THIS week I thought it would be interesting to go to the other end of the cooking scale, and do something a bit ‘cheffy’, following last week’s rather playful bunnies on the lawn.
It’s almost two years now since I left The Weavers Shed and the daily routine of intense prep and barely-controlled chaos of service. I also realised that it’s been a long time since I plated a dish in a certain way, with precise placing of the elements to make the dish not only a feast for the palate, but easy on the eye and appetising.
Sometimes it’s nice, even in a domestic setting, to think about the dish you’re about to serve and think of the best way to put it all together.
Ideas change over time; the overformal, over-garnished dishes of the 70s would look ridiculous now, and we’re slowly moving on from the 80s/90s ideas of stacking meat and veg, and pooling sauces. It’s much more of an organised rustic vibe these days, where the food should look like it just happened to land that way on the plate.
I pondered this recently on my way back from a most amazing meal at a fantastic restaurant in Cartmel in Cumbria. Those of you who know it will understand just how beautiful a village it is – tiny and idyllic, and in the heart of the place sits Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume (www.lenclume.co.uk).
The word is French for ‘anvil’, for it’s in the village’s former blacksmiths that this incredible eatery is based. For years, the team there have been developing a stunning cuisine based partly on wild-foraged foods, obscure native plants and locally-sourced meat and fish, but also with a strong backbone of scientific cooking techniques.
These days, to get the very best out of ingredients, chefs use modified sugars, seaweed extracts and other natural chemicals to develop their dishes. They use water-baths, vacuum-packing and low-temperature slow-cooking to achieve breathtaking results.
You can even see ‘daylight being let in on magic’ for yourself now, as they have a test kitchen called Aulis, where, for a price, up to six of you can sit in privacy opposite the development chef, the genial Dan Cox, and watch as he prepares a multi-course tasting meal for you, answering questions and offering tips. It’s incredible fun.
He is also in charge of their new kitchen garden, a vast plot outside the village where huge arrays of micro-leaves and veg are being grown, along with fruit trees, currant bushes and some livestock.
A recent Roux scholar, Dan is the very epitome of the modern chef – fiercely talented, with a passion for flavour, twinned with a love of nature and horticulture.
This man cares what happens to his venison, knows his hogget from his mutton, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of wild edibles and picks rock samphire on his seaside bike rides.
An example to all chefs that this is what you should be aiming for – a complete mastery of, and voracious interest in the world that brings you your ingredients.
One dish he presented to us was a tartare of local venison, strewn with various complimentary flavours including mustard and fennel (he even made little liquid-centred candied sweets with home-made fennel gin), beneath which lurked a smear of unbelievably intense lemon and caper jam which made the dish for me.
I resolved to have a go myself, and, with a little help from Dan, made a pretty good home version using some lovely Bolster Moor Farm beef.
So this week, it’s fancypants time, and yes, it’s raw meat. ‘Normal’ service will be resumed as soon as possible. But you should try everything once, eh?
A note: the jam takes at least 24 hours to make, but makes plenty and keeps for weeks.
For the beef:
250g tip-top fresh beef fillet
Extra-Virgin olive oil
A few tablespoons Mayonnaise (home-made is preferable, but shop-bought is OK)
A little ready-made English mustard
1 bulb fennel
300ml vegetable stock
For the lemon-caper jam:
600g small capers, rinsed and chopped roughly
400g unwaxed lemons
400g unrefined golden caster sugar
A few broad salad leaves such as beetroot leaves, spinach or shiso
Herbs (such as tarragon, flatleaf parsley, chervil or fennel fronds)
Make the jam first, at least 24 hours in advance. Cut the lemons into very small pieces, remove any pips and freeze on a plastic tray for 24 hours until rock solid.
Tip into a food processor and blitz to a fine powder. If there are still big lumps, try re-freezing the powder for a further 24 hours, and whizzing again.
Then, gently heat the sugar in a pan with a good splash of water and bring to a medium caramel (golden syrup-colour) stirring as little as possible. Slowly add spoonfuls of the frozen lemon powder until it’s all used up, then tip in the capers.
You should have a lovely sticky, bubbly panful. Set over the lowest heat possible and cook for about an hour or until you have a thick marmalade-y consistency, adding a splash of water if necessary.
Pour into a sterilised jar and refrigerate until required.
Trim the fennel, reserving the fronds for garnish, and slice thinly.
Put in a pan with enough vegetable stock to cover, plus a splash of lemon juice, and place a disc of greaseproof paper on to the surface.
Bring to the boil, then simmer gently until the fennel is just cooked.
Drain, refresh in iced water, pat dry and refrigerate until needed. Trim the beef of all vestiges of fat, and carefully cut into ½cm slices. Shred these slices into strips, then chop finely across the grain, to give a chunky mince texture to the meat.
Season with black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil (you will salt the meat just before service lest it seize up.)
To make the mayonnaise, mix the mustard into the mayonnaise to your personal taste. Wash the salad leaves well.
Just before serving, season the beef with a little sea salt. To assemble the dish, smear a good spoonful of the caper and lemon jam on the plate.
Place the beef where you find it most pleasing, spreading it out across the plate.
Garnish with the salad leaves, chilled fennel and herbs, and add a few light flicks of mustard mayonnaise to add colour and heat.
This would be lovely served with hot crunchy bread and a good red wine like a Morgon or a Brouilly.