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Where Chefs Eat- A guide to chefs’ favourite restaurants

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment

A serious book

Who Will Buy the book Where Chefs Eat? The foodie equivalent of the people that buy Wisdens and Bradshaws perhaps, or the people that buy those Schott Miscellanies, the design of the latter being rather a strong influence here. In fact it’s a shame this book came out post Xmas as its sales could have been high in the pre Xmas week from desperate people grabbing it off the ‘take-one’ display in the mistaken belief that it was a humour book suitable for Uncle Bob.

But the book has sold very well anyway, at one point even outselling The Hairy Dieters, which must have caused some expletives from the biker boys ‘oop north. It could be considered a rather poncy southerner kind of concept this kind of thing, after all.

Over 400 chefs worldwide were asked eight key questions about restaurants – ones they wish they’d opened, the best for breakfast, late night eating, high end dining and so on. The returned forms were presumably converted into punch cards and fed into one of those giant IBM computers, the kind that features large tape reels rotating first one way and then another, and with a weighty thump the book emerged out of the rear end.

So how do you use it? Well not in the way you might expect, by looking up somewhere you’re going to and seeing what places the enlisted chefs recommend, as there is no actual index by city or town. Instead you need to look up the country section, then look at the country map, and from the map identify any pages that will be of use. Some cities do get their own dedicated entry in the index, Barcelona for example, but others you might think might deserve special billing, such as Rome, don’t.

There is an index by restaurant name but perhaps if you already knew the name you wouldn’t need a chef to help you discover it? The real value must be for the restaurant owners quickly flipping through the book, desperate to see if they’ve been included, before the shop assistant catches them.

There is an index by chefs which is more useful, as they are the stars here after all, and having negotiated the search and found that a restaurant is rated highly by Chef XXX, you can then easily find out just who Chef XXX actually is. Chef twitchers meanwhile can go straight to their top of the pops chef names and compile a restaurant list to let them to follow in chef’s sainted clogs.

Of course few normal people, when pressed, can actually name even five working chefs and odds are they would mostly think of Ramsay, who isn’t in the book and Blumenthal who is, despite being more of a James May of food these days. But if you’ve heard of Harald Wohlfahrt, ‘in 2005 he was awarded the German Order of Merit’ then you can now find out what he likes for breakfast.

Some selected restaurants, like the chefs, are given short summaries, ‘Why not make a meal of it and stay the night as this restaurant has rooms?’ cheekily suggests one. Indeed and why not avail yourself of the well-stocked minibar while you’re at it? It is however good to know that De Pastorale ‘is one of the more famous restaurants in Belgium’ as, rather like famous Belgians, it’s often rather hard to think of any at all when put on the spot. This could be crucial information if you ever compete on Pointless or actually, and obviously inexplicably, do find yourself in Belgium.

The book also exists as an iPhone and iPad app and that would seem the best medium for it as it’s presumably searchable by keywords. It also means that it can be updated easily because restaurants, and indeed chefs, have a habit of disappearing or just falling out of fashion almost overnight. You wouldn’t want to arrive at the legendary De Pastorale only to find it had been turned into a mobile phone shop with chef now serving up Unlimited Text contracts.

This guide is perfect for those given to food fantasising – compiling gastro trips and dreaming culinary dreams. If you’re a restaurant spotter, don’t believe in Michelin stars, take critics’ recommendations with a large pinch of salt, or simply don’t like taking chances, then Where Chefs Eat should be Just What You’ve Been Waiting For.

{ISBN:0714865419}

Enter the rhubarb triangle

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

No false modesty here

‘If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing,’ says Janet Oldroyd Hulme as we all obediently fall silent and strain our ears. Silent that is but for the odd sibilant plastic rustle as a kagoul-clad pensioner attempts to stabilise himself on the cold, wet slippery earth of the candlelit forcing shed.

‘Well you could if these were still at the initial growing stage,’ admits Janet, finally breaking the mystic spell.  ‘Rhubarb grows at around an inch a day and at the early stage there’s a definite creaking sound as it pushes up. Right, now back outside please!’

