Backwell’s bounty

When it comes to food, Backwell, to the southwest of Bristol, has been pretty much a backwater – until now. The gorgeous honey-stoned Georgian mansion that is Backwell House, is putting the village firmly on the regional food map, a welcome addition to Bristol’s burgeoning food scene.

The food, masterminded by chef Ross Hunter (previously at The Stone Mill in Monmouth and The Swan, Almondsbury) makes ample use of the vegetables grown in the nine-room hotel’s walled garden and is served in its deliciously stylish wooden-floored dining room (pictured). I tried the Pressed pork starter (pictured) from pigs that had been reared just down the road.

The dish that steals the show, though, is Ross’ Strawberry cannelloni dessert (pictured), tubes of Chantilly cream wrapped around with shiny red fruit jelly, served with Cheddar Valley strawberries and meringue – a take on Eton mess that’s fast becoming a signature dish.

It’s not just the food you come for though. This is a relaxed boutique hotel that oozes fun and contemporary style in much the same way as The Pig. Part of that fun comes from some deft upcycling – like the downstairs cloakroom sink fashioned from an old suitcase. Another highlight is the modern artwork on the walls (loaned from a Bristol gallery) which you can buy, and the funky bar that’s fashioned out of recycled floorboards from the old kitchens (try the Espresso Martini cocktails). The best feature of all in my opinion is the huge drawing room with its comfy chairs in which you can cuddle up in front of the fire under the deer antler chandeliers and enjoy its shabby chic vibes.

This is a great place to escape for the weekend – go while you can still get in. You can read more about it in my view for Olive magazine here.


Margate’s delicious revival

Margate, on Kent’s northeast coast, was once a fashionable bathing resort but after the war slipped into decline. But over the past decade it’s seen a revival, largely thanks to the opening in 2011 of its seafront Turner Contemporary gallery. “Merry Margate” is merry once again: vintage shops are breathing life into its pretty squares, decrepit boarding houses are being restored and opened as stylish places to stay (bag, if you can, one of the boutique B&B rooms at The Reading Rooms , and its Dreamland amusement park has been returned to its former glory. Margate is so cool, the trend-spotters are dubbing it Shoreditch-on-Sea.

Happily the resort’s revival extends to its cafes and restaurants, as I discovered while researching an On The Road feature about Kent’s northeast coast for Olive magazine. We’re not talking fancy Michelin places, but edgy eateries using local ingredients. One of my favourite finds was Bottega Caruso deli-cafe inside Margate’s Old Kent Market, whose homemade pasta you can see pictured here. Also fun is Hantverk & Found, a pocket-sized gallery-cum-cafe in the Old Town run by Hackney migrant Kate de Syllas; I loved her  Seafood pastilla, packed with local crab (pictured). For ethically-produced chicken and posh burgers (with sweet potato fries – pictured) Roost , opposite the old Lido, is the place, while for views of the harbour (pictured) you can do no better than visiting Cheesey Tiger, a diddy restaurant-takeaway specialising in cheese, located at the end of Margate’s Harbour Arm stone pier. My article is in the December issue of Olive, but you can also read it online here.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

This year Stephen Harris celebrates 18 years at the stoves of The Sportsman at Seasalter near Whitstable in Kent, a pub whose rambling exterior and bleak location belies the exceedingly fine cooking that awaits within and now commands a cult following worldwide. Stephen has just published his first cookbook too, so you can find out some of the secrets behind his simple but stylish dishes. I tried the restaurant’s tasting menu while researching an On The Road feature on the northeast Kent coast for Olive magazine. The menu is supposedly a mere nine courses, but when you include all the initial bouche amusement (pictured) and delicacies with coffee it’s actually 12, including, hurrah, two puds. Given its proximity to Whitstable, which has farmed oysters since Roman times and even has an oyster festival , the molluscs kick off proceedings – natives au naturel if you come in winter when they’re in season but mine were poached (pictured). Other highlights were the firm-fleshed slip-sole in a foraged-seaweed butter and the stupendously good homemade breads and home-churned butter (rightly honoured as a course on their own). You round things off with a soufflé as light as the clouds scudding across the steely skies outside (pictured). My article is in the December issue of Olive, on sale now.

Stellar food in a Stark setting

Stark, inside a terraced house in the centre of Broadstairs in northeast Kent, does not even have its own inside loo yet. But this broomcupboard-sized restaurant is already making serious culinary waves, thanks to the stellar cooking by its chef-owner Ben Crittenden, who formerly manned the stoves at Kent’s Michelin-starred West House in Biddenden. As the name suggests, you come here,  in Ben’s words, not for plush surroundings.  but for “good food, laid bare.” I tried the restaurant’s six-course evening tasting menu (currently its only offering) while researching an On The Road feature on the northeast Kent coast for Olive magazine. Highlights for me were the starter of mackerel, watermelon and beetroot, that looks like a Kandinsky painting (secret ingredient: watermelon jam), and the duck terrine with hazelnut and ginger biscuit and a duck and hazelnut parfait. The citrusy blobs of orange puree encircling it cut through the richness of the duck perfectly. Many thanks to a resident foodie who tipped me off about this place shortly after it opened. The Good Food Guide has now included it in its 2018 edition, so do visit while you can still get in – and before the Michelin inspectors discover it. My article is in the December issue of Olive, on sale now.

