Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Children's Menu

The standoff
'Children's Menu'...The very words beckon a red mist to my beleaguered chef’s brain.  Children’s menus are unnecessary, cheapen the establishment and are, quite simply, naff.  Surely, now that Britain is basking in a golden age of celeb chefs, influential restaurants and general foodie madness; we can do away with this sad and cheesy little document.  Half portions from the a la carte or starters should suffice, no?  How condescending to our little people that they aren’t ‘allowed’ to eat the delicacies of which we partake.  I’m not even going to touch the hot topic of what many parents are feeding their presumably precious ones at home.  There oughtta be laws.

Having a kid really threw me.  No two ways about it.  My little dude is now 1.5 years on our crazy ol’ planet and it really is a great bit of luck to discover that he is the most handsome, perfect and advanced lad that ever blossomed from the union of two.  But, my oh my the challenges.  At 1yr he was well past the blitzed pap stage and was wanting some bite to his diet.  He refused to wear a bib and ceased to let us feed him.  I approach every meal, (my wife deals with far more than I) with trepidation.  Is he in the mood?  Will it be floor scrubbing and wall scraping for dessert again after the latest foray into self nourishment?  I mean, how much banana squishing, raisin tossing, plate flipping and juice pouring can one toddler achieve in a day.  Quite a lot actually.  As you can imagine, I am pretty keen that he grows up with more than a passing knowledge of food, and, at the very least, a decent palate.  As far as I am concerned it nearly goes without saying that he isn’t munching on rich tea biscuits, chips, candy or any rubbish.  If we are on the go, we are obsessive over what packaged food to purchase.  All of us have to buy the stuff sometimes, just be sure to check out the ingredients.  If you start the man off on rice cakes, he won’t hanker for wotsits.  At least that’s the theory.  There will be enough time later when he has grown beyond our reach for him to indulge in processed crap. 
So, what does a chef cook for his most vocal and violent little critic?  Pretty much whatever the wee man will eat.  When you find something that works, and is healthy, it becomes part of your homespun ‘children’s menu’.  It really has been strange making scrambled eggs without salt, seeking out the very ripest fruit to puree so as not to have to add sugar, and dealing with the rejection of putting in a heck of a lot of effort to see it swept onto the floor with a smirk.  My sure thing is softish scrambled eggs with buttery soldiers.  They always seem to do the trick.  Other success stories seem to be anything colourful cut into the right size for his little hands to grasp.  Ham and roast beef also fare well and yogurt is a must.  A warm bowl of porridge in the morning usually does the trick and a firm favourite for sometime has been pureed cauliflower with a little smoked salmon.
I love watching him explore a new texture, examine a new colour.  The expressive wonder of his blessed countenance, rolling a bit of melon around his mouth for the first time.  It really is all about initial impressions, finding his way around a new flavour.  Freud likened these little monsters to pure Id, and I think he may have hit the nail on the head.  The snatch and grab constant robberies that occur when, heaven forbid, you might be trying to pop something into your own’s all gimme, gimme, gimme.  Trickery abounds.  When I pretend to covet and hide broccoli, sure enough he screams until I let him have it.  ‘Oh, ok, if you must have Daddy’s special overcooked brassica.’  
I look forward to his first bit of foie gras on toast.  His first juicy steak.  His first asparagus and poached eggs.  I see these as important and fun as when he first watches Loony Toons or Stars Wars, listens to Beethoven or Led Zeppelin, reads Kipling or Hemingway.  It’s my job to lead him to the water, it’s up to him whether he takes a big drink.  But if all else fails, a toy with tea usually helps.

Gammon Steak & Green Stuff

½ Just Us Organic gammon steak
Assorted green stuff- broad beans, courgette, peas, green beans, broccoli etc. Cooked just beyond a crunch.
Pile it up and let him pick it apart, throw it around, mash it into the wood grain of the table and hopefully swallow some.

Fruit Fun

All manner of fruits peeled where necessary and heaped together in a kaleidoscope of I-can’t-resistness.

