillies were there for us to tuck into as well.
But best of all was an orchard full of cherries, damsons, and most thrillingly, fig trees. Ripe, sticky, swollen figs seemed to make it into every meal: wrapped in prosciutto, baked with honey and doused in goats’ curd – each one, more delicious than the last. Fresh eggs from the very free range chickens kept our coats nice and glossy and super thin pizza from the wood fired oven was spectacular. It was a rustically gastronomic week of cooking for ourselves that featured a classic caponata and back to back evenings of chargrilled turbot on one night and barbecued sea bass the next – all served with the freshest salads imaginable.
If you are looking for an idyllic and quiet spot for a relaxing Italian break, look no further than Casal dei Fichi where Ian and Bob will look after you like rock stars and even hook you up with gastronomic events where you can make your own olive oil or go truffle hunting.
When we went back to Cowie’s parents’ house in Somerset, we wanted to continue our Italian adventure, but with local produce. We visited Kimbers' excellent Farm Shop where a fabulous T-Bone steak gave me the eye from the chiller cabinet. When you find yourself flirting with a piece of meat, you know it’s going to be good.
We then went to John Hurd’s Watercress farm in nearby Hill Deverill. They don’t normally deal with walk in customers and tend to sell their organic watercress direct to Waitrose by the lorry load. But Simon Hurd, very kindly, gave us a tour of the farm and told us all about the ins and outs of watercress farming. It was great to meet such a passionate chap, who was so knowledgeable and proud about his produce. I loved the fact he sprays his watercress with garlic solution which keeps the bugs at bay and that the peppery mustard oil taste is nature’s way of protecting itself from being eaten. Amazingly it contains more calcium than milk and more Vitamin C than oranges.
We left with a box of watercress, Simon’s infectious enthusiasm coursing through our veins and a recipe booklet that was full of fun suggestions, including the idea of making watercress pesto which sounded like the ideal accompaniment to our steak.
We kept things simple and decided to cook the Kimbers' T-Bone steak over the fire place and to serve it with polenta chips and an emerald green watercress pesto - as a way of rekindling our Italian memories.
T Bone steak
Rock salt and pepper
Watercress pesto ingredients adapted from John Hurd’s recipe book:
1 bag of watercress
1 clove of garlic
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon of toasted walnuts
50-75ml olive oil
50g finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese
Sea salt and black pepper
Make the watercress peso first. In a large bowl, blitz the watercress with a hand blender, then add the toasted nuts and garlic and blend them too. Add the olive oil and continue to blend into a luscious green paste. Add salt and pepper and then the parmesan. Mix together and taste for seasoning. Pour into a sterilised jar and store in the fridge until you need it.
For the polenta chips, simply make some polenta following the on pack instructions and let it cook until it has formed a creamy sludge. At this stage mix through some chopped rosemary. Pour this into a baking tray and allow to cool and set. When this has happened cut the polenta into chip sized chunks, douse in seasoning and olive oil and roast in a hot oven until crispy.
Season the steak handsomely with rock salt. A Brazilian friend (hey Marco) taught me to coat the meat extravagantly with salt when cooking it over a flame. It helps to form a crust and guarantees an amazingly tasty steak - just make sure you bash the salt off before serving. Grind over some pepper and get your fire nice and hot. We decided to cook the steak over Cowie’s open fireplace which has the benefit of getting super hot, and a built in extractor fan, otherwise known as a chimney.
Once the flames have died down, simply grill the meat over the coals until rare on the fillet side and medium rare on the sirloin side and leave to rest.
Carve the steak so you get a nice piece of sirloin and fillet and serve with watercress pesto, polenta chips and a watercress salad. The watercress pesto has a strong, peppery tang that marries perfectly with the bloody steak.
Monday, 7 November 2011
We’ve all got traits that drive our other halves nuts. Some people leave the toilet seat up. Others are terrible washer-uppers. Some fail to ever take the bins out. Others fart in their sleep. Some snore. But the thing I do that drives Cowie nuts is to regard a run in the countryside as an opportunity to go mushroom foraging.
I’d like to think that I’ve invented a new sport called “Fungathlon” – where you have to complete a half marathon and also forage for mushrooms en-route. So when we were in the final stages of preparation for our Olympic Triathlon at Hever Castle and Cowie planned a 14 mile run for us around the gloriously undulating Longleat Estate, I saw it as a chance for some energetic foraging.
Cowie always sends me a map of our intended route to get my approval in the days before we go for a long run. I normally look at the hills and wince and then agree. But what she hasn’t realised until now is that I always check to see if we run through any woods. And if we don’t, I tend to suggest an alternative route that is more likely to yield mushrooms.
Within 50 metres of setting off we’d stumbled across a bank of chanterelles nestling in the undergrowth. Cowie ran on as I picked and inspected them. I wasn’t sure whether I should collect them and take them with me or whether I should just put down a marker so I could find them later. Common sense got the better of me and I spent the next mile catching up with Cowie who had forged on ahead.
