Artists, Food

How friends Ferran Adrià and Richard Hamilton inspire each other

The Times July 11, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Food and art fusion cooks up surprising results

There are several moments in my interview with Ferran Adrià, the head chef of El Bulli, and the artist Richard Hamilton, when I feel like screaming very loudly or simply giving up.

We are here to discuss the surprising friendship that has grown up between the two men over the past 25 years.

First, for those who have not already read about Catalonia’s El Bulli phenomenon (with its three Michelin stars; regularly voted the best restaurant in the world): this is “an experience” rather than a meal, with an entirely new menu every year — the restaurant closes for six months while the chefs reinvent — and where nothing is what it seems to be. The dishes are beautiful, sculptural, outlandish and mess with your head. An “Oreo cookie”, for example, is made out of artichoke caramel, black olives and sour cream.

Hamilton is still probably best known for two memorable works — Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? in 1956 (cheeky collage, Mr Universe man; pin-up woman on sofa, with a lampshade hat, clutching a perky breast), and Swingeing London 67 (different tinted versions of the photograph of Mick Jagger handcuffed to Robert Fraser in the back of a police car, after the infamous drug bust). In the intervening time the artist has been honoured with three retrospectives at the Tate, represented Great Britain at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and, at 87, is still hard at work. (In his faded jeans and trademark cap, Hamilton remains as switched-on and “now” as that other octogenarian cool old daddy, Elmore Leonard.) His latest pieces are protest pictures (the name of his show last October), continuing a theme that has been a constant in his career: a television screen depicts the tanks of Desert Storm, blood dripping from the bottom of the set; Tony Blair, an anxious-faced little boy, is dressed up as a gun-toting John Wayne cowboy.

The first problem with our conversation is that Adrià doesn’t speak English and talks muy rápido, but with a stammer, which means that his interpreter helps him to finish sentences, so they end up talking over one another. The interpreter’s Spanish accent, alas, comes with such a frothy lisp that it is quite difficult to understand her translation. (It took several attempts of “newellequeetheeen” for me to get “nouvelle cuisine”.) Hamilton, who doesn’t speak any Spanish, also talks into my ear, usually to correct Adrià’s dates: “No, that’s not right at all” and so on. Then there is Adrià’s press man, who feels the need to reinterpret the interpreter’s translations . . . and thus no fewer than four different voices can all be competing at the same time.

In addition, we are sitting around a table in a disco with oppressive black walls and ceiling, enlivened by a fluorescent palm tree and a number of suspended silver glitter balls. The only illumination is the hostile glare of a makeshift lighting rig and the total effect is similar to an interrogation room in a country run by a tinpot dictator.

This sense of dislocation would doubtless delight Carsten Höller, the German artist who created the slides at Tate Modern and also this venue, the Double Club — a temporary six-month installationcum-nightclub-cum-bar-cum-restaurant in Islington, “produced” by Prada and funded by a Nigerian bank. The idea behind it, to quote from its website, is that each space (hello Pseuds’ Corner) “is divided into equally-sized Western and Congolese parts on a decorative and functional level, generating an inspiring perspective on double identity as well as on cultural co-existence”. Whatever else it is — and, at night, it’s as absolutely fabulous as New York in its clubbing heyday — it is most certainly a “vanguard” experience, which is Adrià’s interpreter’s quirky version of “avant garde”.

We are celebrating Adrià’s transcendence from cook to artist, after his controversial 2007 inclusion in Documenta, an art show that is held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Spanish art critics fumed: “Adrià is not Picasso.” Robert Hughes pitched in with: “Both Adrià’s participation and contribution seem ridiculous to me. Food is food.”

The new double-titled book inspired by the Documenta show, Food for Thought. Thought for Food, which is being launched at the Double Club (its own delicious food masterminded by Mourad Mazouz, the restaurateur behind Momo and Sketch in London), includes a photographic panoply of 1,500 dishes that Adrià has created over the past 25 years, round table discussions of the cuisine — featuring Anya Gallaccio, Heston Blumenthal, Bill Buford and Höller — and various maps charting the cook’s revolutionary development (“jellied molluscs”, 1992; “hot jelly”, 1998; “foie-gras as butter”, 2008, etc), as well as a section of responses from the lucky Willy Wonka-like winners of Documenta attendees who were selected by its director, two a day, to dine at El Bulli.

The book’s editors are Vicente Todoli, the foodie director of Tate Modern, and Hamilton, who has also written an elegantly persuasive introduction.

Hamilton has been eating at El Bulli since maybe 1963, possibly 1964 or even 1969 — it’s one of those debatable dates — at least once every year, long before Adrià’s arrival. He first visited nearby Cadaqués, where Salvador Dalí had a home (other artists who spent time there include Picasso, Miró and Marcel Duchamp) in 1962 and bought his own house in 1968.

His memory is of going to El Bulli for the first time with Duchamp’s widow, Teeny, when it was little more than a shack on the beach where you could enjoy a picnic lunch. He would arrive in his Zodiac inflatable boat, 25 minutes by sea from his home, and “they had a nice toilet, so I would go in and squeeze the water out of my shirt and put it on again. I looked pretty disreputable. The food went up and down over the years (according to the ability of the chefs) and then one year it was up like that,” Hamilton points a tapered finger to the ceiling, “and that was when Ferran had arrived.” How dramatic was that change? “Suddenly it was, ‘This is the best food I’ve eaten anywhere’.” Later, as part of a panel of Adrià aficionados attended by an audience (including Blumenthal, Antony Gormley, Bianca Jagger), he says: “There came a time when it was difficult to get in, but I developed a relationship with the staff and that helped .”

One of Hamilton’s abiding pleasures — not that his lean physique and long El Greco face would betray it — is eating. When he was a child his mother worked long hours waitressing at banquets in the City, and the young Hamilton would always ask her: “How many courses did they have, Mummy?” He was recently reminded of this by his artist wife, Rita Donagh. He supposes that he got the idea then that the more courses there were, the better the meal: “And at El Bulli [35-odd courses] I will sometimes say, ‘How many courses have I had now, Rita?’ and she will add them up. But then I can be there for three hours, and I rarely say, ‘Have we got to the dessert now?”

He recalls his first impressions of Adrià: “In the early days, Ferran wouldn’t appear very much and if he did he would come out of the kitchen and stand on the terrace, with his legs slightly apart and look out over the bay,” he says, his voice descending to a basso profundo, hinting at a certain gravitas. “I always felt that he should have had his hand in his jacket, like Napoleon. He didn’t speak to anybody. I don’t think he smiled much. He just looked. He’d had a long morning’s service and he was tired and wanted to get some fresh air.”

The chef, with his plumpish, morose José Mourinho good looks, can still appear solemn, chewing gum glumly (one audience member asked about its flavour but was not enlightened) and coming to life only when he understands the odd word — Hamilton’s mention of Henri CartierBresson, for instance, elicits an enthusiastic “fantastique”.

I ask him whether he had been aware of “Richard Hamilton, the famous pop artist,” when he took over as El Bulli’s head chef in 1984. “There was a type of customer who came every year — maybe 50 of them, not all at the same time! — and Richard Hamilton was one of them. He always used to come by boat, which was unique, and he was someone I already had a lot of love for. He never gave us any problems.

“Juli, my partner, told me that he was an artist, but I was 22 years old and I didn’t have any relationship with the world of art. But over time, slowly, I have become a fan.”

He tells a story of the time when the artist asked him to take a Polaroid photo of him for a book, which he thought was “loco!” This was for the final volume of Polaroids of Hamilton taken over the decades by an incredible roll-call of artistic heavyweights, from Brecht and Man Ray to Yoko Ono. Not long after the loco photo session, Adrià was in Barcelona, where he saw a book called Pop Art. “I read, and discovered exactly who that Richard Hamilton is. I phoned Juli and said, ‘Did you know what type of artist is that Richard Hamilton? He’s an incredible man!’ And whenever I spoke then to people in the art world about Richard, they said that he only talked about El Bulli.”

Others may label Adrià an artist now (Hamilton prefers to call him a poet), but Adrià insists that he is a cook: “Cooks shouldn’t become painters and painters shouldn’t become cooks. In the world of art, I’m only there as a fan, to learn, watch and listen. But cooking is a different matter because that is my world.”

I ask him what prompted his revolutionary tactics and his cryptic response is: “Things happen and one doesn’t know why they happen.” On reflection, he says: “I am a cook and that is not my business — it is my passion. It is a way of understanding life through the kitchen. The chefs and I cook so that we ourselves are happy, and we need a challenge to be happy. The great revolution that happened in 1993 was when we started to play out our very own language, whether people liked it or not. So after we are happy ourselves, we share this happiness with the people.” He points to Hamilton and says: “Richard was the first man to talk about El Bulli as a new language. I never thought of it that way, but he gave me this explanation and he opened the world for me.”

The shock of the new, however, was far too shocking for some of El Bulli’s customers when Adrià unleashed his first new dishes. A deconstructed chicken curry from 1995, for instance, emerged as a savoury ice-cream in a puddle of garlic jus, coconut and electric-green apple froth. Many of the punters reeled in horror, saying the chef had gone “loco!” and walked out. Hamilton, however, embraced the changes.

But even Ferran’s biggest fan has his limits: “The only thing I’ve had there that I’ve had a bit of a misgiving about was a rabbit’s ear. It looked like a rabbit’s ear although it didn’t have fur, but it’s the skin, the tissue. Even when I tasted it, I didn’t think ‘This is a great experience’, but I wouldn’t complain. On the whole, I think, ‘I trust Ferran and he would not suggest I eat this without being right’.”

