Tag: food

Richard Guest’s Augustus in Taunton… one to follow

I remember the first time I ate Richard’s food. He’d been Head Chef at the Four Seasons restaurant in Park Lane for Jean-Christophe Novelli and they’d just opened Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell. I’d met Richard socially a couple of times, had never heard of Novelli and had spoken food (pretty rare in those days with a normal English person). I just had to try this funny, approachable Northerner’s food. It was the best I’d eaten in London and totally on a par with what I had enjoyed in France, when my father treated us to Michelin stared restaurants.

For clarity’s sake I must tell you that Richard Guest and his wife Vicky are now friends of mine. So let me stick with some facts: After a YTS apprenticeship in York, Richard’s first kitchen was the Savoy’s in London in 1990, then Novelli’s Four Seasons (Sous-Chef, 93-96, Michelin Star), Maison Novelli (Head Chef, 96-99, Michelin Star, 3 AA rosettes) then Castle Hotel, Taunton (Head Chef, 99-2010, Michelin Star, 3 AA Rosettes). If you don’t already know Richard, that should give you an idea.

I equally enjoyed W8 (another Novelli venture) and was delighted when Richard and Vicky headed for the West Country. The Castle Restaurant did not disappoint as far as the food was concerned. I did find the atmosphere a bit too cold. Whilst I don’t like loud guests when tucking into my main in a posh restaurant, feeling the need to whisper is not conducive to fully appreciate the wonderful fare on my plate. The dining room was just too old fashioned for me. Its recent closure therefore did not come as a surprise. It is understandable that the establishment is concentrating on the Brazz with new chef Raftery. I have no doubt they will do well with another great chef.

So what about Augustus then? 

Richard does fine dining well, his recognition proves it. What he has always loved though is ‘simple’ food that highlights the produce of his great suppliers and changes with the seasons. Whilst he’s never said so, I imagine that when you have an absolute passion for the joy you create, heading a kitchen that feeds dozens of people in the space of three or four hours must take its toll. I always compare chefs to artists. They create inspiring compositions for all the senses. Once on a conveyor belt, the soul gets lost.

In fact, Richard would totally disagree with me. He does not like the “airy-fairy French guys romanticising about food”  to quote his book Jam with Lamb. Well he is a no-nonsense Northerner. I have airy-fairy tendencies, French or otherwise.

My husband and I -and many other friends- have been trying to get Richard and Vicky to join the Hix, Riverside or Wild Garlic of West Dorset and the constant sprouting of good gastro-pubs our area is enjoying. Unfortunately for us but understandably, Richard was keen to work with suppliers and a business partner he knows well and trusts. So he opened Augustus in Taunton with front of house Cédric Chirrosel, former Castle Hotel restaurant manager. It was always going to be called Augustus, after Roald Dahl’s character in Willy Wonka.

The Courtyard on St James Street is a great setting for a bistro. We parked a few steps away, the sun was shining, the outside tables were full, wine was flowing and the atmosphere was positively European. The inside is small, simple, comfortable and welcoming. Cédric is attentive, informative and helpful; Richard is nowhere to be seen, kitchen and small team oblige.

I’m not a food critic so I’ll be brief on food description: a meltingly delicious starter of Goats Cheese croquettes on a crunchy mix of salad and vegetables, a perfectly cooked main of lamb with a just-so creamy potato gratin and a ratatouille that made me think I was in the South of France. I know many people believe that Michelin is a load of rubbish. Having said that, once you have experienced fine dining of a high standard, your brain remembers it. Anything after that can be good, few will be brilliant. It’s about the small details, the subtle tastes that surprise you for being put together yet complement each other.

A few tender yet crunchy baby broad beans were a surprising firm bite in the middle of the soft salad leaves; mixed with goats cheese croquettes, it just worked. It’s about the total attention to detail, perfect seasoning (which I find really hard to achieve myself let alone find in a restaurant), trustworthy suppliers, absolute love and belief in what you create. I’ve gone all airy-fairy again. In his Jam with Lamb book written five years ago, Richard says it’s about the right produce at the right time. We know that’s true.