Surefire Scrambled & Soldiers

Bright yellow yolked free range egg whisked with a little cream and cooked in butter.
Brown buttered toast soldiers.

An edited version of this article can be read in the October issue of Devon Life Magazine

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Maddocks Farm Organics

    A good chef can spot a top ingredient at 100 yards.  The first time I found myself at Cullompton’s Farmers’ market, I zeroed in on these fantastic and vibrant salad bags.  It speaks volumes that before Jan agreed to supply the hotel I worked at the time, she secretly came and check if I was worthy!  Thus began a long and fruitful relationship and friendship with one of Devon’s top producers.  Salad leaves can often be such an oversight in a restaurant.  And, lord knows, the supermarkets don’t shine on this one.  Hand on heart, I can state that these are the best tasting, freshest and most diverse range of leaves, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers that I have encountered.
    The story began ten years ago for Jan and Stuart, (her professional philatelist husband/farmhand.) and it is one shared by many.  London dwellers, the pitter patter of little feet, too many glasses of wine whilst watching River Cottage and an ache for The Good Life.  Well, the Billingtons are case in point for what a slow and steady plan, hard graft and total commitment to quality and detail can reap.  The irony of the situation is, of course, you actually end up with less down time than back in the big smoke.  When does the watering, weeding and planting stop?  Their stunning ‘plantation’ on the edges of Kentisbeare is a little slice of heaven with listed farm house, acres of greenery, duck pond and their fab ‘The Haybarn’ holiday let.

    Certified Organic, Jan has a lot to say on the topic and we have had many a heated discussion about the whole matter.  Essentially we agree.  There are so many misleading food buzz words out there.  Someone does something good and right and then the marketers and money men grasp hold in grubby hands.  Organic to Jan is an ideal not just a soil sample and relevant certificate.  Jan states, ‘Organic should be about quality, freshness, integrity and miles.  A thought to the environment around you, cause and effect.  It isn’t just about supplying what people want or what was ordered, it is about providing what is best on the day.’  Maddocks Farm delivers goods that are picked that morning.  Period.  The salad bags aren’t pumped full of nitrogen, the leaves aren’t washed in a chlorine solution.  When you buy lettuces or leaves that are ‘just picked’ they will last five days in the fridge without unwanted and artificial aids.  Force Jan to sit down a moment over a cup of tea and she can wax lyrical.  ‘When all is dewy and a bit foggy in the morning, when I go out and survey the crops, it’s about intuition.  An innate sense of what is at its very peak of perfection.  Those are the lovelies that find their way into the bags that day.’  When I see the obsessive attention Jan puts into each leaf, I coin a new term.  Organically Certifiable.  Respect.  

    Dare I wade into the organic debate?  Are fresh picked, non-organic yet naturally grown vegetables from just down the road better than fancy wrapped organic product at your local hypermarket?  Probably.  Taste the food.  Let your tongue make decisions rather than packaging, food trends, ad words or price.  Remember, we are lucky down here.  The South West has little issue with poor animal welfare, pesticides or chemicals.  The U.K. is one of the safest places on the planet to buy food due to past crimes and hard lessons learnt.
    Meanwhile, back at the ranch.  Never mind the backache, the never ending days and the soiled hands, it is the weather that poses the most difficult challenge.  Climate change is pretty bloody obvious when snow starts ravaging this little island and you have the driest and hottest spring on record.  Luckily, Maddocks Farm have their own bore hole for watering and reams of fleece to blanket the crops saved most of it during the odd -15 degree night.  With the summer months now upon us the team is full steam ahead.  Everything in bloom, Jan and her lieutenant Mandy Christie start early and finish late to ensure all is picked, washed, bagged and delivered.  Much of Jan’s business is to Posh Nosh, one of the South West’s top event caterers and weddings are in full swing.  The edible flowers are a real favourite for these dos and add class and colour to festive functions.  For my own use, I use a tailor made, uber colourful and herby mix for the Southernhay House Salad and a mix of green lettuces for a simpler side dish.  The flowers are also fab for spicy and aromatic compound butters that jazz up any vegetable, grilled fish or meat dishes.  Now is the time for courgette flowers which I like to stuff with a scallop mix, dip in tempura and fry.  Jan and I came up with this great Pimm’s jelly utilizing her ginger mint and borage flowers which we showcased a la demo in the Dart’s Farm Tent at the Exeter Food Festival.  It’s all about relationships, obsessive individuals and the cross pollination of enthusiasm and ideas.  Keep the faith and lead the way Jan.
    Details of where you can purchase, eat and learn about all things Maddocks Farm can be found at-  