There’s actually a bit of a noticeable creaking sound as the pensioners all get their legs going again and compliantly shuffle out of the shed to the rhubarb shop, threading their way through the spooky, albino-ish shoots visible only by the guttering light of the candles on sticks dotted about.

The weigh in

We’re all on safari in the heart of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, the area of West Yorkshire where rhubarb is king, a top seasonal crop appreciated  by savvy chefs all over the UK. Each morning the forced rhubarb from here is picked and sent out by fast trains to discerning buyers across the country, including Harrods, where it fetches a high price.

I’ve tagged along with the pensioners’ day trip to the Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm to find out a bit more about a vegetable (often mistakenly classed as a fruit) that rather blighted my younger days. My father, like so many dads back then, always grew rhubarb on his allotment and it appeared, stewed and covered in claggy custard, every weekend during its season, the sour oxalic acid coating my teenage teeth and haunting my dreams.

It wasn’t of course quality rhubarb like this. Before ushering us into the ghostly sheds Janet, a fourth generation rhubarb grower, treats us to the history and practice of rhubarb growing, especially forcing.  Grown in the UK since 1870 and originally from Siberia, it’s a vegetable rich in flavour as well as having a positive and balancing effect upon the digestive system and one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. There are even claims that rhubarb root (Rheum officinale) can be useful in treatment of Hepatitis B.

Listen carefully

Back in the day amateur growers like my father would place a bucket over the dormant rhubarb ‘crowns’ in winter so that when the shoots emerged in the spring they would be starved of light and blanched, so producing a lighter coloured stem and a more delicate flavour. After that initial first flush, the bucket would come off and we would then eat ordinary rhubarb until the longed for day when the bitter oxalic acid became finally too strong and it was time to let the plant get on with storing energy in its roots for the next year.

It’s this stored energy Janet explains, that the professional growers harness to create an even more delicate crop than blanched rhubarb; the famous Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Late in the year, once they’ve suffered the crucial cold spell they need to break their dormancy, the two or three year old rhubarb crowns are dug up from their fields to go into dark heated sheds where, seduced by the cosy warmth into thinking that Spring has sprung, they begin to quickly grow.

in the pink

With no light to photosynthesise by the emerging shoots have to call on that stored energy in their roots, which is enough to give them their remarkable growth spurt and to produce their uniquely tender and highly sought after delicate champagne pink stems. Once the growth is over, the exhausted crowns are chopped up and recycled back onto the land.

Not so long ago there were nearly 200 rhubarb growers at work in the triangle, but today there are less than twelve. It’s a shrinkage caused by the availability to the consumer of more tempting exotic fruits, by the increasing lack of the necessary cold autumns, the absence of ‘shoddy’, a cheap by-product of the woolen industry traditionally used as fertiliser, and the decline of the local coal mining industry that gave these sheds their relatively cheap source of heating.

Today bought-in fertiliser and expensive propane are what fuel the rhubarb’s growth and so drives up growers’ costs and the price to us in the shops. And then there are the cheaper, but far inferior, imports from Holland and Turkey to contend with.

£2.50 a packet at source

Traditional growers such as Janet hear the rumours of their industry’s imminent demise but believe the future is actually assured. As she explains, new varieties can adjust for the warmer autumns while modern insulation techniques now make the sheds cheaper to heat. As for the foreign imports, in 2010 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) granted local forced rhubarb the same protected name status enjoyed by products such as champagne and Parma ham. Now no producers of rhubarb outside the West Yorkshire triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield can now pass off their forced rhubarb as the real thing. Hooray for DEFRA.

That night in London we cook the bunch of Janet’s forced rhubarb that I carefully carried all the way back to town. We make a simple but classic rhubarb crumble and the flavour is delicate, sour-sweet and delicious and, although Dad can’t see me because he’s now on the big allotment in the sky, I raise a custard-coated spoon in tribute to his taste; he was right all along, rhubarb really is rather excellent.