Not yet having had the pleasure of eating at El Bulli – it is £200-odd for a meal, and a two-year waiting list — I am unable to comment on the food. (Although I have enjoyed several meals at the Fat Duck, a close relative.) What is certainly the case is that Adrià’s gastronomic experimentalism can be a culinary disaster in the hands of less skilled disciples. I once had the worst meal of my life, cooked by a bullishly arrogant El Bulli wannabe in Oman, of all places. Imagine, if you will, the taste sensation of over-brewed Earl Grey tea bursting out of a cold jelly tablet, and a frozen sorbet of dog-food pâté.

“This is not something to do with El Bulli,” Adrià says. “Richard from the art world could say the same thing. A lot of people did very bad Pop Art. Some people did it very well. It is not the problem of the type of cuisine. How many good paellas can you get in London? Or a great osso buco?”

I say that it is a bit different; there’s not the same amount of fanfare over that sort of eating experience. “No-no-no-no-no-no,” Adrià flashes one of his rare but engaging smiles. “A bad paella is a bad paella.” And you can bet he cooks a mean one of those, too.

* * *

Food for Thought. Thought for Food is published by Actar

Food, Writers

Heston Blumenthal: the alchemist

The Times, October 25, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

You don’t just eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, you have a whole sensory experience. Ginny Dougary drops by his laboratory to talk the science and psychology of food, families and uncontrollable fury

For those of us afflicted with vivid imaginations, it can be disturbing to hang out with Heston Blumenthal. Odd thoughts cross your mind such as what would it be like to be served a life-sized head of the chef-owner of the Fat Duck. First: you and your fellow diners would be invited to insert earphones connected to iPods which would play barnyard sounds of contented chickens clucking. A waiter would waft a distilled essence of something suitably earthy: fresh hay, say, laced with something borderline unpleasant to stimulate the senses. You would then be presented with a silver spoon and instructed to tap the patron’s bald pate which would crack open to reveal a rich brew of truffled brains, which you may or may not find delicious depending on how easily you could overcome your conditioned resistance to cannibalism.

This tasting menu special came to me on the back of a highly unusual voyage of discovery that managed to eclipse even the extremely high standards set by the usual Fat Duck experience.

The punishing brief was to spend a day with Heston, half of which would be devoted to eating the 17-odd (in both senses) courses on his legendary menu, accompanied by my elder son, Tom, who had previously picked the Fat Duck as the restaurant at which to celebrate his 18th birthday. The thinking behind this mission was that there is something about the chef’s experimental approach to food, with his test tubes and lab, that is particularly appealing to rather clever adolescent boys. Tom was clearly up for the challenge, with his pronouncement that “Heston is really safe” (ie, “cool”) and that he was “totally psyched” about the whole prospect.

The first person we see by the narrow road that curves through Bray is the man himself, in his white chef’s jacket, nursing a broken hand from a recent cricket injury. This, so his wife Zanna tells him, is someone’s message that her husband should be spending more time at home with his family. Not much chance of that, however, with a hefty book to promote (The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a compendium of his life’s work), a television series in production, a new menu to create for the Fat Duck, as well as an intriguing commission to transform the Little Chef motorway chain into an altogether different dining experience (also to be filmed for Channel 4). There is something fitting about this last project given Heston’s parents’ admirably – if true – left-field decision to name their son after a service station near Heathrow.

He is every bit as friendly and blokey as his television persona, with no immediate signs of the rather more complicated personality that emerges in our interview. We chat about Feast, the first of his Channel 4 commitments (he defected from the BBC earlier this year), which is proving to be quite time-consuming. The idea behind it is to recreate various dishes and experiences from different periods in history, and we will get a chance to sample some of these works-in-progress in his “laboratory”.

Tom is riveted by one that is recorded in the new book, which is spectacular, but not in a good way. This involves plucking the feathers of a chicken while it is still alive – not so dissimilar to a Brazilian perhaps – then somehow lulling it to sleep (presuming it has not already passed out in shock), whereupon it is placed on a giant platter surrounded by his fellow fowl who have already been roasted. The poor creature’s rude awakening apparently comes as the host starts carving, and the pièce de résistance – oh what japes – is to watch the bald, freaked-out chicken run amok down the table. Heston wishes the Channel 4 production team had never got wind of this particular blast from the past since they keep badgering him to stage a re-enactment. We agree that he should hold firm.

The lab is no longer in the garden shed behind the restaurant where Heston and his team conducted the experiments that led to the creation of his first astonishing taste-sensations: the nitro green tea and lime mousse in 2001, for instance. He bought a neighbouring pub, the Hinds Head, principally because it came with a house – formerly used for staff accommodation and now containing an overspill kitchen, various offices and the new laboratory. As it turns out, the pub has been a great hit, too, with its more conventional (and affordable) bangers and mash and steak and chips, allowing him the freedom to be ever more recondite in fine-tuning the menu of his flagship restaurant.

We meet the lab team and the head chef-technician, Kyle Connaughton, arms covered in tattoos, who is not given to small talk. On the main table there are bowls filled with chopped truffles and pomegranate seeds and a sort of home-made Rice Krispie concoction, as well as the aforementioned dishes for the TV series. Heston, who has two or three tasting sessions here a week, reappears and tells us about one of his many collaborations.

It is important here to stress, perhaps, that although his ability to cook has been internationally recognised (three Michelin stars for the Fat Duck, and voted best restaurant in the world), Heston is also an inventor, a pioneer, alchemist, teacher and explorer, as well as being fascinated by history and psychology, science and the arts. He may be something additional for which we have not yet created a word, since he is pushing all sorts of boundaries in his curiosity to see where this might lead. All of which could make him sound a bit annoying – particularly in England where we don’t like to be in awe of individual virtuosity – which is where his natural, unassuming manner comes in handy.

He is continuing his Odorama investigations, which have already gone down well, as I remember from our first visit, with his introduction of a sort of bosky woodland smell to accompany one of the starters of oak moss and truffle toast. Now he’s working with a guy to produce a blast of campfire smoke, a vanilla-scented cloud intended to summon the memory of an old-fashioned sweet shop, and the fresh hazelnut blissfulness of a newborn baby’s head. He produces a vial of the final one but, alas, it has curdled and (rather spookily) replicates that precise tang of regurgitated breast milk that I last smelt coming at regular intervals from someone standing not very far… happily, a veil of discretion descends.

We join the tasting team for Frog Blancmange, a Heston tweak of a Tudor recipe: a beautiful vast wooden bowl, with a giant water lily settled on a bright green resin, a puddle of some kind of white cream, the Rice-Krispied frog legs rising up like little spears, and a scattering of rosy pomegranate seeds. The maestro is not happy with the cream-cheesiness of the taste and says it needs more work.

Then Blackbirds in a Pie, which after six weeks on the job is declared to be perfect. The question is: will Channel 4 release four-and-twenty blackbirds (probably not) when the pie is cut. Next come a Roman dish of doormice (sausagemeat) that still leaves a lot to be desired, a Victorian edible garden (to be served with the smell of grass and the sound of a lawn mower), and an incredibly complicated business that combines Mock Turtle soup with the Mad Hatter’s tea party, involving templates of a fob-watch encasing an intense broth, wrapped in gold leaf, which dissolves in the teacup when boiling water is added, so that the heady black liquid is flecked with specks of gold, which is simply the accompaniment for another dish which… well, you get the general idea.

Our time in the lab is over and it’s off to the restaurant for lunch. I’m wondering how the menu, as well as the whole drama of the event, will stand up to a second tasting, particularly only a couple of years after the last visit. I loved it the first time round but had looked upon it as a once-in-a-lifetime treat – rather like a visit to another planet, say – and not just because it’s so expensive. What was striking then was that despite the number of courses, the portions were mercifully small so we left the restaurant feeling rejuvenated rather than torpidly overstuffed.

The food was as delicious as ever but I had to fight the urge to ask the waiters to skip the introductions, which were perhaps necessarily elaborate the first time but redundant on a second visit. We both loved the Sound of the Sea, the dish Heston says is his pride and joy. Conches are deposited on the table into which iPods are secreted and as you push the plugs into your ears, you hear the rhythmic crash of waves and the intermittent cry of a seagull. Before you even taste what’s on the plate, you are instantly transported into some childhood seaside resort of long-distant memory with your parents placing a shell to your ear. It’s the oddest, intense feeling suddenly to be driven into your own private, interior world while you are in a most public place. Heston recently tried this out in a dining room full of captains of industry and they were all reduced to being little boys.

There are other mind tricks, an integral part of the Heston experience, which is a lot to do with perception and breaking habitual ways of thinking. I seemed to remember not liking the salmon poached in licorice gel because I loathe licorice (although love fennel) – and the idea of the combination was pretty unappetising. This time round, at any rate, it was delectable but it could be that it was on the first occasion, too, only the unappealing concept is what lingers rather than the actual taste.

Four and a half hours later, we finally emerge from the Fat Duck, waddling after all the wine pairings and extra dishes Heston has had the kitchen serve us. (Tom declared the new puddings, in particular, to be “totally bad-ass”.) No time to digest, however, as it’s straight into the interview. Since Heston has worked with so many different scientists from Bristol University, Oxford, Nottingham and Reading – where he was awarded an honorary degree – I wonder whether he has any regrets about not going to university himself. He was a studious grammar-school boy, with six O levels, who devoted his Friday nights to homework but became “distracted” in the sixth form and left school with one A level in art.

