These days the adjective “seasonal” exerts a vice-like grip on British menus. Every restaurant press release I receive makes it clear that this will be the chef’s distinctive approach to preparing his dishes. The same philosophy dictates what is on television cookery shows and in cookery column recipes.
A seasonal approach has many virtues. It means customers can enjoy ingredients at their freshest, while kitchens can work closely with local suppliers, minimising air miles, packaging and waste. But it also raises two questions. Which season are we in? And for ingredients most affected by rapidly changing weather patterns, which part of which season? Many British chefs have come to appreciate that there are now far more than the assumed four seasons in a year.
The most recent one to have got under way is the game season. This began in mid-August with grouse and will carry on, via pheasant, partridge, wild duck and woodcock, until early 2013. While many chefs are currently extolling the virtues of their roast grouse, my appetite was whetted by the game menu proposed by Indian chef Karam Sethi at Trishna in Marylebone from mid-September. This will include a venison keema naan and tandoori partridge with a five-spice marinade.
I have recently been struck by how one chef in particular handles the fluctuations in what he receives from his principal fruit and vegetable supplier and works them into the menus of the four restaurants for which he is responsible. All this came home to me over lunch at The Grazing Goat in Marylebone, and a subsequent dinner at its sister restaurant, The Pantechnicon in Belgravia.
Lunch of minted pea and broad bean tart, spring carrots and turnips, and creamed leeks with thyme exemplified the best of seasonal cooking in a British summer. The colours were vibrant; the ingredients cleverly coalesced; the dish exuded freshness and a touch of acidity. What’s more, it was delicious. It was ironic, therefore, to discover that the chef who had created this, and the excellent first course of Scottish scallops, Wiltshire truffles, cauliflower and girolle mushrooms at The Pantechnicon, came from a remote part of New Zealand’s North Island.
Phil Wilson is the executive chef responsible for not just these two restaurants, but also The Thomas Cubitt in Victoria and The Orange, close by. This small group belongs to property developers Barry Hirst and Stefan Turnbull, who moved to Belgravia only to lament the absence of anywhere locally that they would want to eat. They promptly turned what was a neglected pub into The Thomas Cubitt, and have worked equally sensitively on the other three restaurants.
Wilson was determined to move towards seasonal menus and, encouraged by the admirable Sustainable Restaurant Association, switched from buying his fruit and vegetables from New Covent Garden Market, where, he explained, he saw the same produce year-round, to buying from Secretts, a large farm outside Guildford, Surrey. “It is more expensive,” he admitted, “but far more fascinating.”
And far more challenging, particularly this year when hardly any fruits or vegetables have stuck to their normal seasonal rhythm. Thanks to a cold start followed by heavy rain that washed away the spring seedlings, many crops have begun as much as a month late. In certain instances, no sooner had they appeared than they vanished.
Having come to terms with the vagaries of British weather, Wilson now believes that there may be as many as eight seasons in a growing year, with different varieties of fruit and vegetable appearing and disappearing as nature dictates. Chastened, but far from downhearted, he has devised a clever method of writing the menus for the group’s four restaurants that allows each chef some individual expression and meets the financial demands of his bosses.
The left-hand side of each dish, the protein, is printed on to a menu that lasts approximately three months. But each Tuesday morning at the company’s smart HQ just behind The Grazing Goat, the in-house printers add the critical right-hand side in distinct italics: the vegetable or salad accompaniment to the Devon crab or shoulder of lamb; the Suffolk chicken; the Castle of Mey beef; or the garnish with the English strawberries. The result? Appetising menus – for all seasons.
The Grazing Goat,
The Thomas Cubitt