Visit Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm

Find rhubarb recipes

Frying tonight. Madrid tapas tour

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

San Sebastian may have all the headlines when it comes to food, but Madrid can still make the grade. And when you get tired of tapas, there’s the museums and art to graze on. With Gastronomica Madrid 2013 now in full effect, Nick Harman hit the city streets to see what’s on offer.

Oh to be young again

Do you like football? Do you like tapas? Then you’ll love Puerta 57 in Madrid. Pass through the busy Barra Cibeles, redolent of garlic and the after shave of well-dressed Madrilenos, into the Salón Madrid and you’re gazing down at the floodlit ground of the Real Madrid stadium. Way down there epic matches have been fought and the sainted feet of Beckham once regularly twinkled over the hallowed turf. Up here your only struggle is to decide which of the premier league tapas on offer to put in the back of the net next.

Crispy prawns

I ate a Russian salad that would have made Lenin turn capitalist and plump prawns robed in a delicate web of dry, crispy batter. A plate of cutely shirt button sized clams, briefly steamed open, drenched in garlic, butter and oil and whisked over to diners from a stove just ten feet away, were sweet and nutty. I could have stayed all night.

La Dorada (obvs)

But the essence of tapas is to taste and move on and so fuelled by Rioja it was off to La Dorada. A seafood place (a dorada is a sea bream) with an ancient wooden bar running deep into the gloom at the back, it has a more informal vibe. The fact that it couldn’t be further from the sea, Madrid being pretty much in the dead center of Spain, doesn’t stop the fish here being first class.

Anchovies. Or whitebait. I don’t know.

Whitebait, or possibly fresh anchovies, came in light batter and in heavy profusion together with seared cubes of dogfish, or rock salmon as we sometimes call it in the UK.  It’s a relative of the shark (the barman resorted to miming Jaws to explain this) and fried it has pleasingly solid texture, almost like monkfish. A plate of fried eggs slipped on top of matchstick sized battered and fried fish was my favourite here, the egg broken as soon as the plate landed so as to ooze out into the fried fish and make a delicious mess.

Plastic chillies, not so hot

Io restaurant was next, my progress now a little slower owing to the amount of fried food I’d taken on board, not to mention all that Rioja. Deep in the financial zone of Madrid, Io looks the part – smart, shiny, sleek and modern and with a bouncer on the door. ‘No I’m not!’ corrected the hombre, ‘I look after people’s cars as the parking’s a nightmare around here.’

Croquetas

The tapas at Io are advertised as modern; meatballs arrive on dinky white mini-plates along with delicate croquetas of jamon and salt cod with a bath of mayonnaise for them to be plunged into. A little lacking in atmosphere in the evening, Io is probably livelier at lunch when the local businesses pop in.

I’ll have three of those

I swung by the Mercado San Miguel in the old town, built in 1916 this was once one of the city’s main covered market places but today it’s been refurbished to be a more modern home of tapas bars and food shops. The original cast iron pillars soar up to support a roof of wooden planks and its location near to Madrid’s main square makes it popular at all times.

Messy eating

There are over 30 food stallsand a great cookbook shop here by day, but at night the tapas bars spill out to occupy any spare space. It’s crowded all the way up to closing time and like our own Borough Market it’s a bit touristy and pricey, but for at least an hour you can happily wander about, shoving through the good-natured crowds and grabbing a bite here and a booze there.

The chef, not bothered by my gastric reaction to his ‘tortilla’

And finally to Estado Puro. Based in a hotel, this is nowhere as bad as that might suggest. The decor is designery and it’s convenient for a post Prado museum stop. They do a modern tapas menu here, but for me the mussel ‘meatball’ went too far and hit the gag reflex. The chef is ex El Bulli, so that means some creative ideas are on offer. Sliders were overly salty, but then you shouldn’t really go to Madrid to eat that kind of stuff anyway. Much better was ‘21st century tortilla’ which came surprisingly in a glass, the potato foamed on top of a runny yolk with some fried onion. You had to down it one and, tasty though it was, I began to get that familiar Fat Duck/El Bulli sense of queasiness coming on, although I suppose after four hours, lots of fried food and big glasses of red wine, it may not have been entirely the tortilla’s fault.