Richard Guest wanted to open a bistro called Augustus. He just got distracted by a few Michelin stars on the way but Augustus is here and well worth a visit; Taunton is not that far after all…

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Fungi foray frolic in West Dorset

A fungal foray with John Wright is not mushroom hunting as I know it. Childhood memories of my mother’s picnics and my father whistling to keep hunters away are miles from a day at the Kingcombe Centre in West Dorset.

There are similarities of course. Baskets, knifes, eyes to the ground, a reassuring smell of decay when the nose gets closer to the undergrowth and that warm feeling of joy when a mushroom is found. Or a toadstool.

The point of taking part in a foray with Mr Mushroom himself is to learn. There were a few newbies like me and a few reoffenders who clearly thought it was worth re-foraging with Mr Wright. The world of fungi is a vast underground world where the initiated want to learn more and the foodies don’t want to go home empty handed.

Our foray was at the Kingcombe Centre in West Dorset, part of a Nature Reserve where the fields have never seen fertiliser, where the preservation of our local ecosystem is not a fashion. A very special place not just for the lucky visitors but also for the underworld. The 75 different types of fungi we found in about four hours should prove my point. Only one do I uncompromisingly know, a very exciting one at that, a chanterelle.

Our first lucky find in the hedge outside Kingcombe Centre was tall, thick stemmed, white with a greenish cap. It brought a big smile to John’s face as he dug it from the ground, bag at the base and all. He proudly showed the group and introduced us to the one mushroom you should avoid at all costs: The Death Cap. Need I say more. Not as pretty as its red and white cousin that fairies are keen on but more dangerous.

Of the remaining 73, I had come across a few but could sadly name none fully. English name or latin name. A beautifully fat boletus find was quite exciting. Being red though, it was totally the wrong colour for supper but perfect for a photo opportunity. John obliged by holding it up against the cloudless blue sky.

I still don’t know the difference between a toadstool and a mushroom. I might be the proud owner of a signed copy of the River Cottage Handbook No. 1 (John commented that he was honoured to sign his ‘Mushrooms’ book for a Française, cheeky charmer) but to me, they’re still all Champignons. All 4,000 species that you can find in Britain.

I learnt lots of interesting facts about fungi. For a start, they are the reproductive organ of a world that lives underground. From there, inevitable sexual innuendoes follow. How about the nipples on the magic ones that can take you to seventh heaven or leave you sorely disappointed and a carefully pronounced volva at the base of the hard stem of the Amanita phalloides. I’ll leave it at that, not my forte, I was brought up by a Catholic mother who was master picnic organiser but stayed away from such language. John on the the hand was far more masterful with his words, let alone knowledge, and had us giggling throughout the day.

A few titbits I gathered were of far greater interest. The reason mushrooms are often found at the edge of a wood or near a car park is not, as I thought, because mushrooms need a bit of sunshine to warm their caps but because the organism that lives under the ground is suddenly worried that the environment it is thriving in is running out. Time to reproduce and out come the fruits for spores -babies in the making- to be scattered, and for animals to pick, munch or nibble.

Of far more interest for my stomach is that the mushrooms my family still hunt for, once the first rains have blessed the sunny South of France and its pine and oak forests, can be found in this country. The Saffron Milkcap. For once, the clue is in the Latin name: Lactarius deliciosus. I found one years ago, somewhere in the South West and John confirmed you can find them in this country. I wasn’t dreaming after all.

Should I tell you where? If a delicious mushroom is to be found, should its location be shared? Well, here is one thing the French and the English have in common. My Dorset farmer friend and his father don’t share their secrets for Field Mushrooms hotspots with each other. My family don’t divulge their pine forest autumn picnic locations to all and sundry.

It looks like I will be spending the next few years hunting in pine and oak woods of Dorset to leave my children our own little mushroom secrets. I’ll be thanking John for renewing my love of the forest undergrowth, his little book in my basket, keeping away from beautiful white tall mushrooms with a volva.

