Sunday, May 27, 2007

My Hero

The current run of BBC TV’s Great British Menu has given us a new hero. Mark Hix won his regional round to represent us here in the South West, and in the final judgment he had two of his dishes given the approval of the Great British Public for the menu for a grand dinner at our embassy in Paris in June, to be attended by the greatest of the French chefs. He’s the Chef-Director of Caprice Holdings Limited in London, overseeing all the restaurants and events in the Caprice Group, which would be a job to drive you crazy I would think. But Hix will be remembered by those who watched the tv series for the fact that he spent half his time reading the newspaper while his opponents worked themselves into early graves.

I loved his dessert of Perry jelly with summer fruits and elderflower ice cream. It is a West Country take on jelly and ice cream and should knock the socks off the Frogs. Perry – a sweet cider made from pears – is just starting to recover after the Babycham years. Perry pears are small and ugly, and they make a wonderfully fragrant soft delicate drink. One favourite is the Stinking Bishop pear, whose juice is also used to wash the rind of the now famous Stinking Bishop cheese (thank you Wallace & Gromit).

I noticed when I looked into some of the recipes from the series that many of them were immensely complex, as you would expect from a bunch of capital chefs. Hix’s recipe for his dessert is stunningly simple and I reproduce it here in its entirety. He presented it in a ring mould, with the ice cream in the centre, but mine is in two parts.


For the elderflower ice cream
300ml/½ pint whole milk, preferably Channel Island
6 medium free-range egg yolks
100g/4oz caster sugar
300ml/½ pint Jersey or clotted cream, or a mixture of the two
200ml/7fl oz elderflower cordial
For the perry jelly and summer fruits
4 gelatine leaves
500ml/18fl oz perry (sparkling pear cider)
75g/2¾oz caster sugar
125g/5oz mixed berries, such as blueberries, raspberries and wild strawberries

1. For the elderflower ice cream, bring the milk to the boil in a heavy-based saucepan, then remove from the heat. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl, pour in the milk and whisk well. Return to the pan and cook over a low heat for about five minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk. Do not boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream and elderflower cordial. Leave to cool, then churn in an ice cream machine (according to manufacturer's instructions) until thickened. Decant into a clean container and place in the freezer.
2. For the perry jelly and summer fruits, immerse the gelatine leaves one at a time in a shallow bowl of cold water and leave for a minute or so until soft. Bring 100ml/3½fl oz of the perry to the boil in a medium saucepan, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Drain and squeeze the gelatine leaves, then add to the hot perry and stir until melted. Remove from the heat, add the rest of the perry and stir well. Put the pan of jelly somewhere cool, but do not let it set.
3. Divide half the berries among four individual jelly moulds, or use one large mould. Pour in half of the cooled jelly. Chill for an hour or so to set, then top up with the rest of the berries and unset jelly. (This ensures the berries stay suspended and don't float to the top.) Return to the fridge to chill until set.
4. To serve, turn the jellies out onto plates and place a scoop of the elderflower ice cream in the middle of each one.

Mark Hix’s second dish to represent Britain in Paris is his take on Stargazy Pie. This is a Cornish dish, usually made with pilchards, their heads sticking up out of the pie as if looking up at the sky. Hix makes his with freshwater crayfish and rabbit. As both of these creatures are running riot in this country, damaging waterways, native species and crops, what better to do with them than feed them to the French!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

How to cook the perfect...

Marcus Wareing is one of the top chefs working in Britain. Out of the Gordon Ramsay stable, he has three Michelin stars, two for P├ętrus and one for the Savoy Grill, both London restaurants. For those of us who don’t visit top London eateries very often he shot to prominence last year as one of the chefs in Great British Menu on BBC2, cooking an exquisite custard tart for the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations.

That custard tart was a triumph. A clean, cool, trembling tribute to British food at its very best. Sad then to read in an interview with Marcus ‘I don’t want to be remembered for a custard tart when I’m gone’!

The tart though, was the starting point for this book – How to cook the perfect… It seems that after the television programme Marcus met a couple of ladies who had run into some trouble recreating his dish. Reading through the instructions on the BBC website, I wonder if it was baking the tart case blind that caused the trouble. I notice recently that, in order to stop the pastry sliding down the inside of the tart tin, chefs do not trim the edges before they bake, draping the pastry over the edge of the tin and cutting the extra off afterwards. Hmmm. Good trick.

So Marcus and his co-writer, Jeni Wright, have come up with a book that lets us into the secrets of perfection. And the publishers, Dorling Kindersley, have come up with a video of how to make the famous custard tart. If you watch it you may be alarmed to see that he seems to plonk the baking beans into the tart shell still inside their plastic bag. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this recently and any comments on putting plastic in the oven will be gratefully received.

Another clever touch is to fill the baked shell with the uncooked custard after you put the shell in the oven, so you don’t spill it all over the place trying to manoeuvre it across the kitchen. And, in a change to the original recipe, the book suggests that you also grate the nutmeg over the tart once it is inside the oven, and not after you take it out. Have a look at Marcus’s oven in the video – it’s the size of a wardrobe. Have a look at yours. Get out the BandAids now.

You see, if you tell me you have the perfect method I am going to be picky.

I was all set to cook the famous tart until I read that it was far from his idea of a legacy. Well, if it’s not good enough for him… So I looked carefully through the book to see what else I could make to tempt you, my gorgeous public. How about roast potatoes? Mashed potatoes? Scrambled eggs? Pork chops? Don’t think so somehow. But wouldn’t pork chops ‘Michelin’ be spectacular? Well, yes and no, because the recipe is Marcus’s Mum’s. In fact most of the book is a hymn to family cooking, straightforward Sunday lunch stuff and salads and puddings. There’s a very good piece on how to make a chocolate fondant, all gooey inside – but do we really need to be told how to make a green salad?

In the end I made the nice fish pie, and very good it was too. But I have to confess that for two people I did not start off by making a couple of litres of good fish stock ‘from sole, plaice, halibut or turbot’. That’s the problem – a fish pie is supper, it’s not a three act drama. Nevertheless, it was good to be reminded to drain the vegetables and fish thoroughly so they don’t make the sauce watery. Elsewhere the tips are good too – scoring the skin of sea bass, drying out scallops overnight in the fridge and not overcooking a salmon fillet – and they are indeed the things that make the difference between a dish cooked well and a dish cooked averagely.

So who exactly is this book aimed at? I’m a bit puzzled actually. Its lovely sugar bag blue cover (well done DK design) is a delight to handle, and it brings back memories of Lipton’s shops and marble topped counters, flour bins, pats of butter and racks of biscuit boxes. I know that Gordon Ramsay is keen, quite rightly, to get women cooking again and restore the Sunday lunch, so maybe that’s who this is for, the roast chicken and apple crumble brigade. As a basic cook book it’s very good. But the dish that engendered this book was for the Queen of England! You’ve got all these Michelin stars, Marcus! Some of us are pretty good at roast chicken and apple crumble!

I finally figured it out. I know who this book is for. It should be on the wedding present list of every young thing that’s getting married this year. The Shires will be ringing with the sound of nutmegs being grated and potatoes being mousselined. An excellent idea – I have several people in mind for it!

How to cook the perfect... by Marcus Wareing with Jeni Wright

Published by Dorling Kindersley

Marcus Wareing returns to our screens this week in Great British Menu on BBC2 to defend the regional title for the North of England that he won last year.

The video of the custard tart is at

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.