Olives on sweet pastry. About as unpleasant as it sounds

And so to bed, barely scratching the surface of Madrid’s food offerings, and regretting rather the Spanish people’s seeming suicidal disdain for green vegetables in favour of meat and fried things. But then who doesn’t like fried things, and let’s face it you can always eat salad tomorrow!

Madrid’s Gastronomica festival  ‘for the five senses’ runs from 19 January to 3 February offering tapas routes with a signature tapas and a bottle of local beer for €3, as well as selected restaurants serving special set price menus at € 25 and €40. There are also six selected ‘super’ restaurants at €75, one of them being cheffed by our own Simon Rogan from L’Enclume.

Yay chorizo!

The full Madrid Gastronomica programme can be seen here.

Puerta 57, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid. Access from Gate 57 in Calle Padre Damián

La Dorada, Orense 64, Madrid, SpainIo, Calle Manuel de Falla 28036 Madrid

Mercado San Miguel, Plaza San Miguel, Madrid, S Open until 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and until 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday

Io, Calle Manuel de Falla 28036 Madrid

Estado Puro, Plaza de Canovas del Castillo, 4, Madrid, (Centro, Cortes / Plaza Santa Ana)

Spanish Tourist OfficePO Box 4009London , W1A 6NB

info.londres@tourspain.eswww.spain.info

Nuovo Mondo: Modern Italian Food. Stefano De Pieri and Jim McDougall

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

New World

Pity the poor Italian chef, he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Day after day he pumps out great food that is wolfed down by happy patrons but does the Michelin inspector come calling? Does he heck as like.

Italian food is many things but it is rarely pretty on the plate. Packed with flavour, seasonal and local it may be, but no one ever really pointed their Canon Blogmatic at a plate of pasta. But wait.

Nuovo Mondo is a collaboration between Stefano de Pieri, Italian originally of course, and Jim McDougall who was born an Aussie. Together they set out to create dishes that break moulds. Stefano admits he is a conservative chef, marinaded in tradition. Jim, once his apprentice, is brimming with new ideas and together they set out to surprise each other, to create new dishes together and argue amicably in pursuit of the exciting.

The results are seldom complicated but they are visually arresting and read like a dream. You can clearly see the Italian DNA in every dish, but Aussie ingredients, irreverancy and desire for brightness and colour are also clearly there.

Fried bread with a parmesan mousse, potato terrine with anchovy and rosemary, crudo of tuna with frozen white balsamic, cucumber, lime and caviar. And these are literally just for starters.

Mains continue to surprise with duck meatballs and farfalle in a broth, truffle macaroni and cheese, crayfish ravioli with Yuzu butter, the last one of many recipes that bring in the flavours familiar in Australia, less so in Italy. Yabby tails in saffron sauce, braised chicory and fregola seems to meld the two food cultures perfectly while there is still room for Stefano’s Rabbit Papardelle with Sage and Speck and Jim’s deconstructed Tiramisu.

You don’t have to be based in Australia as these two chefs are, to make the recipes. We have it all here in the UK, even if we may have to get some things in jars or frozen. What we can really enjoy is Italian food that is very different to just about anything being served in the country right now.

{ISBN:1742703828}

Down on the farm, a visit to Denhay, creators of classic cheddar and brilliant bacon

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Royal connection

More quiche? I don’t mind if I do and perhaps some Dorset Ale? Wonderful. As lunches go this one is pretty near perfect, eaten seated beside a snugly warm Aga in a cosy old farmhouse kitchen while the West Country rain comes down in ropes.

The farm is Denhay Farm and you’ve no doubt seen the name on packs of bacon and cheese in Waitrose. Far from being an advertising invention, like the rather creepy Aunt Bessie or avuncular Mr Kipling, it really is a genuine farm and one that’s belonged in the same family since the 1950s, the latest descendants of the Streatfields having just cooked our quiche. Read more…

Keep taking the tablets -the QOOQ on test

December 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Shiny gadget love

QOOQ, it’s not easy to pronounce, it sounds like you’re violently clearing your throat. ‘It’s Cook actually,’ explains one of the team at QOOQ HQ in Paris as he demonstrates the device. ‘In French Q is a K sound’.  Ah well that explains it. Shame no one in marketing thought that one through, though.