John Wright shows off the Death Cap:

John Wright's Death Cap

Photogenic Boletus:

Beautiful boletus

Kingcombe Centre courses:

http://www.kingcombe.org/courses/intro.aspx

The inn down the lane

From nouvelle cuisine to a country pub down a tarmac lane so remote, it has grass growing on it. The sun is shining so we decide to drive around West Dorset lanes just for the sake of the views and find the Three Horseshoes Inn just around lunch time.

Pub with rooms. The menu is more gastro than old boys’ local and they’ve run out of Bath chaps and Hooke Farm trout. No matter, I fancy a Blue Vinney ploughman and the husband goes for battered cod with triple cooked chips. Yep, good ol’ fish and chips for lunch. Takes all sorts.

We can hear children as we sit down on the terrace with wide green views. You’d think they are just behind the wall, a perfect demonstration of how sound works in amphitheatre. A few minutes later, the school below starts work again for the afternoon so the only sounds left are the birds, the wind in the parasols and a distant dog listening to himself. Otherwise you’d wonder whether there’s much life around.

When my square wooden platter arrives I pull a face. There’s a heap of thin and pretty greenery on the edge and I am wondering how to eat this without half of it ending up on the floor. It looks like young sweet pea shoots and tastes delicious. Brain figures that fingers are de rigueur. If the man in the nice restaurant in France (many years back) thought it was OK for me to eat with my fingers because chefs don’t like plates coming back with food, then why not?

Apart from the juicy shoots, there was a large chunk of blue veined Dorset delight, some very light and airy home made bread and two chutneys. The first was classically vinegary with soft fruits -no crunchy out of a jar sharp stuff here-  the other more of a compote that has not reached mushy state so the soft bits of fruits have a gentle texture. This one would have probably complimented a Farmhouse Cheddar better, Blue Vinney being a bit stronger it overtook the palate (ok, killed the fruits if you prefer).

The husband enjoyed his triple cooked chips and battered cod. The cod portion was large enough and the batter was a bit on the heavy side but the chips were deemed delicious. There is a price to pay for triple cooked chips at lunchtime and I can hear the husband snoozing. You can’t beat a Ploughman in a country pub. And as country pubs go, this one sure has the location, a great terrace with half a dozen tables, the pretty church next door and new owners.

Our terrace neighbours said: “Very pretty but I wouldn’t want to live here; silly little roads”. Fair enough, this is a place you come to because you like being remote. No marquee, no sea views, just an inn and a village. The Jurassic Coast may be down the lane, it may as well be abroad. That’s why I liked the place.

Ploughman: £7

Battered cod + triple cooked chips: £11

Three Horseshoes Inn, Powerstock

Bull Hotel, relax… you’re in Bridport

As you drive into town, you can’t miss the dark blue 17th century Inn with a gold Bull overlooking the pavement. A Bridport artist gilded that Bull, old fashioned way; she works on the St Michael trading estate. I like that about the place. The meat comes from the butcher next door, the apple juice at breakfast is from a farm down the road, the amazing beds from a company whose impressive showroom is just outside Bridport.

I’ve been a few times for cheap and cheerful lunches (they have a ‘crunch lunch’ for a fiver which is great value for money) and once for a friend’s 40th which was a great laugh. I was curious to know what an overnight stay would be like and thought a night without the kids would be a great idea…

And it was. The bed was wonderfully comfortable (although ours did creak a bit but hey) egyptian linen and all, the Neal’s Yard bottles were bathroom size (no nasty plastic throwaway stuff) and we loved the mixture of old and new. Philip Starck lighting worked well with a french inspired Toile de Jouy wallpaper and plain chocolate walls with a silver tinge. Taste is very personal and if you like twee, you might want to find somewhere else. If you like bold statements and smile at quirkiness this should be down your road.