Heston mentions his father, who studied architecture and did a furniture restoration course, but did not go to university or encourage his son in that direction. The difficulty is being forced to make a decision at too young an age, Heston says looking at Tom, and he thinks now that he would have liked to have studied psychology or history.

The distracted years – which Heston dismisses as being the usual “bloke stuff” – also coincided with his discovery of gastronomy when his parents took their sixteen-year-old son to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Provence. It was, as he writes in The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, “love at first sight. I fell in love with cooking and the idea of being a chef.” Most of his spare time back home was devoted to poring over the Guide Michelin and Gault Millau, “cross-referencing three stars against high marks out of twenty… with the focused intensity of a cipher-breaker”.

Another obsession was martial arts: karate until he was 16, then into full-contact kick-boxing to which he devoted 20 hours a week. This was when Heston first became aware that he had a problem controlling his anger, and that exercise helped: “There were a load of Wycombe hard nuts down there [in Buckinghamshire, where the family had moved from London], potentially quite dangerous people but I was the youngest person and the moment they saw I wanted to learn, they took me under their wing and it was a really great feeling of camaraderie.”

Before we move on to his anger, I ask him whether he has ever suffered from a lack of confidence. “I have had big confidence issues, really big,” he says. “Although I wouldn’t say I had a serious lack of confidence now, I would certainly say that fear of failure was always a bigger driving force than the will to succeed.”

It was becoming a parent himself that prompted Heston to look back on his own childhood to search for clues about his character flaws. Two years ago, a back operation forced him to abandon the restaurant for a time and recuperate at home. “My wife had bought a Christmas tree and I’m standing there doing the decorations and my son [Jack], who was 13 at the time, said, ‘This is great, Dad, it’s the first time you’ve been here to do this with us.’

“My initial reaction was, ‘Ahhhhhhh,’ and then I thought, ‘Hang on a second, what he’s really saying is, “You haven’t done this before,”’ which gave me a big lump in my throat. This goes back to the confidence issue. From that moment, I started thinking a lot more about my upbringing which on the surface was a great childhood. But it’s amazing how your actions – even when you think they’re fine – can be subconsciously damaging.”

So what was it, growing up, that dented his confidence? “What is interesting, you might disagree with me on this,” Heston addresses Tom, “is your parents will always be your parents. Even if you’re 50 [Heston is 42], you are still their son and you still seek recognition and support and approval and compliments from them. It’s the most powerful source of compliment you can get.

“I realised I had this thing a couple of years ago – got the three Michelin stars, got the honorary degree, got the OBE, got the best restaurant in the world, and the doctorate from Bristol, and the one from Reading, got entered into the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry, when the only other two people were Nobel prizewinners…” all of this said at a gallop as though he is a bit embarrassed about listing his laurels, “…and these things were amazing, absolutely amazing, and yet my old man could say something like, ‘They mentioned so-and-so in the papers and not you – why have they got a thing against you?’

“And I’m thinking, actually, all those amazing things that happened have just disappeared. You think it’s not going to affect you but it does, even though you know they’re saying it to be protec-tive… It’s things like that and the Christmas tree… And I had a really, really bad – ah – temper and I fought really, really hard to control it, and then there’s this thing that only happened two weeks ago…”

He proceeds to tell a story about a bloke outside his house – “and we live in a nice road in Marlow now”, he adds – who was screaming at his wife or girlfriend “really aggressively” and Zanna and the three children are out in the garden, running after the chickens and the screaming is getting worse – “He’s going really mad” – and his wife, he continues, said to the kids: “‘Oh my God, imagine being married to that!’ and Jack turned round and said, ‘You were.’ Zanna came into the kitchen and said, ‘You’ll never guess what Jack’s just said.’ And that was just out of the blue.”

It was Zanna who insisted that Heston do something about his temper before something truly dreadful happened: “It was just getting worse and worse and worse. It’s a long story but she probably stopped me being jailed twice – actually pulled me back – an incident with a shotgun… an incident with a bottle…

“It was awful but it’s easier to talk about now because I’ve absolutely dealt with it. But it went on for five or six years. What was dangerous was the aggression was going down and the more cold, calculated feeling was getting stronger. It was an uncontrollable feeling and when it starts to feel…” he pauses, “…good… when that feeling starts to feel really good, it’s not good news. What’s bizarre is there’s a difference between being aggressive and starting to feel good about anger and violence. Zanna read about cranial osteopathy and it just gave me the impetus, although it might have been psychosomatic, to do something about it.”

It all started when Heston was a teenager and someone provoked him at a bar, and then leading up to the restaurant, “It was a situation where I had bitten off more than I could chew and I wasn’t in control.” I ask him, with some trepidation, whether he’d ever wanted to kill anyone. “Ughhh… yessss,” he says. But you haven’t, have you? “No, no, no,” which is a relief.

He says that he was a “very aggressive fighter” – probably an intimidating one, I imagine, with his muscular bulk and all those martial arts skills – and also suffered from really bad road rage. As it happens, the previous night, Tom had shown me a clip on his computer of Heston talking about a car-ramming incident on Griff Rhys-Jones’s two-parter on anger, Losing It, but it was the chef who brought up the subject, not me.

When I ask him why he thinks he was so angry, he pauses and says: “I don’t know. I have asked a lot of questions [and seen a therapist and faith healer]. I’d like to do some work on it and I did work on it because I haven’t raised my voice for years but I still don’t know why.” He’s particularly proud that the kitchen – where there are 43 chefs to an average of 42 diners – is a far cry from the notoriously abusive hellholes of some of his confrères. “Now, there’s no shouting, no screaming and no tantrums.” One of the many waiters who served us did say, however, that genial as he found the boss, he certainly wouldn’t want be on the wrong side of him.

Tom takes over for a bit and the conversation shifts into the more arcane territory of synaesthetic responses… much chat about learned associations, the effects of a crunch versus sizzle on the palate, the way a sound can stimulate other senses, and so on. As a music student, my son is interested in whether Heston has thought about working with composers and, of course, Mr Collaboration is already planning an event with David Coulter, Damon Albarn’s music supervisor on the opera Monkey: Journey to the West.

Back on the domestic front, I wonder how Heston’s wife has handled this long journey from sharing her life with an obsessive self-taught foodie – after the briefest of stints, Blumenthal famously turned down the offer to be an apprentice at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (two Michelin stars) – to being married to a world-famous chef. He speaks of her in the warmest and most generous way – as well he might – saying that, “In the whole time since the restaurant opened and the build-up as well, she has literally never moaned about the time I’ve spent at work.”

For 15 years, Zanna has “reared”, as Heston first puts it before correcting himself, “brought up” their family more or less as a single parent. He attended his first parents’ evening at his children’s school during that back-break, and put up with being ribbed by the teachers when he attended his first carol service that same year. When I ask him whether he ever socialises, he says: “Errrrrr… probably a couple of times a year. Even my son says, ‘Dad, you’re sad – because all you do is work and don’t go out.’”

There was a time when his wife was lonely but Heston says that she’s well past that stage. There are consequences, of course, as he discovered when he spent time at home this year writing his book in the evenings. “It was like walking into somebody else’s family,” he says. “They had their own routine of homework, dinner, getting ready for school and, with the exception of my son, all of them love watching EastEnders. So I would stand and watch this whole routine which exists without me.” Did it make you feel unwanted? “At first it did, yeah.” Did you talk to your wife about it? “Not at first. I kept quiet about it and then I said, ‘Look…’” She’s not resentful of you? “Not at all. She’s always been really, really supportive.”

When the news came through about the third Michelin star, Heston was in Spain conducting a demonstration at a symposium. The Fat Duck was on the verge of financial disaster – something Heston had kept from his wife. That night, fairly typically, there were bookings for only two tables. “Another week and we would completely have run out of money,” he says. “I couldn’t even pay the wages. I remember calling her with the news, and her screaming, just screaming at the other end of the telephone, with joy.”

Heston flew back from Spain straight into Friday night service, and got home at about midnight. “I walked into the living room and Zanna had cut out the front page of The Times – Harold Shipman was in the margin…” a splutter of laughter, “…and that was in a frame with three balloons blown up and gold stars and cards, which made me shed a tear. My family were all asleep. I poured myself a glass of wine and just sat there, and there are very, very few times when I wake up and smell the roses and I don’t know if I said it at the time, but I thought, ‘It’s all been worth it.’”

Since then, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength and last year, for the first time, Heston ploughed money into his own family, buying “quite a big house”, rather than back into the business. I wonder if he’s anxious about the effect of the credit crunch on the Fat Duck. “It’s funny, well, actually not funny, that I’ve had years of real financial struggle – all because I was pursuing my own selfish wont to make the restaurant better and better and better – and for the last two years, touch wood, everything’s started to, you know…

“But people have had hunger issues for years and years, so what we’re talking about is the credit crunch affecting people who already have money, and hopefully we will continue through it. So here’s a restaurant that costs 130 quid for a menu but that’s the price because that’s what it costs to produce that food. A car manufacturer will still be selling their new cars for the price of a new car.”

What is clear, as he told his son, Jack, when he accused his father of being “sad”, is that in the past 14 years, he’s got into the car to drive home, exhausted, drained and stressed, maybe, “But I’ve only once got into the car in the morning thinking, ‘I don’t wanna go to work,’ and I think that’s a really lucky thing.”

