Ross on Wye really is a lovely town to wander around isn’t it? Historic buildings, the River Wye and river life as well as a very traditional and thriving High Street. What better then after a nice Herefordshire market town stroll, than a nice spot of lunch!
We choose the Wilton Court Hotel overlooking the Wye, where Helen & Richard run a very popular and extremely nice traditional hotel and restaurant. Starters looked great very appetising. A Gin cured salmon Gravlax on pickled beetroot and an Italian meat plate (see The DeanWye reminds me of Tuscany). We really enjoyed the simple classic dish from the lunch time menu of fried Sea bass on greens with boiled potatoes and a beurre blanc sauce. These classic dishes, with fresh ingredients and simplicity at their heart, to let the subtle flavours of each element come through, always work so well if, as we always say, they are done properly!
Buerre Blanc works perfectly with white fish, scallops, other shellfish and vegetable dishes
Finely chop 2 shallots, combine with 150ml white wine and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in a hot pan and reduce until it’s down to a couple of tablespoons in volume. Add a tablespoon of cream and when it bubbles reduce the heat to low. Cube 250g of butter and add a couple of cubes whilst on the heat and whisk. Turn the heat off and whisk in the rest a cube at a time. Season to taste and serve.
Jamie, the Essex boy, came up with a great method to save your whisking arm. Warm a thermos flask with hot water, empty the water and throw in the shallot reduction (sieve if you want – we don’t) into the hot flask, throw in the butter and put the top on. Shake to emulsify and season. You can keep the sauce warm in the flask while you get on with the other elements of the dish and little shake just before serving. We are thinking picnic BBQ fish now……
Not everything that tastes fantastic looks fabulous.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote a great piece, intended to compliment another of his insightful food investigation programmes, for the BBC recently. It was unequivocally about food waste. The waste caused domestically was examined but one of the other main themes was about perfectly good vegetables that go straight from farm to skip! Why? They aren’t pretty enough for the supermarkets root vegetable fashion parade and ever present size and shape guidelines. Interestingly echoing the same point we made out in why the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley is a bit like Tuscany piece.
We spent a great morning, albeit an early start on a misty October dawn, in Monmouthshire with Apple County Cider inspecting and photographing the individual apples for their single variety Dabinett and Vilberie award winning ciders – and they have the Golden Fork Great Taste trophy to prove it!
If you have ever been to a craft cider producers you will know that any preconceived romantic notions of wooden barrels, rickety small outbuildings and ancient machinery are , well just romantic. More likely is a somewhat more workaday air – which incidentally, we here at WyeDean Deli Confidential are hopelessly romantic about anyway. The raw materials don’t get much better in the fashion stakes either. Cider making varieties, taste sharp and sometimes very dry (Dabinett has a dessert apple flavour at first with a very dry note on the back of the palate) and they look anything but appealing. They are small, perfectly formed – but small, and the cider maker doesn’t care much for how they look – scabby, with chunks missing is just fine. Piled up in the cider yard they look for all the world like a Waitrose sound stage back lot of the extras that didn’t quite get the Director’s nod. We watched them getting their first wash of the process from the elevated water contents of a large mechanical digger bucket from about ten feet high. It made them glisten but they still looked about as far away from a dessert apple as you can get.
But the skilled cider maker, as Ben Culpin has already proved himself (against stiff national competition) to be, can see the whole Act and Play and not just Scene 1. Ben is interested in the backstory and the bitter-sweet sub-plots, essential if you are intending to make a block-buster with appeal and longevity rather than a B movie. It’s the complex taste and personality, not the look, that is in demand. It’s a bit like, instead of casting Hale Berry in the female lead you choose ______________, sorry we bottled offending anyone – so insert your own suggestions in the space provided!
Tell you what Ben, don’t go for the easy option of using any apples you can get and then blending. Why not try and make stunning single variety ciders and a perry in a traditional method and then trying wowing the public and cider glitterati and winning national awards for your work? Oh, you did that already! Anyway, there is the crux of it. It’s all about the taste. In Ben’s and Steph Culpins’ case, the quality of the taste of the craft product they are happy to call Apple County Cider.
It is sometimes frustrating (identifying cider apples can be a very nuanced hobby!) but always very rewarding to see the varieties in the growers orchard. The difficulty of identification can be easily demonstrated by “Googling” images for any apple variety and trying to work which, of the half dozen different results, is the right one! WyeDean Deli Confidential always brings you the news and back story to makers, growers and suppliers. Although we can’t say too much, we think that there may be news in the not too distant future of a possible new variety from the Apple County Cider yard……Exclusive alert!! You didn’t hear it from us but we think that a single variety Yarlington Mill cider will soon be added to the Apple County stable. If you do, and we recommend you do, visit their cider shop you’ll find all the same great taste in farmyard chic but always remember it’s really about the taste. Stock up for the holidays.
As well as being editor, chief photographer and head washer-upper at WyeDean Deli Confidential I also, amongst other things, shoot travel pictures for an agency with offices around the world. Of course a significant part of capturing the spirit of any place is the local quality food and drink and the people that go with that. Markets particularly, so long neglected in England, seem to attract me like a moth to a bedroom light. So, having spent most of September in three regions (equivalent of UK counties) of Italy, I am feeling particularly spoilt! I know, it’s tough isn’t it – please don’t, sympathy isn’t good for my self-esteem…..