Supper? Well, we liked. Went for a sharing evening all the way with a Côte de boeuf and a cheese platter. The meat was tender in the middle yet crusty and black on the outside, sliced onto a wooden tray laden with hand cut chips, crispy yet not fatty, oversized sweet and crunchy onion rings, a large mushroom and some rocket salad. There was also a tomato each. I don’t understand tasteless tomatoes in winter (southern french pompous palate probably) so I gave mine a miss. It went back with the herbed butter which was unnecessary. The meat was succulent and did not need any addition. It did not need any more salt either, if you’re one of these add salt before tasting, beware.

The cheese platter was a good selection of local fare, from the famous Blue Vinney (which I love) to the Dorset Red (delicious if you like smokey) via a Somerset Brie and of course a farmhouse Cheddar. The husband liked the chutney which tasted too much like curry for my liking. He also loved the pudding of raspberry soufflé which was a bit too sugary for me but then I’m more of a savoury kinda girl.

There’s been a fair few reviews on Bridport’s Bull Hotel since they opened. They appeal to the growing number of people who have moved back into the area after a London stint or time elsewhere, as well as visitors who want comfort and a certain amount of luxury in a relaxed, modern atmosphere. Think affordable Babington House and you won’t be far wrong.


£6 for 2 decent lunches on Dorset’s Coast

When the husband discovered this little hotel down the road with a nice Cellar Wine Bar that do lunch for £6 per couple, I thought we’ve got to give it a try. I was expecting soggy vegs and microwaved mush. I was wrong.

The Manor Hotel in West Bexington is an attractive stone building with a veranda and a cellar turned into a Wine Bar. A few steps from Chesil Beach on the Dorset Jurassic Coast, it’s the kind of place I’d happily spend a quiet weekend.

We ordered a fish pie and a shepherds pie and fifteen minutes later we had a couple of piping hot meals with crunchy vegs, just as I like them. My fish pie had decent pieces of fish and sliced potatoes on top in a tasty creamy sauce. Husband’s shepherds pie was equally enjoyable and a good portion for lunch. I mean if that’s not great value for money, what is?

They also have an evening menu “eat as much as you like for £8.50”. Normally I stay away from the principle of eating as much as I like. It sounds like gluttony and conjures up cheap produce. But with this lunch in mind and with a bouillabaisse of local seafood on the menu as well as local squid with chilli, ginger and garlic (husband’s vote), I will have to try. Their neighbours, the Michaud family are famous in the chilli world for growing the Dorset Naga -hottest chilli in the world, allegedly- but that’s not the one they use for the squid. Thankfully.

Being a cold and wet winter day, I must admit we were the only ones there this lunchtime but the fire was going and the atmosphere of the place was friendly and warm. Just one annoying thing, they insisted on putting the noisy dishwasher on whilst we were eating (and even chatting to the landlady at the bar) which surely could have waited half an hour. But hey. Husband kind of felt guilty at spending so little, so he had 2 drinks and some peanuts to make up for it. Which took us to the grand total of £12.

Looks like West Bexington is going to see us more often this winter, just around lunchtime.

Eat Dorset Food Fair

Have just returned from the Eat Dorset food fair and I am still salivating. Foodie heaven on my doorstep. Literally. The fair is in the grounds of Parnham House in Beaminster, so I should have walked but decided not to. I knew I would have too many bags to carry back.

I started by watching Lesley Waters demonstrating an appetising menu: bread filled with dried figs and black pepper, pheasant terrine, chunky apple marmalade, seared venison with roasted beetroots and potatoes…

It’s such a good idea to have chefs demonstrating the produce sold on site because it entices you to try new things. Lesley is brilliant, she really embraces the whole local food phenomenon that has grown in this country in the last decade and runs with it. She uses these local suppliers for her school near Dorchester, so whilst a cynic would say that she gets a good deal from them, I say she’s chosen to live and work down here for a reason: because there is so much choice of tasty local food.

So filled with new ideas I had to go and choose what to spend my money on. Not an easy task. This was not a fair filled with grannies and their marmalades or other chutneys. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve bought a few chutneys from grannies in my time but today I was after real local stuff to fill my fridge with and the tricky bit was to choose wisely. Today I wanted something new.

