Food fashions move in mysterious ways in Britain. One minute, supper clubs and eclectic menus are de rigueur, and the next minute we’re reinventing grand hotel dining and 21st-century classic British food. Forget sardines with chermoula and masala chai ice cream; it’s time for dressed Devon crab and summer pudding.
At first glance, you might think that this new trend is due to the influence of high-profile chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Marcus Wareing. Both have opened restaurants in grand London hotels this year, and both have hit the headlines with British menus. Blumenthal’s menu at Dinner in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park refers back through the centuries, including an updated 14th-century recipe for rice and flesh (calf’s tail risotto). Wareing at The Gilbert Scott in St Pancras Hotel has concentrated on modernising more familiar 19th-century dishes such as mulligatawny and Mrs Beeton’s snow eggs.
However, culinary fashions are seldom straightforward, especially where British cuisine is concerned. Over the past few years, British chefs have become increasingly focused on sourcing the best local produce. At the same time, British producers have undergone a revolution whereby they no longer restrict themselves to making traditional foods such as Lancashire cheese or clotted cream. Instead they’re opening up their horizons to produce everything from superlative snails in Dorset to air-dried ham in Monmouthshire. As a result, black pudding, salami and cured wild boar can all now be deemed equally British.
Garry Hollihead, executive chef at the recently opened Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall, believes that British cooking is fundamentally about quality. “I just feel that there is so much fantastic produce in this country that it needs to be celebrated in a simple, classical way.” His menu in the Corinthia’s Northall restaurant does just this. It’s simplicity itself, with summery British dishes such as Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, Loch Var smoked salmon, and Lancashire chicken with Scottish girolles and tarragon.
Like many chefs before him, Hollihead sees British cooking as a fusion of fine local produce and French culinary techniques. “It’s important not to play around with dishes too much, so that you can really taste the produce,” he says. “Mind you, that leaves no room for error. Any mistake and it will show.” This is perfectly illustrated by his dressed Devon crab. The crab must be freshly caught, cooked and eaten with the plainest of ingredients: mayonnaise, lemon, brown crab meat seasoned with brandy and breadcrumbs, and Melba toast. It tastes heavenly – all seaside and summer holidays.
Not that the French have any claim to summer pudding. Hollihead’s version is made with just bread, sugar and a mixture of strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants, blackberries and blueberries. When quizzed as to the not very British addition of blueberries, he responds, “but these are English and I grow them in my garden. You just need acidic soil grow-bags for them.”
The idea of eating simple dishes in the opulence of the Corinthia is breathtaking. Hollihead has followed three ideas: simplicity, seasonality and the dominant use of home-grown produce to create a very British feel to all his menus. He might serve beefburgers, but they’re Cumbrian burgers, made with Cumbrian shorthorn beef and topped with Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese or egg and Cumbrian dry-cured bacon. What used to be called continental food in an international hotel has become an anathema in this 21st-century reinvention. This may be a trend, but it is also a reflection of the growing belief in our own food. I suspect that it is only the beginning of a new era.
Sybil Kapoor is winner of the 2011 Guild of Food Writers Michael Smith award for work on British food
Summer pudding with clotted cream ice cream
You will need four rings, 6cm in diameter and 4.5cm in height. Many supermarket bakery counters will slice a white loaf lengthwise. Makes four.
250g fresh mixed berries
45g caster sugar
4 slices white bread, sliced lengthwise
For the clotted cream ice cream:
250g clotted cream
3 egg yolks
70g caster sugar
1. Place 250g mixed berries and 45g caster sugar in a pan. Cook gently over a low heat. Make sure that the berries retain their shape. Tip into a fine sieve. Save the juice and reserve the fruit.
2. Put the clotted cream and milk in a pan and bring to a boil. Whisk the egg yolks and 70g sugar in a bowl, then slowly mix in the hot cream. Transfer back to the pan and cook gently, stirring until it reaches 83C and coats the back of the spoon. Chill over a bowl of ice, then churn according to your ice cream machine’s instructions.
3. To assemble, place the rings on a tray. Cut eight discs of bread to fit the top and bottom and four strips to line each ring. Warm the berry juice. Soak four discs in the juice and put one in the bottom of each ring. Then soak the strips and line the rings. Spoon in enough of the compote to fill each ring. Soak the remaining discs in the juice and seal each pudding. Cover with a heavy tray and leave in the fridge for six hours or overnight.
4. To serve, demould each pudding on a plate. Arrange some fresh berries around it with a little bit of the berry compote and serve with a scoop of clotted cream ice cream.