Pimm's Jelly with Jan's borage flowers

As seen in Devon Life magazine July 2011

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever

John Lennon's inspiration

Let me take you down indeed.  The ultimate British band waxing lyrical about the quintessential British berry.  Hard to imagine what the lads were on about, but how could they go wrong with Fragaria; the strawberry, symbol of the Virgin Mary and summer itself.  This Latin name Fraga refers to the fruit’s fragrance.  The English word ‘strawberry’ is due to the ‘straying’ erratic habit of the plant, much like many of its rose and blackberry cousins.

The cultivated berry with which we are so familiar is well travelled and not so very old.  An American variety, unsurprisingly plump and proud found its way to France with a French officer in the 17th century, but it was the Brits that were the innovators and pioneered large scale breeding; producing two famous varieties, the Downton and the Elton.  The very names conjure up some past-it pop star strolling the regal corridors of his empty abbey.  Yet it was a market gardener called Michael Keens that produced the ‘Keens’ Seedling’, blowing all others out of the race with sensational size and flavour.  The 1821 advent of this new super berry spread rapidly to the continent and back to America.  Nearly all modern varieties are derived from Michael’s magic seed.
So what makes the strawberry so special,  so perfect in every way?  Well, the timing couldn’t be better.  A long, often droll and boring English winter, (ok, I know, not this one) gives way to a wet spring, (ok, yes, driest on record...climate change and all that) and then strawberries hit late spring/early summer.  It is one of the first sure signs of good times ahead, a bright red siren of juicy goodness beckoning in the heat of July and August.  The Brits perfected them, sent them off for the world to sample, catching on like wildfire.  They are yours.  The strawberry is simply...well...English.  And we can be ruddy proud of that.  And we can make damn sure that we are savouring them as God intended, during the English strawberry season.  Take heed all you chefs and supermarkets that insist on plying us with foreign fluff in January...they may look like strawberries, but they don’t taste like strawberries and it just isn’t cricket.  Never mind animal rights protesters.  (No, seriously, never mind them)  Someone should start up a seasonal vegetable/fruit protesters organisation.  Picket those uncaring fools selling asparagus in December.  But, I digress.  It is the flavour really, isn’t it.  Sure, we can allude to the sexual nature of the sidelong glance of a halved strawberry, it’s aphrodisiacal qualities, but it is our singing taste buds that elevate this berry to heavenly status.  An actual burst occurs in your mouth with a well sun-ripened specimen, just the right amount of acidity with that unmistakable taste.  God’s own bon-bon.  And I haven’t even mentioned the wild variety.  The flavour packed into the little crazies you see topping my desserts here...well, Willy Wonka himself would scratch his head in wonder.  Where did I get them?  Never you mind, but Devon I swear.  