Anyway, it is indeed as he says a very French product with software and the physical device proudly made in that country. What is it? Well it’s a tablet, like an iPad or Surface or any of the other must-have devices we see flooding the stores. Unlike them though this is a focussed device, focussed on cooking. Read more…

From deer to here

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Sign of the times

‘No, I didn’t lose my little finger in a butchery related incident.’ says Chris chef and also butcher at The Pig & Butcher, Islington catching the direction of my gaze and pausing his heavy cleaver in mid-air. ‘I fell down the stairs a few years ago. A stupid accident.’ It’s reassuring to hear because as Will repeatedly thumps down the cleaver small bits of Bambi go flying, some towards me, and I don’t want a stray digit spoiling my day.

He’s busy butchering a Sika, or spotted deer, on site at his meat suppliers, Chart Farm in Sevenoaks. Here the deer are bred for the table and when their time comes, humanely shot. ‘It’s quick,’ says Chris,’ they’re shot in the fields where they live and they don’t know what hit them.’ Indeed as the soft-nosed bullets are supersonic, the shot deer wouldn’t hear the bang, even if the rifles didn’t already use noise suppressors. Read more…

The roof’s the limit. We go up to Skymarket.

October 10, 2012 Leave a comment

We’re all going a bit bonkers for street food right now, but what about roof food? Nick Harman thinks he may be in on the ground floor of a brand new trend.

God of small things

The wind buffets SkyMarket, five floors up over Tooley Street, and a large red chili tumbles off its shelf and rolls over to lie beside a fast growing puddle on the deck. The rain lashes down, occasionally finding its way in, and the sky fades to deepest black. In a few hours SkyMarket will open for the evening’s business and the chefs are prepping hard, oblivious to the wind and rain outside and positively basking in the warmth of the cooking range and the heat lamps.

Long way down

A small lift at the base of Magdalen House brings you up to Skyroom, an award-winning roof construction created by David Konn. It looks jerry-built but is in fact sturdy and secure and it’s a kitchen, bar, deli, art and craft gallery and performance space all on one rooftop.

Julian Bayuni is one of the creators of Platterform the company behind SkyMarket, along with Kevin Darcy. Originally both mixologists at Momo where they first met, Julian went on to manage West London’s Notting Hill Arts Club and worked in the Netherlands with The Fabulous Shaker Boys. Together they’ve  created plenty of cool pop ups and  Platterform itself picked up a Young British Foodies ‘Best Food Experience’ award earlier this year.

Spice of life

‘Platterform suggests what we do as a brand and events company –  large plates of food and a platform for  ideas, bringing together creative energy,  chefs, mixologists, artists, musicians and  performers,’ Julian explains. ‘Two years we worked a pop up at Hel Yes! during the 2010 London Design Week just off the City Road and that gave us our initial impetus. I’m used to working in the food world, but this is about more creative ideas and techniques for food and drinks. We want it to be fun and accessible and not intimidate people, but we want to challenge the traditional constructs of what people expect from a drinking or dining experience.’

No reservations

It certainly does that. When you walk out the lift and feel the wind gust you’re already a bit on the back foot but then a vibe familiar to anyone that’s ever been to Camden Market, or a traveller encampment, embraces you. It’s multisensory with four different musical sounds going on around and a wealth of aromas, some from the satay bar perched dizzyingly out over the drop and some from the range where the main dishes are being cooked.

It’s a local, family thing. Julian, who is half Indonesian and from a restaurant running family, even has his stepfather cooking some days, while meat and vegetables come from local suppliers like Maltby Street along with ethical foods such as jams being made in people’s kitchens from fruit that would otherwise go to waste. In season vegetables also come from the nearby St Mungo’s of Melior Street project and the market up here sells a mix of exciting spices and other stuff you won’t find in Tesco’s.’