Bristol’s budding bakeries

If you’ve not tried it yet, put Pinkman’s Bakery, on Park Street, on your gastronomic map of Bristol. One of a clutch of artisan bakeries to open in the city over the past few years, this attractively designed spot not only makes lovely breads and cakes, but also serves meals from breakfast through to dinner seven days a week. The array of sourdough breads is impressive, from a Country cob mixing wholemeal, spelt and white flours with a rye starter to a super Seeded sourdough and a Walnut boule. Wood-fired sourdough pizzas are also a speciality, but the absolute stars of the show for me are the sourdoughnuts whose fillings vary daily depending on what’s available at the market. Because they’re made from sourdough you can kid yourself they’re doing you good. A welcome addition to an area not generally known for its high gastronomy.

The Ivy opens in Bristol

Covent Garden’s iconic showbiz haunt, The Ivy, has extended its tendrils to Bristol’s Clifton Village. The all-day food is similar to the comfort classics you’ll find at HQ, including its famous Shepherd’s Pie, but with some nice additions such as the Raw Market Salad and the Dairy free coconut panna cotta, pictured here. The afternoon tea, which promises to be popular, ranges from a standard cream, jam and scone affair to a Champagne blowout.

But what you really come for is the setting. The Ivy Clifton Brasserie is housed in the magnificent high-ceilinged Georgian edifice that since 1922 was a branch of the Nat West bank. It happens to be my bank actually, although when I was in there I’m afraid fears of being overdrawn  probably overshadowed any appreciation of its architectural merits. The old bank manager’s office in the back is now a super little private dining room, and some of the bank’s wooden till structures have been preserved in the bar area. Bizarrely, when I went to try out the brasserie, the woman on the table next to mine had worked there for 20 years!

The Martin Brudnizki Design Studio, which masterminded the building’s transformation, has put in beautiful blue and mustard floor tiles, with banquettes to match, and hung the ceilings with glamorous chandeliers. What I love most about the new Ivy offshoot, though, it its stunning collection of old prints and artwork, depicting Bristol’s industrial heritage – a reason in themselves to visit.

Food images by Clare Hargreaaves

Ivy Clifton Brasserie - PWF - 0071 P1700867P1700902P1700937

Epicure Experience

If you’ve wondered what lies within that vast building on the M4 that’s often rudely likened to Colditz, now you have the perfect excuse to drop in to find out.

This is Celtic Manor Hotel, and since February, Richard Davies has been heading up the kitchen at a new restaurant inside this edifice called Epicure Experience.  Some of you will remember Richard as the Michelin-starred head chef at The Manor House at Castle Combe, near Bath – or as the chef who cooked an Endangered Foods Feast in Bristol for Feast with a Chef two years ago.

Richard, who is originally from Bridgend, trained at the Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay in London and has three times represented Wales on the BBC’s Great British Menu. I tried Richard’s tasting menu (5 courses for £55) which was absolutely outstanding. Kicking off with Foie Gras with apple and walnut, and a fish course of Turbot with Cepe, celeriac and pancetta, the main course was Lamb (Welsh of course) with onion and baby leek, pictured below.  The meal finished with a variation on Richard’s winning Great British Menu pud of ‘Strawberries and Cream’ which he served at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013, also pictured.

If you are Bristol based, it’s easy to pop over for lunch or dinner. Do go.

Celtic Manor Resort Chef Richard Davies

Gin-cured sea trout with apple and fennel

As you know we’re lucky enough to have had 2-Michelin-starred Nathan Outlaw cooking us a Cornish Seafood Feast in Bristol, celebrating the publication of his new book, Everyday Seafood (Quadrille). Here’s a recipe from the book to whet your appetite. It’s based around sea trout, a migratory fish whose arrival in spring is greeted by foodies with as much excitement as the first asparagus. Says Nathan: “Wild sea trout is, for me, a delicacy. I actually prefer it to salmon and find that it responds particularly well to curing.” Being a gin fan, I like the fact the trout is cured in gin too. “Using strong alcohol in the cure helps to achieve a pronounced flavour and the combination of gin, apple and fennel works well,” says Nathan. Picture by David Loftus.  

Gin-cured sea trout with apple and fennel

Serves 6 as a starter

1 very fresh side of wild sea trout, skinned and pin- boned

For the cure

250g sea salt

250g caster sugar

2 tbsp juniper berries, crushed 

150ml gin

For the salad and dressing

200ml olive oil

2 shallots, peeled and finely sliced

4 juniper berries, finely chopped

100ml cider vinegar

30ml gin

2 fennel bulbs, tough outer layer removed

3 eating apples, such as Braeburn

3 tsp finely sliced tarragon

For the cure, put the salt, sugar and crushed juniper berries into a food processor and blitz for 3 minutes.

