Thursday, 22 December 2011
Cowie and I always try to steal a fleeting weekend for ourselves before Christmas as a way of fluffing ourselves into the festive spirit and as something to look forward to during the manic rush of London life in December. It’s a time of false deadlines, mounting workloads and indulgent parties that cries out for a healthy dose of rural relaxation.
This year we decided to follow up on the success of trips to Y Polyn and the Felin Fach Griffin in Wales and this time head to The Hardwick near Abergavenny. It gets a great write up in Diana Henry’s Gastropub Cookbook so we could barely resist.
Cowie booked us into a phenomenal BnB which is on the Glanusk Estate which is one of the corners of the world that when you discover it you want to simultaneously tell everyone all about it, but also put people off visiting because you want to hoard the experience for yourself.
Ty’r Chanter looks across at the Brecon Beacons and up at the Black Mountains, with the River Usk roaring past in the valley below so loudly that you could easily convince someone living in Reading that it was the M4. But, whilst the motorway may be spirit sapping, this is the sort of multi sensory experience that lifts the soul. The view below, of the snow capped mountains, is from our bedroom window. And if this isn’t amazing enough, we saw a kite swoop to pluck a pheasant from the field for supper. If you are planning to stay somewhere in this part of the country, you'd be mad not to stay here.
Inspired by the view and with a major meal ahead of us, we decided to head out for a run. There’s nothing like a thirteen mile yomp through the Black Mountains past fields full of sheep and along the river Usk’s salmon rich banks, teeming with waterfalls to build up an appetite. It’s like doing a spinning class in the Ginger Pig in order to stimulate your yearning for a juicy steak, or doing some pilates in the Fromagerie to put you in the zone for a cheeseathon.
So we arrived at The Hardwick with enormous appetites and even bigger expectations. And left with the former negated and the latter more than exceeded. For this is a seriously impressive restaurant.
After spending so much time next to the Usk and having seen so many pictures in our BnB of people proudly holding enormous fish, it would have been criminal for one of us to have their locally smoked salmon and confit salmon to start. Cowie adored it. Iridescent slices of salmon were served with beetroot crisps, a mild horseradish cream and pea shoots that matched with our Gruner Veltliner/Pinot Blanc to perfection. Whilst the confit spoke for itself with a demure confidence, its smoked sibling showed off like a diva glamming up for a performance. Bold and sexy it lingered in the mouth and teased us with whisperings about what was to come next.
My salt cod belly with creamy beans and chorizo was another hit. Everything about the dish screamed try me and I couldn’t resist. The beans were soft by full of integrity, whilst the mild chorizo added a salty stockiness to the sauce. But the star was the slippery morsel of flaky white cod that sat on top that has to rank as one of my favourite tastes this year. It was rustic to look and somewhat out of place on a menu in hilly Wales, but it worked brilliantly and helped to lift the menu to a new level without being pretentiously chefy.
We toyed with the idea of sharing Dear for Two and the Taste of Local Beef for Two, but having seen so many deliciously fluffy sheep on our run, it seemed only right for us to share their iconic Baa Baa Blacksheep sharing dish. It arrived with a satisfying thud on our table and a grin from our waitress – as if to say we’d made a good choice. It was a tour de force in how to cook lamb which demonstrated amazing skill that showcased the different aspects that make this meat so special.
The highlights were the surprisingly juicy merguez sausage; the unctuous neck; the light as a balloon faggots; the decadent shepherd’s pie; and the pressed leg that came like a sheepy schnitzel. The only element that could have been better was the loin that could have done with less time over the coals. But we’re just being picky. It’s hard enough to cook lamb well one way. Let alone creating a postmodern bricolage that showcases the multifaceted essence of this magnificently local sheep.
We finished with a jar of crackly lemon pudding with curds and meringue and were impressed to see the chef walk the room after his stint at the stove. This final touch may seem frivolous. But when you make an effort to try a chef’s cooking, it makes a big difference psychologically when they are actually in the restaurant. Thinking back to other memorable meals, it certainly made our meal more special when we spoke to Heston Blumnthal at the Fat Duck and also when we were given a quick tour of El Bulli’s kitchen’s by Feran Adria. It’s not that we have got a chef fetish, but seeing Stephen Terry did help to round off a memorable meal.
We are going to return in the spring to learn to fish on the Usk, cycle up and down the Black Mountains and most importantly to eat more of The Hardwick's soulful food.
Monday, 19 December 2011
We hosted a big dinner party for Cowie’s birthday recently which involved us catering for 22 people. We decided on the menu about a month beforehand which had to balance taste, generosity and budget. A large joint of meat was an option, but with this number of people it would have been hard to have cooked it just right and have fun ourselves. So we opted instead, to have some X rated fun with the sausage maker.
My first batch of what I had termed Somerset Sausages, involved mustard, cider and sage. I thought they gave the mighty Cumberland Sausage a run for its money, but Cowie thought they smelled of sick. So we jettisoned the unfortunate sage and dialed up the thyme and added some chunks of apple and a slosh of cider brandy. The result was a rich, herby, apply taste of Somerset. All we had to do now was to make enough sausages for 22 people. Gulp.
And for our starter we popped down to Mere Fish Farm to collect a dozen trout which we planned to smoke over apple wood chips and serve with a horseradish crème fraiche sauce, slices of cooked beetroot and a handful of local watercress.