Lesley showed us how to marinate some feta cheese. Really simple, very mouth watering. Thing is, Woolsery are not allowed to call their cheese feta because this is Dorset not Greece. Why they’ve decided to call it Fiesta though is a quandary. The big softie or ‘Woolsery’s crumblie’ would have spoken more to me but what do I know! All the same, I still bought some and will stuff it into a jar with some good olive oil; haven’t decided which herbs to use yet but I can’t wait to eat it with a baked potato or with some pasta since it won’t last until next Summer for a salad.

Another show stopper for me was the Real Boar company. Despite my brother-in-law being a wild boar hunter near St-Tropez I had never tried boar salami. It hits the taste buds strongly as you’d expect but leaves a lingering subtle taste of red wine and for some reason made me think of blue cheese, although you will not find any Blue Vinney in it.  The texture is fine and silky, it melts in your mouth and is utterly delicious. I subsequently found out that they supply the George Cinq -the man heard the French accent so he impressed me with the Parisian Palace first- but also Jamie Oliver. Well, I’m not surprised. If I had a restaurant, I would find a way to put it on the menu. In the meanwhile, I am thinking dinner party.

Now we have two ‘big’ names in Dorset that export abroad and have cleverly marketed their ethos through to their packaging: Dorset Cereals and Clipper Tea. Big bold designs for scrumptious products. Clipper are actually based in Beaminster and their fair trade tea in unbleached tea bags has been my favourite cuppa since my mother in law introduced me to them when they took over the Numatic factory some years back. As for Dorset Cereals they had a special offer on, so despite my “New Stuff’ policy I could not resist a bargain; plus I ended up with lots of little freebies. Don’t you love freebies?

Honey was something I was keen to find. My kids love it but try as I may to find English honey in the supermarket all I could find is utter nonsense. I don’t want honey that’s flown from New Zealand. I know we have a problem with bees dying everywhere but why does the honey have to fly from the other side of the world to land on my doorstep? Even worse, the cheaper brands are from ‘mixed sources within the EU’. Where has this honey been before it went into the jar, let alone on my kids’ toasts? What a joy to find honey from Hugh and Gillian Land who have hives near Sherborne. I should have bought more than one jar.

Another foodie find was Rapeseed oil from the The Seed Company. My Mediterranean roots make me reach for the olive oil before I’ve even thought about cooking, so I have placed the new thin bottle by the cooker so I don’t forget to use it. Apparently it can burn to a much higher temperature than olive oil, let’s see if I can be convinced to use an oil that is as expensive as the thick green cold pressed nectar. Last time I tried a new oil for cooking it promised to have carotin in it which is supposed to be good for you, it looked orange but when I fried it, my whole house stank of fish. Can’t remember the name of it, probably because my brain is worried I might buy it again by mistake. I have a better feeling about Rapeseed though. Could be the nice little green canvas bag they gave me to carry my bottle. Another freebie.

It wasn’t all food though. There were some beeswax stuff -makes sense since there were honey suppliers- and seeds from Peppers by Post. These guys also grow chilli. We bought a plant from them a few months back. What a winner. It stands proud at the end of the kitchen table near the window and it has produced dozens of chillies -purple, white, yellow, orange and red ones. The whole family loves looking after the plant and it is still growing in October. I am chief waterer though. For five pounds, that was the best investment in spices we’ve ever made! Another non foodie stand well worth a visit is Green Drawers. It’s the most eclectic stand there. Interesting eco products, cushions with hand woven covers or made from prints from a local artist -Liz Summerville; and those bags like my Mum used to have to go shopping with when I was a kid. They look like posh and bright onion sacks with a handle. If you can remember before the plastic bag days that is. I love them, bought a bright pink one to leave at the bottom of my handbag. And yes, I filled it with organic sausages, bacon and chipolatas from Sydling Brook Farm.

Must be off now, there’s some cooking to be done.