As we pack our bags to go, Heston tells us that his wife has started an Open University course this week. The subject? Psychology. I ask him why he’s smiling. “Oh, I was just thinking that I might make quite a good case study for her.”

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal is published by Bloomsbury and is available from BooksFirst priced £90 (RRP £100), free p&p on 0870 160 8080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

Food

One Paston Place

Times Magazine – April 14 2007
– Ginny Dougary

I’ve been wondering what is it about taste and smell that, of all the senses, connect so intimately with half-remembered experience. Proust’s madeleine is the most obvious example of this nostalgic potency; one bite of a cake unleashing a masterpiece of recollected memory. But some of the most evocative food writing also revisits the time when the writer’s taste buds were first awakened, resulting in a sort of double whammy of nostalgic pleasure for the reader who still remembers the precise feeling of delight and recognition on first coming across a passage of this kind.

It is long decades since I picked up a book by the American writer  M. F. K. Fisher, but  her description of eating the perfect peach in Aix-en-Provence – something she herself summoned years after she lived there – has not withered a bit. There was something so fresh and appealing about the way she described her discovery that it really paid to do as the French do: select the fruit in the market that morning and eat it before the day is over, while its bloom is still intact and the flesh is rosy but unbruised.

In that same collection, Fisher retrieved a much earlier memory of being taken out to dinner by her parents when she was a small child. It was somewhere very grand, and everything about it was fabulous in the best sense: the light refracted in the sparkling glasses, the sheen of the silverware, the exquisite mouthfuls of food… the whole experience awakening something in her which made a lifelong impression.

That passage made a similar impression on me for a number of reasons. I had taken the book from my father’s huge collection of perhaps three or four hundred volumes on food. Like Fisher, he believed in exposing children to the finer things of life and food was definitely up there. Almost all my childhood and teenage memories of my father are connected with meals, me being his navvy in the kitchen (he, not my mother, did the cooking) or going to one fine restaurant or another.

Perhaps a mark of a really good restaurant is that each time you return, you experience it with all the enjoyment of that initial visit – what keeps you coming is that it always delivers everything you relished the first time round and more. My old local, Chez Bruce, never failed on that count. In Brighton, Terre à Terre, although a very different sort of concern (being exclusively vegetarian, for one thing), occupies a similar position in my hierarchy of consistently happy-making eating experiences.

In New York, where I once lived and often return for work and holidays, I thought I had discovered a new R&R (reliable and restorative restaurant), Les Deux Gamins, which I stumbled upon in Greenwich Village and loved instantly. The waitresses all resembled that gap-toothed, slightly demolished beauty Beatrice Dalle from Betty Blue, and were hilariously moody. The patron had the air of an artistic, highly strung hobo. The decor was  French café without the  set-in-aspic museum atmosphere of the enduringly trendy Balthazar. And the food  was simple but spot-on: a memorable  onion tart was so creamy, unctuous, sweet and savoury, I  kept coming back just for that.

But on a later visit, it had disappeared. I eventually tracked Les Gamins down in a new location in the East Village and, while the  food may have been just as good, all the joy had gone in this dark, gloomy Deco-diner setting, and  I left feeling faintly depressed  and let down.

This theme of revisiting memories led me to try One Paston Place again. The first time I went there was five or six years ago when it was still under the owners who had won a Michelin star, the young woman on the phone had informed me, adding somewhat deflatingly that it was way back in 1970-something. On that initial visit, my friend and I were the only people in the restaurant.

The food was high-end French and pretty good, from what I can recall, but the atmosphere inevitably lacked buzz. This time round, the Saturday night clientele, perhaps in a bid to beat the Valentine rush, was exclusively made up of couples; a Brightonian mix of gay and straight and an eye-catching young woman whose décolletage was covered in tattoos.

When I phoned to apologise that we were running 15 minutes late for our 7pm reservation, the somewhat high-handed man answering the phone insisted that my booking had been made for 6.30, but eventually  admitted that he had confused me with another customer. This error of mistaken identity was repeated, however, when we arrived at the restaurant. More aggravation followed when my friend and I struggled to hear one another above the pounding sound system, an endless loop of Moby Muzac, and the words “Why does my heart feel so bad?” began to speak to us rather too feelingly. At one point, a piercing electronic sci-fi sound filled the room and the diners around us all started in unison. This, at least, resulted in the CD being changed, but to something more staid, featuring (oh dear) Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Just the Way You Look Tonight.

The formerly high-handed maître d’ became overbearingly friendly, sharing his life story of how he had recently been promoted from sommelier, then apologising for his depleted cellar (the wine list was covered in a rash of red dots denoting what was unavailable), explaining the roles of the rest of the staff and so on, which was too much information and of the wrong kind. It was strangely and exhaustingly like dealing with a passive-aggressive personality or needy child, as he kept asking if we liked the food and whether we would be coming back.

But what of the food itself? Could it possibly be so delicious that our mood would be sweetened and we could overlook these amateurish  defects? The Italian chef-owner, Francesco Furriello, former footballer and house music enthusiast, bought One Paston Place in 2004 and garnered an Egon Ronay star and a number of plaudits within his first year. A recent local award has given him the confidence to switch from French haute cuisine to a predominately Italian menu.

The amuses-bouches augured well: a delicate splodge of truffle-scented mascarpone adorned with a petal of bresaola and shreds of orange peel marinated in Grand Marnier (so fantastic we asked for another), and a bite-sized artichoke “pie” with flaky, buttery pastry and a sliver of potato and parmesan.

But the starters were immediately disappointing: the straccetti (flaccid rashers of pasta) smeared with white crabmeat, asparagus and assorted vegetables tasted as messy and gloopy as it looked on the plate. My Italian-American friend’s damning verdict was that it reminded her of canned Italian food. My smoked-haddock quiche was a bit dry and joylessly puritanical, with an unhappy cindery frizzle of fried rocket. Mains were better. Sea-bass fillets wrapped around ceps, on a mound of bashed potato, and a fragrant saffron and mussels sauce. While I found the dish imaginative and well executed, the person
eating it felt that the sauce was delicious but overwhelmed the fish. My coquelet dish was hearty and good (caramelised baby shallots, braised radicchio, roast potatoes), but didn’t send me into raptures. Orange and Grand Marnier soufflé with blood-orange sorbet was exceptional and more delicious than any of the soufflés I have tasted at the two Gingerman restaurants in Brighton, where it is their pièce de résistance.
 
On the basis of the food alone, I would be inclined to give One Paston Place another chance. But a good restaurant is not simply about what you put in your mouth, and the negative factors on this evening outweighed the positive. So, sadly, no, I can’t see myself returning.

Another downbeat aside before announcing that there is some good news on the Brighton eating front. I tried the newish Pinxto People and loved the food but hated the WAG-ish  disco atmosphere and the maître d’ trying to charge our table of eight an extra three pounds a head, when he had been set a budget of £25 per person. (We argued about this long and hard before settling the question. I won’t be back.)

And, oh,   the perils  of endorsing a restaurant when you’ve only tried it a couple of times. In an earlier review, I claimed that Gars, raved about by friends, did seem to be the best Chinese in Brighton. I have been back twice since and, most unfortunately, had the worst Chinese food I’ve ever encountered; ditto service. (Skewers of chicken frozen and lumpy and plain awful which prompted me to cancel my order and leave.) Alas, there are my words “best Chinese in Brighton” in the window, and there’s not a lot I can do about it.

But the new Riddle & Finns oyster bar, run by the same team behind Due South, is a great place (functional white tiles and bottle-green trim offset by antique candelabra and groovy chandeliers); slightly tricky service; excellent oysters (the Rockefeller scoring particularly highly); fab crab linguini and chowder. They’re about to open a big gaff in Hove as well and I’m very glad to say that I can’t wait.

* * *

One Paston Place
1 Paston Place, BN2 (01273 606933)
£125 for two, including wine and drinks

Riddle & Finns
12B Meeting House Lane, BN1 (01273 323008)
£79.20 for two, including drinks

Food

Wright Brothers

The Times – February 10, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

All around the dining room the only sound you could hear were little moans of pleasure

Can you remember when you tasted your first oyster? It must have been a little bit of an event; such an odd thing to eat, with its briny taste, sluggish colour and slippery muscular texture, and so freighted with expectation. As a child, I viewed the oyster with a mixture of suspicion and respect.

My father, who prided himself on his palate, steered well clear of this particular bivalve, having once swallowed a bad one whereupon he turned a bilious green and had to retire to bed for several days.

So my oyster initiation was with another family, as a 15-year-old on a Parisian exchange; New Year’s Eve, the table piled high with dozens of shells opened minutes before by Monsieur Lenoir, wielding his special shucking blade.

I felt very jejune, sneaking surreptitious glances at my sophisticated neighbours as they deftly disengaged the oysters from their shells, threw their heads back and swallowed in one effortlessly elegant movement.

My next memorable oyster experience was a decade later in Sydney. There was a particular nudist beach, which could only be reached by those in the know, walking through tangled bush land, the smell of eucalyptus almost overpowering in the heat, the glorious 5ft-tall blood-red waratahs with their densely packed waxy petals, a vertiginous descent into a secluded bay and the prelapsarian sight of nut-brown naked young people scraping the sweetest-tasting tiny oysters off the rocks at the water¹s edge. Was it the combination of sun and sea and being broke but carefree that made them taste so good?