Lay the sea trout on a tray and sprinkle evenly with the cure mixture. Turn the fish over in the cure a few times to ensure it is coated all over. Drizzle the gin evenly over the fish, then wrap the whole tray in cling film and place in the fridge to cure for 4 hours.

When the time is up, unwrap the fish and wash off the cure with cold water, then pat dry with kitchen paper. Wrap the fish tightly in fresh cling film and place back in the fridge for an hour to firm up. (At this stage you can freeze the fish for up to a month).

To make the dressing, put the olive oil, shallots and chopped juniper berries in a small pan over a medium heat until the oil just begins to bubble. Take the pan off the heat and add the cider vinegar and gin.

Slice the fennel on a mandoline as thinly as possible and place it in a bowl. Peel, core and grate the apples, then add to the fennel with the tarragon. Toss to combine and dress the salad with half of the dressing, keeping the rest to finish the dish.

Using a sharp knife and a clean board, slice the trout as thinly as possible. Lay it out on large individual plates and drizzle with the remaining dressing. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Star of wonder – sweet woodruff

woodruffSweet woodruff is, along with tonka bean, yuzu and salty liquorice syrup, one of my 2015 gastronomic discoveries. It has a truly magical flavour that’s usually likened to vanilla, though it also has hints of lemon and spice too. Infuse a panna cotta or ice cream with it, or pop a sprig into the pan when you stew apples or pears. Chris Harrod, Michelin-starred chef-patron of The Whitebrook restaurant-with-rooms in the Wye Valley, uses it in a white chocolate ganache to fill his green tea macaroons (pictured here) that he serves as petits fours. Wow! In the old days, and still on the Continent, it’s used to flavour wines and other drinks. Once you’ve tried it, you won’t look back.

So where do you find woodruff? It’s actually remarkably common. In fact, come spring, it’s pretty much everywhere. (I actually found some growing in a wood in Herefordshire on Boxing Day!) I love its star shape, and tiny white flowers. If using in food, you need to dry it to concentrate the flavour. Just leave it in the kitchen for a day or two and it will be perfectly dry.

woodruff macaroonsI mentioned tonka bean above and interestingly, the chemical substance in tonka that gives it its unique flavour is the same as that in woodruff. The substance is called coumarin. In huge quantities, it’s toxic. But you’d probably have to eat the equivalent of a bail of woodruff for it to do you any harm.

Game for game

I’m not into shooting birds, but I think I probably look forward to the game season with as much anticipation as those who are. I just love game birds’ rich flavours and dark lean flesh, as well as knowing they’ve eaten a wild and varied diet. If you ever need someone to introduce you to the joys of game, Tim Maddams, who used to work at River Cottage and has just written a book about game, is your man. I was lucky enough to join him in cooking this lovely dish of Pigeon with blackberries and chanterelles at Vale House Kitchen cookery school, near Bath. Easy to make (see recipe below), delicious to eat.

I couldn’t resist making game the centrepiece of a feast. So on 30 January the talented Will Holland, chef at Coast in Pembrokeshire, will be cooking a Game’s Up! Feast in Bristol. Will used to be head chef at the Michelin-starred La Becasse, in Ludlow, so knows his game. (Becasse is French for woodcock.) I can assure you we’ll be making the most of the final weekend of the shooting season.

Pigeon with blackberries and chanterelles

Serves 2

Rapeseed oil, for cooking

4 plump pigeon breasts (easily removed, see pp.150–3)

2 good handfuls of chanterelles, trimmed and brushed clean of grit

A knob of butter

A good handful of blackberries

A couple of handfuls of salad leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place a heavy-based frying pan over a high heat and add a little rapeseed oil. Season the pigeon breasts with salt and pepper and add them to the hot pan. Give them a minute or two, until they start to form a nice caramelised layer on the base. Now turn them over and add the chanterelles and butter at the same time. After about another 2 minutes, once the pigeon breasts are firm but not overcooked, remove them to a warm plate and set aside in a warm spot to rest.

Finish cooking the chanterelles for another minute or two, then lift them out and put them with the pigeon.

Turn off the heat and pop the blackberries into the pan to warm and release a little juice. Add any resting juices from the pigeon and mushrooms to the berries.

Divide the salad leaves between a couple of plates. Slice the pigeon breasts and arrange on the leaves, then scatter over the mushrooms. Spoon on the blackberries and sprinkle over the juices from the pan. Drizzle with a little more rapeseed oil if you think it needs it and serve with some fresh crusty bread.

From: River Cottage Handbook No15: Game, by Tim Maddams, published by Bloomsbury. Recipe image: Gavin Kingcome

Pigeon with blackberries and chanterelles © Gavin Kingcome game book cover