As we ran, I dreaded someone else finding my stash of golden chanterelles. I was wracked with fear that a mushroom thief might strike. It spurred me on to run faster. Then after 10 miles, I spotted what looked like a cep winking at me from under some birch trees. Without thinking twice I vaulted a barbed wire fence and went foraging. Again, Cowie zoomed off, muttering something about “bloody mushrooms”.
As she ran off into the distance, I inspected what I thought was a cep. But I soon realised that it wasn’t quite the noble Karl Johan Svamp, but I had a strong suspicion it was an edible bolete of some sort. I quickly searched the surrounding area and found 4 or 5 more specimens, which I collected up and hid under a tree next to a discarded can of Coke with the hope that I’d be able to return later to pick them up.
I jumped back over the fence and sprinted down the hill to catch up with Cowie who was by now almost out of sight. It stuck me that this is actually an advanced form of interval training and in fact is the kind of thing they should recommend in Triathlon World magazine.
For the last 4 miles my head spun as I thought about what to cook with our haul of shrooms. I concocted mushroom and cider pates, mushroom ragus with polenta and mushroom soups in my mind as we closed in on the Bath Arms. I barely even noticed when we finished and was simply excited about picking up our mushrooms before any fungal bandit struck. We drove home via the mushroom drop zones and collected our haul which sat on my lap in the car with a reassuring covering of moss, twigs and excitable woodlouse.
We got home and, whilst Cowie showered, I checked the internet and my mushroom books to identify our collection and to check they were edible. It turned out that I was right about the chanterelles and that the boletes were in fact Birch Boletes which whilst not the very best, are regarded as being a tasty, if a little slimy.
By the time Cowie had returned from her shower I had cooked up my favourite mushroom brunch of the year. I simply sautéed the mushrooms and served them on sourdough toast from At the Chapel, in Bruton, and topped them with an egg yolk from Cowie’s hens which cooked in the residual heat of the mushrooms. And accompanied this with some invigorating watercress from John Hurd’s watercress farm which is just up the road.
It couldn’t have been more local. And it couldn’t have tasted any better. It was the most perfect brunch you could ever imagine. And left me beaming with delight for the rest of the day. It’s not often that you can combine fitness training, mushroom foraging and feasting all in one morning.
Friday, 4 November 2011
Mousehole is one my favourite places purely because of the name. A bit like Clitheroe – and a tiny village in Wiltshire, called Tiddlywink. I amused myself by insisting on pronouncing it as Mouse Hole, even though Cowie kept correcting me with “Mauzall”. The more she intervened the more childish I became and the more fond I am now of this spot that’s nestled in the Carribean waters of South West Cornwall.
Mousehole was 45 miles into our Land’s End cycle circuit, that had started at Penzance and climbed up through St. Just, so we decided to treat ourselves to a very well deserved lunch. Cowie used the lure of lunch at The Old Coastguard to keep me going – which had the result of us arriving there over an hour ahead of schedule. If I was ever to enter the Tour de France, you’d just have to dangle lunch at Pierre Gagnaire in front of me and Contador would be chasing my Lycra clad shadow.
We had been tipped off by the team at the Gurnard’s Head (their sister restaurant) that they were in a launch phase and were just warming up. So we arrived with an open mind, some very weary legs and an appetite of Chris Hoy proportions. We loved the setting, the large garden and spectacular view out to sea and settled in on the terrace for a very memorable lunch. If you’d told us that we’d just cycled to Trinidad I’d have believed you after a few more pints of Doombar.
It seemed rude not to have a couple of oysters which slipped down elegantly. I can recommend the shear sensuality of eating oysters whilst wearing nothing but Lycra: it seems to heighten the oystery pleasure.
A sympathetically dressed goat’s cheese and fennel salad was fresher than a student in the first energetic thrusts of university.
And a tomato and shallot salad with basil and balsamic vinegar was about as good as it can be in the UK, without access to intense Mediterranean sunshine. We loved the Hula Hoops of shallot whose intensity had been mellowed by the vinegar.
My crispy skinned hake with mustard béarnaise and fennel was just what my weary legs needed and is a dish that I’ll be attempting at home. The anise flavour of the tarragon in the béarnaise held hands with the fennel to create a dish that shows that the kitchen is going to be an exciting prospect when it is firing on all cylinders.
Things got even better when I asked whether there happened to be a good fishmonger nearby the waitress – with a straight face – asked whether I knew that Newlyn was the next door village, which she, helpfully, pointed out is home to one of the UK’s main fishing fleets. Whoops.
Whilst The Old Coastguard doesn’t yet have the same cosy warmth and charm as the Gurnard’s Head and Felin Fach Griffin in terms of pubby atmosphere, its setting and the well heeled locals mark this out as one to watch for the future. I can’t wait to return next summer – except maybe next time for dinner and not wearing anything quite so figure hugging.