Since then I¹ve eaten oysters in many different places — in Belfast with Guinness in a booth in an old pub, the Crown Liquor Saloon, opposite the Europa hotel during the Troubles; the famous silver-scalloped Art Deco oyster bar in Grand Central Station, with its wonderfully unpretentious approach to serving the best oysters from around the world to busy lunch-time toilers sitting cheek by jowl around busy work stations; oyster po-boys in New Orleans; the Belle Epoque brasserie opposite the Gare du Nord; countless seaside restaurants in Normandy and Brittany; Wellfleet oysters from Cape Cod in a homely little restaurant on the docks of Wellfleet itself, and unbelievably nasty, barely thawed gelatinous creatures in Central Park¹s Tavern on the Green.

In this country, until recently, only one oyster mouthful stood out — Marco Pierre White’s fantastic concoction — and that was years ago in the Hyde Park Hotel, so I may be a bit fuzzy on the detail. What I do remember was that the aphrodisiac hype suddenly made sense — it was lemony and creamy and delicate, with tiny threads of cucumber or perhaps pasta shredded on to the top, the oyster poached, a sprinkle of caviar — and all around the dining room the only sound you could hear were little moans of pleasure.

I stumbled upon the Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House quite by chance.

In the week that I qualify as what must be the last metropolitan foodie to experience the joys of Borough Market for the first time, I read an item in a local free paper suggesting that its future is uncertain. It all hangs, apparently, on whether the government decides to fund a Thameslink rail scheme in the summer. In the same week, I also hear that the Battersea Arts Centre is threatened with closure, as Wandsworth Borough Council has withdrawn all its funding, while simultaneously demanding a whopping new rent.

All of which news must make any true food and arts lover mad as hell, and we¹re not going to stand and see them go without a good fight, are we?

Anyway, back to oysters. I emerged from the market laden with free-range sausages and bacon and black pudding, flowers, bread, freshly churned butter and wonderful cheeses, into Stoney Street with its glimpse of Southwark cathedral and cobbled alleyways beyond. The Wright Brothers place was teeming with people and looked so warm and enticing, I returned with my two sons and a friend for supper. Like the market itself and much of the surrounding area, the Oyster House is atmospheric in an old-fashioned Dickensian way, but with a slightly anarchic, chaotic edge which makes it doubly exciting. The room itself is dark and consists of a bar that seats a dozen people on stools and five more alongside the kitchen. In the centre there are two tables for eight diners each.

The clientele, for the most part, were groups of arty thirtysomethings; a couple of well-turned-out middle-aged couples, and a trio of drunk City bores who were clearly exercising the patience of the waitresses.

There are various blackboards around the place (no menus) listing fishy specials and a great number of different oysters. There are no chips and no vegetables, just a salad of mixed leaves from the market. My boys have yet to sample an oyster and could not be persuaded to try one on this occasion, leaving my friend and me to demolish a Malvern dozen. I had requested something sweet and small (anything too large is a bit gag-worthy) and these pretty much fitted the bill. But am I the only person who sometimes rebels, mid-mouthful, against the whole oyster-thing, as capriciously as a lover can turn against his mate for no apparent reason?

The mains were a total hit — the most scrumptious fish pie, served in a cast-iron skillet, filled with big chunks of perfectly cooked salmon and smoked haddock; a beef pie (both boys were cunningly convinced to try poaching the accompanying oysters in the beef broth; verdict “not bad”); a crab hash cake with a zingy avocado and tomato salsa and a bowl of mussels marinières.

We were so impressed we returned later in the week but decided to try the Feng Sushi bar next door for our appetisers. This is a brightly lit, rather unglamorous space, more communal high tables, and the wasabi and ginger come, off-puttingly, in sachets. This whole area, it seems, is full of eateries catering to busy, buzzy young folk who have things to do, places to go, and no desire to linger over a long meal — which suited us just fine on this occasion.

From the winter menu, we tried a sweet shrimp ceviche and soft shell crab chilli tempura. The ceviche was a mound of cucumber spaghetti with red onions, pink grapefruit and passionfruit ­ the skinny shrimp tails laid artfully around the whole — in a sweetish, tangy sauce. It was surprisingly filling, with so many things going on in your mouth at once. The tempura itself didn’t have much of a chilli kick but came with a punchy salsa of yellow and red baby tomatoes and sticky rice studded with sesame seeds.

I also inadvertently ordered more soft shell crab sushi and, boy, was I glad I did. Absolutely fantastic — the most decadently, velvety delicious sushi I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, my fellow diners felt the same way and there was an undignified scrabble of chopsticks to secure the last roll.

Don’t like the name (punny not funny) or the slogan (“If our fish were any fresher, you would have to slap it”) but everything we ordered was beautiful and imaginative in every way; like a sort of utilitarian (and affordable) Nobu.

Back to the Wright Brothers, where we were greeted like old friends. By now I had done my homework and discovered that the Brothers are oyster impresarios who — since launching their business in 2002 — now supply to most of the top-notch restaurants in London. Where we were once a nation of proud oyster-eaters, devouring 500 million of the viscous bivalves a year, we are now producing just 10 million annually, compared with France’s 2 billion. Ben Wright threw in his career as a corporate lawyer and persuaded his brother-in-law, Robin Hancock, to give up his job as a rock’n’roll music producer — so you’d have to say these guys are pretty passionate about restoring The Oyster to its rightful place on the British menu.

If the Bros had their way, we would all be eating our oysters au naturel without any fiddling about with additional ingredients, or even so much as a splash of Tabasco or mignonette. (In America, the shallot vinegar is substituted with a tomato cocktail sauce, which really is a bit of an abomination.)

This time round, I decided to try one of their “adulterated” oysters — a triumverate of Rockerfellers, largish chaps, their creamy grey heads covered in fronds of spinach with a hint of cheesiness. What a peculiar combination of textures and flavours — salty, grassy, slightly watery, a bit savoury and not altogether pleasant. The others could not be persuaded to deviate from the tried-and-tested mussels and fish pie, leaving me to branch out with the cullen skink soup — bland comfort food: parsley, cubes of potatoes, smoked haddock and leeks.

I’ll be back to work my way through the extensive list of oysters in the hope of finding one as sweet as those little beauties we scraped off the rocks in Sydney.

* * *

Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House

11 Stoney Street, London SE1

(020-7403 9559)

Price: £40 for two, including wine

Feng Sushi

13 Stoney Street

London SE1 (020-7407 8744)

Price: £45 for two, including wine

Food

The Hungry Monk

THE TIMES – April 8, 2006
Ginny Dougary

“It’s hard to have high expectations of a restaurant whose culinary claim to fame is banoffi pie”
 
 
Last week I was pootling around the Cots­wolds, being a professional eater and an amateur antique-hunter, visiting churches and gazing into estate agents’ windows. It was lovely, of course, but did give me intimations of… well, certainly of old age. Which should be fine since old is the new young or will be if the great mass of us baby boomers have anything to do with it when we get really long in the tooth. As a metropolitan middle-youther, however, there is something about villages and the countryside that feels alien – or, at least, makes me feel like one.

Could this be to do with a suspicion that there is something innately conservative – a sort of sepia-tinted, myopic nostalgia – about rural living? Or perhaps it’s because of the people one encounters in the restaurants. In Allium, reviewed last week, it was mildly disconcerting to be sitting adjacent to a young man who so resembled David Cameron, it was tempting to check whether he was wearing Converse trainers. (The diner, it turns out, was a local Conservative councillor.)
 
At the Hungry Monk, closer to home in East Sussex, the conversation booming from a nearby table was distracting in a different way. A florid-faced gentleman, of advancing years, seemed keen to present himself as a sophisticate – with his extensive knowledge of wine and ability to conduct a conversation in French (which he demonstrated, loudly) – but his views on race relations were rather less cosmopolitan: “I don’t think black men should marry white girls.”

There were two women sitting with him: the more sour-faced was one of those pinched Christians who bring to mind Maggie Smith doing an Alan Bennett monologue: “A lovely man – of course, I knew he was a Catholic… I will serve her a slice of the banoffi pie after Mass which she will appreciate, although she really shouldn’t with her waistline… I’ve stopped going to that swimming pool because I got a verruca there [doubtless some dubious proletarian cross-breeder was to blame]” and so on.

There is something satisfying about ful­filling your earthly pleasures by eating a well-prepared meal and walking it off in the contemplation of somewhere quietly uplifting. I’ve always enjoyed a good graveyard, and the one attached to St Lawrence’s Church in Lech­lade is a beauty. It’s famous for promp­ting Shelley’s poem (A Summer Evening Church­­­­yard, Lechlade, Gloucest­er­shire) with the lines: Here could I hope, like some inquiring child/Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight/Sweet secrets… And it was a sweet surprise to hear infant voices from a school bey­ond the graveyard, singing a celestial-sound­ing version of Robbie Williams’ Angels, as I wandered through the crumbling tombstones with the hopeful primroses pushing through.

The Hungry Monk has its own connections to St Andrews up the lane, which has a peaceful atmosphere and a violent Saxon sculp­ture – so primitive it looks like the work of a gifted but troubled child – of Christ, one hand almost defiantly placed on his hip, the other plunging his sword into the mouth of a beast.

The restaurant was originally four monks’ cottages built in the 14th century which were knocked into the one building at some point… I can’t tell you when as the longtime owners, Sue and Nigel Mackenzie, do not go in for history-milking brochures or modern-day marketing malark­ey. (Although they do have a website.) The monks were attached to a monastery which used to stand opposite the church which was built by the Saxons during King Alfred’s reign.