Timing, flavour, what about the fact that they are wholly unique in the entire fruit world?  Technically they are known as an ‘accessory fruit’.  The seeds which, unlike those of any other, are on the outside and are the true fruits of the plant.  Huh?  The fleshy ‘berry’ to which they are attached is an enlarged, softened receptacle, corresponding to the small, white cone connected to the stem.  This cluster of dry fruit seeds is described in Radio 4 circles as an ‘etaerio of achenes’ as opposed to the raspberry’s ‘etaerio of druplets’.  Of course.  Thank-you Alan Davidson.
So, how to eat them.  Straight up with a little caster sugar stirs my boyhood memories.  The sugar acting as a seasoning, bringing out the flavour even more.  The Wimbledon way, with cream, one can never go wrong.  The North American strawberry shortcake is a winner, or a touch of sophistication from the continent, macerated in red wine.  Preserves, The Devon Cream Tea, the list is fairly exhaustive.  However you indulge, just make sure they are served at room temperature, like a good tomato; fridge cold is pointless and painful on the teeth.  Also, dipping in chocolate is a no-no.  Doesn’t work.  Tastes horrible.  White ‘chocolate’ yes, dark, no.  Personally, I don’t think they can be beat with a just-whipped vanilla cream or panna cotta.  Fragaria lend themselves to dairy so well.
‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, doubtless God never did.’
-William Allen Butler

Panna Cotta & Strawberries
Serves 5

600ml Double cream
150ml Milk
150g Caster sugar
3 Leaves Gelatine, soaked in cold water
1tbsp Marsala
1 Vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped
Fresh Devon strawberries at room temperature

  1. Place the cream, milk, sugar, marsala and vanilla in a saucepan.
  2. Bring to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the gelatine.
  3. Pass through a fine sieve and pour into dariole moulds.
  4. Refrigerate until set.
  5. Turn out onto a plate by dipping the mould in boiling water for a few seconds.
  6. Garnish with sliced strawberries and strawberry sauce (optional).

Merlot Strawberries, Vanilla Cream & Black Pepper
Serves 6

600ml Quality merlot
5tbsp Caster sugar
¼ tsp Freshly ground or crushed black pepper
600gm Fresh Devon strawberries, quartered
300ml Double cream
½ Vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped

1. Place the red wine, sugar and black pepper in a bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar.
2. Add the strawberries and let macerate for 30 minutes.
3. Whip the cream and vanilla.
3. To serve, divide among six wine glasses or champagne flutes and dollop with cream.
As seen in Devon Life Magazine, August 2011

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cod Verdure

Cod Verdure
Cod Verdure
For 4

1tsp White wine vinegar
1tsp Lemon juice
1tbsp Double cream
150gm Butter
1 Bay leaf
250gm Mix of your favourite green summer legumes and/or vegetables such as:
Peas, courgette, fennel, broad beans, sugar snaps, runner beans, asparagus, spring onion etc
A few choice Scottish girolles (optional)
Parsley, chives, dill, fennel frond and/or pea shoots
4x 180gm Cod fillets


1) Combine the white wine vinegar and lemon juice in a small saucepan.
2) Bring to the boil and add the cream and bay leaf, reduce somewhat.
3) Reduce the heat and whisk in the butter a bit at a time.
4) Cover with a lid or cling film and leave somewhere warm.
5) Season the cod fillets well and fry in a hot non-stick pan until golden.
6) Turn the fillets over, baste in a little butter and if they are very thick, pop in a hot oven for a minute or two.  If not, let rest in a warm place.
7) Quickly blanch the green veggies and girolles if using and drain well.
8) Warm the butter sauce gently and fold in your ‘verdure’.
9) Add chopped herbs of your choice and mix well.

To serve:

    Divide the verdure mix between the four plates and top with a golden fried cod fillet.  Garnish with pea shoots, dill or fennel and serve with a crisp white such as a good Chablis.


    Verdure: 1. greenness, especially of fresh, flourishing vegetation.
    I have always loved this word.  Many will know me as a bit of a wordsmith as well as a cook and more and more this is filtering into my menus whether it be from an historical aspect or something that just sounds apt.  Verdure is a perfect word for this dish as it uses the very best of the peak summer.  All things green and good.
    I haven’t cooked with cod for around six years.  I’ve missed it and felt that it was my duty to give the fish a break due to apparent dwindling stocks.  Turns out it isn’t the stocks that are the problem!  There is only so much we can do as cooks and diners, I’ll pick my battles elsewhere and enjoy cod again for awhile.  It really is a perfect fish, wasted in batter to my mind.

A Southernhay House Hotel signature dish.