Hot off the grill

‘We have six chefs in the team, two are Jamie Oliver trained at 15 and are doing a contemporary take on African and Caribbean dishes,’ Julian says as tables are set up. ‘The dishes are added to each week and they really suit the environment; we can’t seriously expect people to sit down for five courses on a rooftop so we keep a casual street food/tapas thing going along with the market vibe. This week has been Indonesian and Caribbean, next week we’ll be adding some Brazilian dishes. And our SkyMarket Bar takes inspiration from the changing food menu with the bartenders creating bespoke cocktails designed to complement the dishes.’

Nuno Mendes of Viajante is a friend they hope will get involved via his Loft Project, and Gok Wan’s been in a few times too. ‘He’s a family guy,’ laughs Justin. ‘He loves this place because it’s a family unit, my mum’s British, my dad’s Indonesian so I think Gok sees the similarities to his own life.  He even got my mum into hotel GB for lunch with Gordon!’

Evolving, and almost literally moving, all the time SkyMarket is a concept they hope to take to other spaces like railway arches. And more rooftops? ‘We’re certainly looking around,’ says Justin as I start to make my way down.

Open cooking class or presentation every Tuesday lunchtime between 12pm- 4pm

Experiential drinks brand events including workshops and masterclasses will take place every Tuesday evening at 6.30pm

The Skyroom, 5th Floor Magdalen House, 148 Tooley Street SE1 2TU

info@platterform.com

Ashdown Park Hotel.Foraging and finding luxury.

A very nice house in the country

With a flourish the waiters whip off the cloches to reveal the meal beneath, a sight not seen in London since barrage balloons wobbled in the sky and Evelyn Waugh wobbled out of Whites. You can only imagine what some metropolitan critics would make of this; gleefully sharpen their pencils in preparation for stabbing the restaurant through the heart, no doubt.

It tastes better in silver

Things are done differently in the country though, they hunt things, they kill and mostly eat the things they hunt, they are comfortable with corduroy and welly boots and mud. Here at Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club part of the same Elite Hotels Group as The Grand Eastbourne.  some things are still done pretty much as they would have been done thirty years ago.

A bit of swag

The hotel is, as are so many, a converted country house but it’s a converted convent really. In the 1920s an already pretty large place was bought and added to by rich nuns, grand wings sprouted from both sides and a chapel was tacked on. Then came a spell as an American ‘university’, then a training college for a major high street bank. Finally, around 1993, it became a hotel, club and spa.

It’s size means our journey from reception to suite takes forever; the endless fire doors that encumber each and every corridor making it seem longer. The suite’s smart though; a double aspect sitting room looking out onto rolling downs and a lively fountain. This and a large bedroom furnished with genteelly distressed furniture makes it feel like we were spending the night at Downton as family guests of the perennially sad Earl. Only the flat screen TVs in each room break the spell.

Try and ignore the telly

We’re here for the  annual Sunday mushroom foraging and lunch, but on this Saturday evening it’s also a chance to try the restaurant too, so we yomp the corridors, descend the wonderfully creaky grand staircase and enter the 2 AA Rosette restaurant; Anderida.

Except I don’t. Sir is wearing neither tie nor jacket and is swiftly intercepted. “I told you!’ hisses the wife. The Maitre d’ is good about it, he produces a jacket, ‘carry it over your arm,’ he advises, ‘then hang it on the back of your chair.’ Am I enraged by this? No I am just a bit embarrassed as, after all, it was clearly stated beforehand both on the website and in the room. I am not an iconoclast and when in Rome, or when in East Sussex, one does what the Romans do.

And they’re off

Like the cloches, this is a hangover from a better age, one when a gentleman did not need to be told to dress properly for dinner. It may make trendy young, and not so young, Londoners choke over their napkins made from kitchen roll,  but from the look of the packed restaurant with its heavy drapes, warm candlelight and tinkling piano, it doesn’t upset anyone else.