The monastery was founded in the village in 1344 and closed by Henry V111 when he dissolved the monasteries in 1538. The one historic angle the Mackenzies are keen to promote is their mid-Seventies invention of the banoffi pie; there is even a blue plaque commemorating the event. It is just about possible that there are readers who are not familiar with this absurdly popular concoction: pastry base, toffee made from boiling a can of condensed milk for five hours, bananas, a topping of coffee-flavoured whipped cream.

In the early editions of one of the restaurant’s bestselling cookbooks, the recipe for BP appeared without any health warning. Subsequent versions alert the reader to the potential dangers of the recipe: “If they are allowed to boil dry, the cans will explode causing a grave risk to life, limb and kitchen ceilings.” Too right.

My first and only attempt at The Banoffi ended in disaster when Den­n­is Pott­er’s then new TV drama Pennies from Heav­en proved so mesmerising, I forgot all about the bubbling cans. Just as Bob Hoskins was circling the actress’s nipples with lipstick, there was a massive crash from the kitchen; then the sound of molten caramel shooting through the air. For months afterwards, we found traces of hardened goo in the back of drawers and cupboards. But at least I did not suffer the ignominious fate of being blinded by Banoffi.

Now, to be quite honest, it is hard to have high expectations of a restaurant whose culinary claim to fame is the banoffi pie. In the first cookbook in 1971, there is a recipe for salmon, bacon and bananas on rice – and my initial fear was that this unwinning combo might be indicative of the menu today.

The most recent of the eight books, The Temptations of the Hungry Monk (2001), shows that the kitchen is not set in Seventies aspic. But fusion muddles such as “English lamb stuffed with hoummus roasted in prosciutto and served with Moroccan aubergine sauce”, suggests that the monkish chef has confused pick’n’mix electicism for modernity.

Last orders are at 2pm and we arrived 20 minutes late having got lost, but there wasn’t a trace of sniffiness from Corinne, the French front of house, or any of the staff. There are several oak-beamed rooms in which you can sit on comfy sofas by open fires. Fresh flowers which look, appealingly, as though they’ve been picked from someone’s garden. On the downside, one of the rooms smelt faintly of damp. And there is something dated about the decor, by which I mean 1970s not 1370s. It would not have been entirely surprising, for instance, to see a Mucha or Max­field Parrish poster in the loo, although obviously nothing as overt as that other favourite of school dormitories from the Seventies: the lissom tennis player scratching her bum.

Upstairs, there are half-a-dozen private rooms (which you can book for no extra cost) painted in shades of bottle green and puce, not very nice tartan chairs, old-lady wallpaper in the loo and what looks like a wartime swirly carpet on the stairs. It is, in other words, a style-free zone. And you know what? It just may be that this very unreconstructed quality is part of the higgledy-piggledy charm of the place, and I say this as someone who is normally a slave to Conran.

The dining room was still full when the two of us were seated at a large table. Attach­ed to one of the low beams was a sausage-shaped cushion thoughtfully provided to prevent the unvertically challenged from banging their heads when squiffy. We had been recommended various dishes by a foursome of friendly, vaguely arty-looking couples as we had our pre-Sunday lunch drinks. (The accompanying mini-quiches were suitably retro, but crumbly and buttery and delicious.)

The goat’s cheese mousse, which came with my beetroot and ginger salad, was as light as powder snow on the outside and densely rich further in. I liked the colour of the salad and the earthiness of the beetroot with the sugary bite of the cystallised ginger (scattered among the peppery green leaves), but it did make me think it was about time I stopped ordering goat’s cheese in restaurants. The other starter was layers of smoked salmon with artichoke (more pleasing earthiness) and a hollandaise which was rather thinner than expected but light and refreshing.

The mains were an unequivocal hit: straighforward, honest and with none of the tarty tricksiness of that fusion number. I had crisp breast of Norfolk duckling which was a swooning pleasure of melting flesh and crunchiness, with a small serving of cassoulet spiced up with the addition of chorizo. The Sussex lamb was pink and juicy and had an ace sauce; a hint of a Moroccan lift from harissa, good chicken stock, subtly laced with the sweetness of marsala and balsamic vinegar.

Neither of us cared for the canary-yellow wodge of polenta dotted with red peppers; there being a very good reason, in my opinion, why polenta was one of the shorter-lived foodie crazes of the last decade. I wouldn’t normally bother to mention the vegetables, but they were fantastic. A big serving of spinach – “Excellent… excellent… Oh man!” (from my fellow luncher). Perfect roast potatoes. And the celeriac purée was so gorgeous (tasting as though a vat of butter and cream had been added, when it was only the vegetable itself and milk) that we felt compelled to order another portion.

We finished with the lighter end of the desserts: coconut and lime mousse (a bit like polystyrene jelly for me, but “a delight” for the person who ordered it) with guava sorbet; a selection of home-made strawberry and papaya sorbets, vanilla and pistachio ice-cream.

There’s nothing cutting-edge about the Hungry Monk and I wouldn’t drive from London to go there, but the food was good, and it’s old-fashioned in a reassuring (with the exception of the odd Alf Garnett customer masquerading as Terry Thomas) way.

 

The Hungry Monk, Jevington, Polegate, Sussex (01323 482178)

Food

Allium

THE TIMES – April 1, 2006
Ginny Dougary

“One associates the slogan ‘Relaxed Fine Dining’ with middle-aged men in Pringle golf sweaters”
 
 
Congratulations are in order. I’ve been ban­ned from a restaurant. This has been achieved without becoming paralytic and throwing up over a table, dancing on top of or passing out underneath one. I have not asked for my meat to be prepared well done or ordered HP Sauce to be served with my foie gras. I have not been caught Beckering in a broom cupboard. 
 
To put this in some perspective, it took a ledge like A.A. Gill five years of full-time restaurant reviewing and umpteen awards to reach this point when Gordon Ramsay fam­ously threw him (accompanied by Joan Coll­ins) out of the chef’s eponymous restaur­ant in 1998. That was in retaliation for a review in which Gill had described the chef as a “failed sportsman who acts like an 11-year-old”, his Aubergine restaurant as “utterly forgettable” and the menu as “utterly tasteless”.

And what withering prose has led to my recent banishment? “Due South has fantastic views, understated decor, and the food is local, organic, free-range, meticulously sourced and – oh yes – delicious.” A devastating put-down that continues to be used as a form of self- flagellation on Due South’s website. But there was much more offensive material where that came from – I said that it was likely to become my favourite local restaurant in Brighton (and in a later column that it did); that I had taken many guests there, from elderly matriarchs to adolescent boys and that they had all loved it.

What seems to have aggravated the owner, an imposing man in a leather jacket who goes by the name of Rob, was a small complaint that the booking set-up was a bit shambolic (answer-machine directing you to book by internet which, in my case, was not responded to anyway) and the fact that I never seemed to be able to get a table even when the place was half-full. This was also the case on the day when I was instructed (accompanied by much James-Bond-villain eye-twitching) never to darken the door of the owner’s establishment again. And they say chefs are temperamental.

So it was off for a restorative break in the Cotswolds to see whether I could be thrown out of any more restaurants. First stop was the Lygon Arms in Broadway, where I had intended to rise to the occasion and go for the five-course, or even the seven-course, gourmande, sorry, gastronomic menu. The most memorably happy meal I’ve had was at Tetsuya’s in Sydney which was a mad-sounding 12 courses; it was a cool setting, with two of my best friends, and tiny portions of expensive ingredients adorning intense-tasting reductions of this and that, which kept on surprising your tongue in the most delightful, rather sexy way.

Tetsuya’s would have been a hard act for any restaurant to follow, but the Lygon Arms menu, read in the comfort of my room, did not turn me on: sweet potato and red pepper velouté with creamed goat’s cheese, tian of crab with crayfish dressing, venison or beef, followed by two puds, passionfruit mousse, hot-chocolate fondant… just seemed a bit blah. (Possibly more suited to a senior citizen’s tooth-challenged palate.) Then I discovered that the chef had departed suddenly that week, and the previous maestro had been lost four months previously (what was it Oscar Wilde said about carelessness?), and it didn’t really seem fair to review the kitchen anyway.

I’ve been coming to this hotel since I was a schoolgirl boarder in nearby Chelten­ham, and so it is freighted with memories. It’s always been an odd mixture of gemütlich and kitsch, weighed down with its own illustrious past – opening its doors to both King Charles I, who met his supporters in a room that retains its original 17th-century panelling, and Oliver Cromwell, although not, presumably, at the same time (hidden spiral staircases notwithstanding), since that might have had rather different historical consequences.

My most recent stay there was a few years ago, when it was owned by the Savoy Group. They fixed a fantastic picnic to go to an open-air concert at Sudeley Castle but the room was ghastly, almost sub-Fawlty Towers, with depressing decor, damp stains, the lot. I’d been offered a free night as compensation, and it’s to the new owner’s credit – Paramount Hotels – that they still honoured it. I must say that the designer, Diana Sieff, who was hired by the Furlong family (post-Savoy, pre-Paramount) did an amazing update keeping all the lovely old paintings and antiques and wood, but going for bold, slightly bonkers textiles to cover the chairs.

Feeling a bit bird cold-ish, I wondered about the legitimacy of reviewing room service, but struggled to the hotel’s brasserie, the naffly-named Goblets, and didn’t really enjoy the fish soup (too insipid) or the goat’s cheese salad (too tart), but loved my friend’s haddock, mash and poached egg, which was perfect nursery-comforting flu-food.

