Thursday, March 08, 2007

Regional feasting with Mark Hix

When I attended my previous Divertimenti evening - the fabulous Flavia Rowse's Festive Flavours of Perigold she highly recommended Mark Hix's chef table, and that was tonight.
And I can really see why she recommended the Mark Hix event. The point of the chef's table events is that twelve of you perch somewhat precariously (more so as the evening goes on and the wine flows!) on bar stools around "La Cornue" range cooker where the chef performs their magic. You can see exactly what their doing and ask as many stupid questions as your heart desires. My favourite of the evening was as Mark produced the scallop shells from the oven, he was asked if they'd been warming (correct answer!) or cooking (somewhat surreal answer!). Mark was able to keep a much straighter face that I did!

But that's the beauty of these evenings; you can ask any question, taste the raw ingredients AND taste the amazing finished dishes and then even squeeze in a spot of kitchen paraphernalia shopping. My purchases tonight were fabulous but as presents for others I can divulge no more.
On espying tonight's menu I had the first flick through to see if I'd have to negotiate around despised ingredients. Obviously I was on full tomato alert, knowing that Mark is an infamous seasonal British produce lover I thought I'd be on safe grounds but they always a danger of a special rare breed early tomato raising it's evil little head, but fortunately I was safe. Everything else looked perfect and that was just on paper. Then Flavia and Sarah (I'm really hoping I've remembered her surname correctly as Bell as she's going to open her own restaurant soon and I'm sure she'll be very famous) started bringing out the trays laden with incredible ingredients namely: the fattest scallops ever, plump little pigeons, wild garlic, vibrant chanterelles, glistening piles of red mullet and every wild bit of greenery you could think of. We were definitely in for a treat tonight.

Firstly the troops were mustered to start the dessert - a Bake
well pudding. This Bakewell pudding was as far removed from the Mr Kipling Bakewell tart version as possible, no white icing, no chocolate 'drizzles' and absolutely definitely no glacé cherry! We perched on our stools and admired the quantity of golden egg yolks that went into the mixture before being poured into the pastry lined pans before Flavia whipped it off to the back ovens. Mark Hix is a big fan of the happy little chickens of Clarence Court and I agree, they really do have the golden-est of egg yolks. I mention their hen cam where you can check out the happy layers (generally best at dawn or dusk!)

Then Mark turned his thoughts to the starter, luckily as we're all salivating now! The starter is scallops with sea shore vegetables. Sea shore vegetables sounds so evocative but not having ready access to a beach or a supplier that forages I probably won't be able to whip up anything involving sea beet or any of the other intriguing verdant sprigs but it is all food for thought. The scallops are just enormous and Mark removes the fat orange roes to sauté with oysters before liquidising and straining to make a very special beurre blanc. The shucked scallop shells go in the oven to warm (not to cook!) and then filled with the sea beet, sautéed scallops and delicious creamy beurre blanc sauce. We have this fabulous starter and talk about Borough Market, the judging on Master Chef goes Large, the Great British Menu (as Mark will be competing) and Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant in New York. The latter is of particular interest to me as I am visiting Gordon’s illustrious establishment tomorrow evening so I am fascinated to know what they’ve heard. I mention my impending mad dash to New York and certainly raise a couple of eyebrows. Apparently travelling to New York to go for a meal is somewhat diva-ish though I have to admit I’m not just coming straight back, I am going on to Florida the next day… so it’s the same country at least! But maybe it is still a slightly unusual mission!

Next Mark starts on the wood pigeon on toast with wild mushrooms. The pigeons are rubbed with butter and baked in the oven for only 10-15 minutes before he whips the breasts off and tops the coarsely chopped sautéed livers on toast which is served with lashings of wild mushrooms. I’ve been trying the wild garlic and it is a revelation. It looks very innocuous with its pointy green leaf but it can really pack a punch.

Mark fillets the glistening pile of red mullet and Flavia and Sarah have the inevitable job of pin boning the seemingly endless fillets. But as none of us are keen to stumble across an errant fish bone we are pleased with their administrations. Our next course is to be fillet of red mullet with golden beets and sea purslane. We’d been examining the golden beets without being able to identify them as they looked like potatoes that had gone a little brown or perhaps some fruit but none of us had recognised them as golden beets that had been cooked in their skins and then peeled. The striking red mullet fillet on top of the dark green wilted purslane and wild garlic with the stunning cubes of golden beet makes a vibrant, colourful and extremely tasty dish. We are being fed extremely well and finding out a lot about wild free food available around Britain. I only tasted samphire for the first time last year and am keen to eat it again when the season come round again.

I already have Mark Hix's wonderful and extensively researched British Regional Food Cookbook and I intend to try his Crab and Samphire salad from the East Chapter. With all that journeying around Britain and research I am very intrigued to see what Mark cooks for the Great British Menu competition when it returns to our screens.

But I digress, even though we're fairly convinced we can eat no more we finish with a delectable slice of the exceedingly good Bakewell pudding. This is indeed absolutely nothing like its Mr Kipling namesake. It is vastly superior!
And starts a discussion on the travesty of Mr Kipling's offerings being even considered to be a representation of the Bakewell classic. Though in his book Mark explains that there is a variation outside of Bakewell, the more commonly known Bakewell tart but this is in his words 'more of a French frangipane tart" - ummm this doesn't sound like Kipling version either, what no glacé cherry?

We have had another fantastic evening, it really is one of the best ways to enjoy one of these chef's special dinners though I can imagine it not being so fun if the guest chef lacks personality - no names! I know the places are strictly limited and get booked up very quickly so I better decide what to book for my next visit. Mark intends to come back in June (I think) but I am alarmed at the possible tomato-fest that may await me! I will have to check the schedule and choose.

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