Sadly inedible

The food looks the part, once cloches are removed. Head Chef, Andrew Wilson is not serving dinner from the dark ages and my Supreme of Local Partridge, Leg Croquette, Creamed Parsnip, Potato Terrine (complete with authentically crunchy bits of shot), is well-cooked and presented with bags of flavour. This was good as the starter of Sweet and Sour Duck Terrine, Crispy Won Ton and Pineapple Textures had read well but lacked sufficient seasoning and distinct tastes. P’s Salmon and King Prawn Filo Parcels, Fennel Purée, Aioli could have had the power turned up too, especially on the aioli, but her 38 Day Aged Fillet of Beef Wellington from Lamberhurst, with Dauphinoise Potatoes, Roasted Shallots, Aubergine Purée was very good, suggesting chef works best when he works using good local produce.

Off to enormous bed we went then next day down to a breakfast looking out onto the vast grounds and golf course. We have mushrooms with our full English, just in case, then boot up for the coming search under the expert guidance of groundskeepers and mushroomologists.

Can’t eat these either

It’s fun. The secret of ‘shrooming is to keep your expectations as low as your gaze. Adults and small children alike rummage cheerfully around the ferns and foliage as we wander in a group through bosky woodland, grassland and lakeside.

Mushrooms are found but at best are inedible, at worst dangerous. ‘Dinner or death’ our guide cheerfully remarks. The weather has not been kind this year but remains of the sought-after cepes can still be seen, a clue that it mostly depends on luck, although many mushroom hunters hunt by the phases of the moon.

Somehere near is a llama farmer

Surreal site of the day is a herd of Llamas who wander over to to flick their funny ears at us, but thankfully not spit as they often tend to do. They look like aliens in the English countryside, a cross between camels and sheep, yet really rather sweet and endearing.

Not much for lunch

A pleasant hour or two passes as we walk and chat and listen to our expert guides. Then it’s back to the hotel for the grandgourmet mushroom lunch in the old chapel, our boots shucked off and most of us are secretly only in our socks under the linen laden tables.

Beneath a luminous fried duck egg and walnut oil is a thick carpet of mixed wild mushrooms on toast, a brunchy starter. The mush are slippery and varied, each with its own distinct flavour and breaking the egg and letting it puddle through creates a tasty mess.

Puffball. Inedible. Again

Next pot roasted ox cheek with mushrooms en croute and a truffle and parsnip puree. Some find the cheek too gelatinous for comfort, must be Londoners we snidely remark. The meat is tumbling to the fork, the truffle puree not too assertive. Then a suitably classic steamed orange and ginger sponge pudding with clotted cream ice cream and an almond tuile leaves us puffing in our chairs. And with coffee it was check out and car time.

Home James

The problem with these country house hotels is that as you return to London the increasing density of housing is depressing after the aristocratic acres. How, you wonder, can we live in such tiny places.

It may be all wrong for some that these grand houses were created in the first place, but they served society as a small world of employment, status and self-respect for all who lived and worked in them.

Now as leisure machines they do much the same thing, but in Ashdonw Park’s case, happily under cloches.

Ashdown Park Hotel  Ashdown Park, Wych Cross, Forest Row, RH18 5Jwww.ashdownpark.com

Roast restaurant

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

The Floral Hall, Stoney Street London SE1 1TL www.roast-restaurant.com

Saved from the scrapheap

It’s been at least five years since I went to Roast. The pace of openings since then has become so fast, so furious, the keen diner need never go to the same place twice. Miss one restaurant’s hyped up, hysterical launch? Don’t worry there’ll be three more along in a minute.

Since my last visit the area around Roast has evolved. Massive building works have changed much of the area’s character but the approach to the restaurant’s lift, past the market shutting for the night, the drifting cabbage leaves and the spray from the pressure hoses cleaning down the wet fish stall, is still oddly romantic.

I remember the lift, I remember there was always a bit of a wait for it. Why? It only serves one floor after all. The lift  finally arrives and it has a dwarf in it, no not a dwarf but one of those middle-class small boys with too-long, too much hair. He’s been playing about, no doubt to the benign amusement of his parents. I get in a light blow to his head while reaching for the buttons and return his aggrieved look with a cheery smile. No doubt he’ll tell mummy and daddy about how he met an evil Tory in the lift. Read more…