Our destination restaurant the follow­ing day was Allium – winner of various accolades last year (Good Food Guide, Les Rout­iers, and so on) – in Fairford. I liked everything about it, apart from its slogan “Relaxed Fine Dining” which, like “smart-casual”… aaarrghh, one associates with the sort of middle-aged English men in Pringle golf sweaters who tend to stay in groups at the Lygon Arms. (Since the Americans gave up travelling.)

Once inside the Grade II-listed building, the first impression is of an extravagance of creamy space. There’s a huge open fire, charcoal-grey sinking leather chairs, a soundtrack of jazzy female vocalists, good olives. Into the restaurant itself, which is even more spacious; the owners (Erica Graham, front-of-house, and her chef/husband Nick Bartimote, both of whom seemed reassuringly well-balanced) having taken the decision to reduce the number of covers from 60 down to 34.

In the bar, we had been presented with an amuse-gueule of mini-cornets stuffed with a local goat’s cheese spiked with sweet peppers – tasty but more irritating really than amusing, as it was impossible to avoid sprinkling yourself with cornet unless you stuffed it all in your mouth at once. Another pre-starter was served in the dining room – a small bowl of rabbit broth with boudin of loin: gamey, sweet and savoury. This hit the spot – like a classy version of buttered toast and Marmite – and made me want to order a hot-water bottle and curl up in front of a fire.

Our starters arrived, which woke us up with what turned out to be something of a bittersweet leitmotif of the menu: fillet of John Dory with crab and citrus salad and ballotine of salmon with cucumber and seaweed. My friend was in raptures about the former: “So fresh, alive… like eating spring and sunshine”; I loved my dollop of caviar, the cucumber was Japanesey and the ballotine came with horseradish mayo and an unadvertised large poached oyster (perfectly executed, but didn’t do it for me because of my mucusey state… enough said).

I had a taste of two other starters – the veal sweetbreads with braised lentils and a Sauternes froth, looking disconcertingly like dirty foam on a beach, but tasting considerably nicer, and the terrine of chicken and foie gras, with a sweet shiitake mushroom accompaniment and pousse (baby spinach leaves to you and me).

The star performer of the mains was the plate of Eastleach Downs organic pork. This was an exciting dish that showed off the chef’s inventive skills, as well as the restaurant’s commitment to using local producers. Four different parts of a very tasty Babe, delicately presented and succulent. The first was a trotter on mash: my American pal (who does still travel) said: “Oh, very, very good. Almost as good as a hot dog.” I thought it was fabulous, too – but fortunately not for the same reasons. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anything to get close to Marco’s version of Pierre Koffman’s, and this did. There was a fillet that came with a splodge of apple sauce, belly with sauerkraut, and Bath Chap (cheek and head) which made one feel like Hannibal Lecter, but was worth it. My brill was brill, and I liked the linguini, sea kale and monks beard, which had more of that bitter tang thing going on – possibly some preserved lemon chopped into the pasta.

Another selection of variations on a theme for the best dessert. (A tiny niggle: I wish they wouldn’t call it an assiette – like the “fine dining” line, an unnecessary bit of twee pretension, throwing out quite the wrong message.) This time it was a blood orange being made to strut its stuff – as a dark almost aubergine ice-cream and a jelly, a fennel and orange salad (fantastic) and a pale tangerine mousse with sugared rind. I’d go back just for that. The Valhrona chocolate tart, with Guinness ice-cream and Pedro Ximénez, was as different as could be – intense, brooding, and ultimately too much for me.

Allium is an unalloyed pleasure, and I’d like to recommend it heartily, but obviously I can’t since that might get me banned – and I’m not prepared to take the risk.

 

Allium, Market Place, Fairford, Gloucestershire (01285 712200). Three-course set dinner: £32.50

Food

The Jolly Sportsman

TIMES ONLINE – October 29 2005
Ginny Dougary

Chapel Lane, East Chiltington, East Sussex (01273 890400)

My relationship with the country pub has been one of inconstant and mainly nostalgic affection. My parents, both long dead, had bought a house in the West Country and my first experience of pub grub was on school exeats around Cheltenham – Tewkesbury, Burford, Bisley – my dad in his old Daks shirt and cords, ordering mash and Gloucestershire sausages so improbably large they almost flopped over our plates.

My relationship with the country pub has been one of inconstant and mainly nostalgic affection. My parents, both long dead, had bought a house in the West Country and my first experience of pub grub was on school exeats around Cheltenham – Tewkesbury, Burford, Bisley – my dad in his old Daks shirt and cords, ordering mash and Gloucestershire sausages so improbably large they almost flopped over our plates.

My favourite schoolgirl country pub served scampi and chips in a basket; this did not set my father’s heart – which belonged to Elizabeth David – a-flutter. It was at that particular place, thronging with greengage-uniformed girls and their families, that an incident occurred which may have forever undermined my idea of the country pub being a place of innocence and old-fashioned charm.

The most eccentric classics teacher at our school – whom I shall call Mrs Penny – had arrived with a male companion who was intriguingly scruffy and saturnine. Her normal mode of transport was a very large tricycle – I have never seen a grown person ride one before or since – but this time she must have arrived by more conventional means. Mrs Penny herself was not petite and was given to strange, sometimes hurtful, outbursts. On one occasion, she touched one of my friend’s locks with a ruler and said, flicking each strand with distaste, “Drib… drab… drib… drab.”

I remember quite vividly the sense of hushed expectancy as my fellow pupils and I gawped at Mrs Penny and what we assumed was her boyfriend. Afterwards, we all agreed that it was, probably characteristically, odd of her to choose this particular pub for a Sunday lunchtime date. Our al fresco lunch was disturbed by a small child throwing a stone in Mrs Penny’s direction, which landed somewhere on her generous body; she shrieked, the boyfriend stood up and smacked the infant whose father rushed over and yelled abuse, and everything seemed to freeze. It was all rather shocking and un-English; Mrs Penny, in tears, left her basket of food unfinished and the garden, swiftly followed by her younger swain. I don’t recall her ever being quite so sharp-tongued again.

There was an interlude in my late teens of going to country pubs with various boyfriends: drinking a dizzying selection of horrid-sounding wines which tasted rather nice at the time: plum, elderflower, nettle, on tree stumps in fields; ordering nothing more substantial to eat than a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. Throughout my thirties, when the children were small and life was London-centric, pubs of all kinds seemed to lose whatever allure they may have had. And then, as my blossoming interest in food coincided with that of the nation, came the gastro pub.

The Jolly Sportsman, in East Chiltington, Sussex, is in this mould but has also managed not to alienate its old drinking clientele – although there is a rather perplexing tradition of mass withdrawal by locals every Wednesday night. The manager was unable to explain why. (A friend in Shropshire told me of a legendary pub there where, one night a week, the local men
get very drunk and play shove ha’penny with their whatsits; one can quite see that this might not go down so well in Sussex. Then again…)

The first time I went to The Jolly Sportsman, a few months ago, was reminiscent of a school exeat: I became my father, grumpily chiding the driver for not knowing the way, and various friends started up the childhood chant of “When will we be there?” The restaurant was full, so we sat in the pub and had a lovely lunch, although the service was slow and various dishes arrived at peculiar intervals or not at all.

Despite these minor irritations, there was much to commend the place and I was looking forward to going back. All
went swimmingly at first, and I had that warm, faintly proprietorial glow that goes with introducing friends to somewhere
that you feel has been your own brilliant discovery.

We sat in the pub proper, once again, while we waited for our table in the restaurant. There’s a board by the counter with a list of 70 malts: I have no interest in drinking the stuff but I am partial to lists and was impressed by all the fastidious headings and sub-headings. There are half a dozen different eaux de vie, grappas, calvados, armagnacs, as well as a comprehensive beer and wine list. For our driver: freshly-squeezed orange juice, elderflower cordial and various Fentimans potions. There was a large table of several families with young children who all seemed to be having a good time.

Our table of four was having a good time, too: launching greedily into a selection of pre-starters. A plate of sliced cured pork loin, with a drizzle of olive oil; guindillas (incredibly hot, sweet pickled chillis), good, spicy olives with the occasional bracing shock of a whole marinated garlic, three tiny glasses of Hemingwayesque oyster Bloody Mary shooters: slightly wasted, possibly, since none of us was wasted enough. We ordered bread but, as on the last occasion, none arrived.

The restaurant dining room is light and attractive: sage-green walls, undistinguished but inoffensive paintings by local artists, coir matting, slabs of waxed oak for tables, single pink gerberas in pale ceramic vases, a buff-coloured tongue-and-groove ceiling.

We were all, to differing degrees, delighted with our choice of starters. My snail, parsley and pancetta risotto was one of the high scorers: “really interesting, almost tastes like… soil” was meant as a compliment; “nice, firm risotto, lovely colour, really delicate, I would definitely order that” was a more obvious seal of approval. I was also dazzled by the intense dark-green wonder of the dish, which reminded me of a brilliant snail-lurking parsley soup I once had at Le Voltaire in Paris.

The Canadian had a plate of impeccable Irish oysters, large and creamy, served on a bed of seaweed French-style with red wine vinegar and shallots. The American had crab lasagne: “You can definitely taste the crab – and the cheese.” Perhaps I was too much in a temps-perdu state of mind, but it summoned another old memory of a Cheltenham boy’s dish involving layers of crisps, canned tuna and condensed cream of mushroom soup.