With the meat and fish courses sorted we sat down and smugly gulped down some coffee. But something felt wrong. Oh God. We’ve forgotten about our vegetarian friends! Having gone to so much effort with the starter and main course we had to cook them something on a par – at least in terms of effort – but hopefully from a taste point of view as well.
The punning side of my brain kicked in as it often does in times of crisis. How about we serve a pastry-less veggie strewn quiche inside a squash and called it a squiche? Bingo.
The dinner party went brilliantly and we have subsequently made a squiche for a midweek supper together which is detailed below.
1 squash – Butternut, Crown Prince or any other firm textured but creamy medium sized squash
150g of rehydrated wild mushrooms
2 garlic cloves
1 roasted courgette
1 flamed red pepper
100g goats’ cheese
50g mixed chops nuts
Salt and pepper
Cut the squash in half and scoop out the brains. Smear with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped nuts and pop a garlic clove, still in its skin, into each squash half. Season. Roast for 40 minutes until the flesh is cooked but well before it starts to lose its structural integrity.
Then make the quiche mixture as you would do normally and feel free to meddle this combination of flavours. Roast the courgette in smallish pieces and blacken the pepper over a flame before peeling the charred skin off and cutting into small pieces. Then beat the eggs and add the cream. Then mix in the tarragon, vegetables and rehydrated wild mushrooms. Add a splash or two of the mushroom liquor which will add some woody depth. Then plop in goats’ cheese in chunks and give it all a good mix.
Remove the garlic cloves and pour the quiche mixture into the squash halves. You may need to find a way of balancing the squashes so they don’t topple over and cause chaos.
Season and cook in a medium oven for 30 minutes. The egg mixture should be firm to the touch but have some springiness to it. Serve whole or in slices with a watercress salad and lentils.
So if you are struggling for ideas of what to cook a vegetarian friend, or even are wondering how to cut back on meat whist still eating something interesting, give the squiche a bash. You could give it an exotic Moroccan twist by using cumin, chilli and a scattering of nuts… or keep it more simple and let the squash speak for itself along with some complimentary ingredients from the Flavour Thesaurus.
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.
Sunday, 16 October 2011
We had one of our favourite meals of all time at Gurnard’s Head back in 2009. It was only a light lunch of fish soup and grilled fish, but it was so perfect in its charm and flavour soaked simplicity that we left craving more. Inspired by our Cornish epiphany we went to The Gurnard’s Head’s sister pub in the Brecon Beacons called the Felin Fach Griffin and had an experience that was almost as good – it just made us want to return to the mother ship for more.
The Gurnard’s Head Inn is beyond St. Ives, not far from Land’s End and set back from a stunning stretch of Atlantic coastline. So it isn’t a place you can just pop along to on a whim. You need to build an entire holiday around it. So we decided to splash out on food rather than a roof over our head and found ourselves in Noongalllas's enchanting field between Penzance and St. Ives - where you rise from your tent to the sound of cows and the sight of a VW camper van selling coffee and croissants and go to sleep the sound of dropping pins.
We wanted to experience as much Gurnard’s Head goodness as possible so we walked down the National Trust coastal path with a picnic to explore the scenery. It turns out that The Gurnard’s Head itself is a rocky outcrop that stretches out into the Atlantic in the shape of a fish head, sheltering Treen Cove from the often ferocious sea. It’s been described as “one of the most striking and beautiful promontories in Cornwall” and is worth a visit with or without the brilliance of the restaurant.
The simply perfect 360 view, the roasting heat of the south facing natural sun deck and the cool breeze from the sea makes this outcrop our favourite bit of geography in the UK. After a perfect picnic we headed back to our tent to tart ourselves up and returned ravenously to the Gurnard’s Head for dinner.
We arrived with high expectations and settled in for what turned out to be a memorable meal. Please excuse the grainy pictures and I hope I can do the food justice with a scattering of words.
Pigeon salad with game chips, lambs lettuce and a turbo charged berry gravy was Cowie’s idea of heaven. The flesh was pinker than a camp panther with Cowie’s only criticism being that she’d like to have it all over again.
My crispy pig’s ear salad with peas, pork belly and a sticky sauce is the kind of dish that excites you about the rest of the meal to come, like a shot of adrenaline before a rugby match – just as starters are supposed to. With a glass of dry sherry it ranks as my favourite starts to a meal of the year.
Cowie’s cod, which came with a mound of puréed beans, carmelised fennel and a waft of truffle, was epic. It was as if the chef had briefed a silk worm to create a cocoon for the fish to be cooked in. It’s rare to find fish cooked with this level of care and intelligence. The purée complemented the softness of the fish and the fennel’s distinct fronds mirrored the flaky nature of the flesh.
My hake with basil gnocchi and spinach was the best thing I’ve eaten all year. Crisp skin, flaking flesh and a rich fishy depth had me savouring each bite - whilst the gnocchi’s fondant texture and loud basil flavour added several layers to this sensual feast. I know I’m wanging on about this dish, but it was pretty good.
We shared some delicious ice cream for dessert and lingered over coffee to absorb the atmosphere and avoid retuning prematurely to our tent. We fell in love with a playful spaniel puppy that epitomised the pub’s bosom like atmosphere as he scampered between tables and rolled over to have his tummy rubbed. If I was forced to choose a final meal – there’s a fair chance that the Gurnard’s Head would be near the top of my list to rustle it up.