Oddly enough, my fellow Brit’s fennel soup reminded her of a bowl of cream of mushroom, with the fennel being so subtle it was almost like an aftertaste. So much so, she thought it should be renamed “soup with a hint of fennel”. None of us could decide how much we liked it but we liked it enough to keep tasting it. My verdict was that it was a bit of a culinary tease: enticing enough but promising more than it delivered.

The mains were, sad to report, a disaster. My American friend’s chargrilled Speyside Angus ribeye was cold and had to be sent back to be reheated. The Puy lentils that came with my stuffed pig’s trotter (from the pub menu; you can order from either menu in the restaurant) were in a liquor that was so dank and sour, it was inedible.

I opted instead for a starter of Stornoway black pudding, apples and port, which was a triumph: sweet and savoury, plain but decadent, the apples almost caramelised in their port-soaked sticky gorgeousness. It was probably my favourite dish of the meal; this seconded by the Canadian, partly perhaps because it reminded him of his late dad, who used to cook black pudding for breakfast.

The Brit who calls herself a demi-vegetarian had picked a tomato and piquillo pepper tart from the pub menu. This resembled a great unappetising wodge of hard omelettey quiche, but tasted softer and creamier. The accompanying vegetables – fennel and courgettes – were burnt. The Canadian’s venison sausages and onion gravy was the only main course that was an all-round hit – but even so, the mash was bland and nasty-textured.

The Sportsman redeemed itself with the puddings. The grappa pannacotta was evidently so good it was demolished before the rest of us had a chance to concur. The Brit had lemon polenta cake, which her husband pronounced “soggy-bottomed”. This, she insisted, was the secret of its success. The Yank went for the rice pudding crème brûlée, combining the best of both desserts. And I attempted the apricot, walnut and ginger toffee pudding – delicious, but daft of me to order after the black pudding.

We walked very slowly back to the car, by the courtyard with mosaic tables and Moroccan lamps, through the large well-stocked garden with swings and lots of space between the tables, past the Jolly nursery with rows of rocket and herbs and salad leaves. On this visit, the food may have been a bit hit and miss – but when it was good, it was very, very good and it most certainly is jolly.

Cost: £183.32 – three courses for four; including drinks, a bottle of Sancerre, half of Brouilly, and coffee.

Food

The Gingerman at Drakes

TIMES ONLINE – October 22 2005
Ginny Dougary

44 Marine Parade, Brighton, East Sussex (01273 696934)

The last time I wrote about trying to get a good meal in London-on-Sea, it was difficult to avoid being hard on its restaurants. But now, a year or so later, eating out in Brighton – hallelujah! – no longer sucks.

Due South, directly on the seafront, which had just opened then, did become my favourite local – and went on to win awards and plaudits from the foodwriting heavyweights. It has never disappointed me – when I can actually get in, that is – and everyone I’ve taken there has loved it: from a group of elderly Boston matriarchs to my younger teenage son and his mates. I went there so often, indeed, that I soon worked my way through the whole menu. But what I returned for time and again was the freshly caught fish of the day, grilled with lemon and herbs, great salad leaves simply dressed and rough-cut sautéed potatoes.

Organic and locally sourced ingredients, unservile but friendly service, wild flowers on wooden tables, the waves dotted with white-sailed boats… It would be perfect for my tastes but for one thing. On every occasion in recent months that I have tried ringing the restaurant, no one has answered the phone. A recorded message directs you to a website where you are invited to book online; an aggravation further compounded, in my case, by no one responding to my request in any form – cyber or otherwise. Twice now, as a last resort, I have gone in person to see if I can be fitted in – only to be told that although there are clearly free tables, there isn’t enough food in the kitchen or sufficient staff to handle any more customers.

There have been a number of personnel changes since I first became a fan of Due South – most recently, the chef Ricky Hodgkinson has left, so this possibly has had an impact on the way the restaurant is being run. There are rumours that the owner is planning to open an oyster-bar, also along the seafront – which would be a marvellous thing – so perhaps this accounts for further distractions behind the scenes.

My neighbourhood in Hove is fast becoming a haven for foodies – particularly since the arrival of The Real Eating Company. It has been a hit with Australian friends who compare its relaxed style, impeccable eggs benedict and fruit smoothies to Sydney’s popular eatery, bills. What a boon to have somewhere within walking distance where you can buy good bread, terrific English cheeses, wine, olive oil, truffle salami, pata negra, and so on. I haven’t yet eaten there in the evenings, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it for brunch or lunch.

Down the road is Bona Foodie, another great deli-cum-café, which is less specialised but more reasonably priced. I had come across the first Bona Foodie in Kemp Town and was delighted when its owner, Nigel Foster, decided to extend his empire into Hove. I tend to use it for picnics, sandwiches and my cake and olives fix.

A new and terrible local discovery is Audrey’s Chocolates, which is as splendidly old-fashioned as it sounds. I had passed the shopfront many times and gazed at the theatrical window displays… but, wisely as I now know, had not ventured in. The other day, I succumbed… just, you know, to look, and the inevitable happened. Audrey’s has been going for 40-odd years, supplies Fortnum & Mason and has photographs of Prince Charles giving them his royal seal of choccie approval. Everything is handmade and arcane – the layers of fine white paper, with the black chocolates lined up in regiments, and the heady almost peppery smell of pure dark chocolate is wonderful.

Further afield, Terre à Terre – the gastronomic vegetarian restaurant – is as delicious as ever and continues to win awards. I try to deviate from always ordering the global tapas, and the soup is always rich and fragrant. China Garden, a large restaurant on the busy seafront road, is fun for Sunday yum-cha. More fabulous is Gars – which various Brighton friends had assured me was the best Chinese in town, and having tried it I have to agree. It’s designer-ish, with red leather panel walls, but also comfortable and unposey. Everything we ate hit the spot, but the sea bass was exceptional. The Seven Dials restaurant is another family-run success. Most recently, a gorgeous wild mushroom truffle soup stood out, along with a generous plate of skate dressed in an intense caper sauce.

To the main event: The Gingerman, mark two. I very much liked the original where I went almost a year ago… stylish but unassuming decor, nice etchings on loan from Brighton University, an intimate space that didn’t feel cramped and high-flown food unflashily presented. The ingredients, as I recall, were pretty luxe – foie gras, for instance – and I was bothered by a quartet of women who all ordered green leaves as a starter. Why go to a restaurant that prides itself on its cooking and order something you can buy from a supermarket and dress yourself? Yes, of course, they were slim but…

The new Gingerman – the original is still there, thank goodness – is in the basement of a newish hotel called Drakes. I’ve been there for cocktails and was impressed by the barman’s martinis but didn’t care for the boudoir, knicker-blindish decor. The space downstairs feels spirit-sinkingly claustrophobic. The pale suede chairs and beige walls with their cigar-shaped folds behind the tables were fine but the silk-screen floral prints were bland and corporate. I hated the low ceiling, with its many unattractive heating vents and alarms, and washing-line tracks of bulbs that appeared to have been an afterthought to compensate for the insufficiently bright recessed lighting.

In this sort of environment you cannot help but notice your fellow diners. There was a trio of geezers (loud, wearing jeans and trainers), a Footballers’ Wives-type quartet (loud, the females scantily clad; the men and women rarely eating the same course together as various members
absented themselves for prolonged periods of time) and an assortment of couples and family groups. There was piped music (which I don’t remember from Gingerman, mark one): Motown and Buena Vista Social Club and, possibly, ironically?, The Swingle Singers.

The service and the food were both excellent, kicking off with an amuse-bouche of truffled field mushroom soup (obviously popular in Brighton) and pressed pork with capers and parsley and a hint of balsamic sweetness. Then wild bass ceviche with a big punch of lime juice and chilli for me, and lobster, potatoes, vine tomatoes and green beans for my friend. The latter was a particular triumph: “The tomatoes taste as though they’ve been picked at the perfect moment off the vine,” she said. Everything, we agreed, worked brilliantly together but was also plump and juicy in its own right.

Mains: halibut for my pal, “tastes pretty plain but that’s what halibut is like”, with globe artichoke and basil – “fine but doesn’t really turn my cookies” – and for me, coin-sized medallions of pressed rabbit (I think I probably prefer my meat loose and laid-back rather than up-tight and pressurised) stuffed with armagnac-drenched prunes, onion purée and a sort of polenta fritter. You really couldn’t fault the cooking, but increasingly I feel satisfied by most starters and puddings and obliquely failed by the main courses.

Puds were fab. I should have gone for the blood peaches with honeycomb ice-cream and honey lime syrup. I did get to taste it and it was perfect: quite tart but also oven-roasted sweet, “to die for”, “strangely refreshing” was my friend’s verdict. I decided to forgo the blackberry soufflé – even though the soufflé is a Gingerman signature dish – having dim memories of a prune version with armagnac ice-cream at Gingerman One, and finding it just too soufflé-ish, that is a bit eggy and bland and light. I went instead for the babyish-sounding ice-cream sundae, which turned out to be quite grown-up: pistachio, cinammon and raspberry ice-cream in an elegant glass, some kind of strange crystals that leapt about in the mouth like oral firecrackers, and no tarty froths of chantilly cream or parasols.

The coffee was spot-on and the sinful chocs so good I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been supplied by Audrey.

Price: Two courses £25;
£30 for three courses

Due South (01273 821218); The Real Eating Company (01273 221444); Bona Foodie (01273 727909); Audrey’s Chocolates (01273 735561); Terre à Terre (01273 729051); China Garden (01273 325065); Gars (01273 321321); The Seven Dials (01273 885555)