Call it the vino rosso, the sunshine or the total immersion in the language of love, but a very funny feeling struck me during that trip on more than one occasion – How similar to the countryside of Tuscany, Italy is the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley. OK, I know that the similarities do have some limitations but before you write me off as a hopeless romantic or a raging drunkard, let me try and convince you.
The hills around Bagni di Lucca and Seravezza are heavily wooded with broad leaved trees, most of which, Beech, Oak, Ash, Chestnut, would be easily recognisable to any DeanWye inhabitant, Although steeper that anything here, the mountains are home to and have a long history in, quarrying – marble in their case. The people are either typically conservative country people of those who have moved into the area because they too want to become “typical country people”. There is a real sense of community and local pride in the small towns and tiny villages. The countryside around the villages is teeming with natures larder. Then there’s the weather….sorry, it’s all too easy to get carried away with these comparisons. Apart from the last example, the parallel to the DeanWye is, in my estimation, very difficult to deny.
But, somehow they are very different. Firstly, September is the busiest time of year in the Italian wild mushroom season. Wild mushrooms are very important to Italians. No not the farmed ones; the wild ones. Chefs and restaurant owners all have their own mushroom men – fungaioli. Men who venture into the woods, on dark damp dusks and dawns to secret spots and locations whispered to them by their fathers father. They tend to be students of the natural world and lifelong woodsmen. Mushroom season is a prelude to Chestnut season which gets equal billing with the Italian countryside residents and, well, I think you get the picture. Much, much more on fungi later. Here, I’m not to sure many normal people even think about seasonal wild foods with any passion at all – why is that?
This natural food of the forest, like all other wild foods, is noble food in the Italian psyche. It’s tied up in the peasant and wartime partisan lifestyle ethos of eking a living from the land in the absence of anything else. But that ethos isn’t something that is obvious or even expressed. It is the taste and the earthy, nutty smell of the product which confers the nobility. On one lazy Sunday lunch sitting outside in the shade, I ordered Tagliatelle al Tartufo (black truffles) and I could smell my lunch as soon as it passed the kitchen door – heaven! It’s the sense of occasion that stems from the seasonality, passing of the seasons and the transition of one part of the year to another. It’s in the occasion that everyone can be involved in and enjoy. It’s in the added luxuriousness it brings to the already very simple, tasty and fabulous Italian food. And of course, this being Italy – it’s time for a festival on the subject where locals and visitors alike have the day off, drink a little wine and and eat very well indeed!
Forget the UK as a whole. Ask yourself why don’t we in the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley prize this wild local crop as highly? Why don’t we value the fabulous venison, boar and game? Why don’t we all go mad for the hedgerow berry bonanza? And why don’t we go wild foraging for wild salads and herbs? All of it is right there! It’s what makes our area so special and yet we lack the passion for it. Perhaps it’s because we have lost connection with the land itself, the growing of and the variety of food, unaffected by chemicals, drugs and fertilizers. Then ask yourself this; if we have in fact lost that wondrous adventure of first finding our food, or some part of a meal, before we eat it in favour of what we like to call convenience – is that convenient trade-off to our quality of life really worth it?
We stayed in Bagni di Lucca as a guest of Tuscan Rooms a remarkably beautiful four storey town house and former soda syphon factory in a previous life. The fully restored accommodation, complete with a real lift (extremely rare in Italian villages), vertiginous garden terrace and original four flights of marble staircase is ideally situated to explore the region. Right beside the river and in the heart of the lower town and distance walking to a great bar, a pasticceria and several restaurants, guests can rent a room, a floor or the whole shebang. Paul and Colette, the owners, will even pick you up from the airport by arrangement. If you would like to see some of the images from that trip visit my Travel gallery on Facebook
If you regularly slip on obvious wet patches in the office lobby, don’t secure your ladders properly, don’t wear your seat belt or are constantly scolding your hands under the tap marked hot – this warning health is for YOU!
Some mushrooms are edible, delicious and good for you. Some are not. Some, no one knows if they are edible or not. Some need specific cooking preparation before eating and some can only be eaten in small quantities or the toxins build up in your body. IF, you have no idea which type of mushroom you have picked – don’t eat it. IF the jury is still out on which type of mushroom you have picked – don’t eat it. IF, you nevertheless go ahead and eat it anyway – please leave some of the raw ingredient in a convenient and obvious place for the para-medics to find or, as one eccentric mycologist did, write the scientific name in full on your hand in biro in the last remaining seconds before becoming comatose.
Fungaioli, skilled Italian mushroom hunters, gather mushrooms because they happen to know all about the habitat, natural and social history of a species from a collective experience of people like themselves. They tend not to be transient fungi hunters in it for the money between recorded episodes of “The Only Way is Essex”.
Fungaioli are also very savvy Fungus Sales Executives. They often deliver their treasure trove of truffley goodness in an attractive open topped wooden fruit box when the restaurant is open and full of customers just to ramp up the anticipation of the food obsessed Italians. Restaurant owners love this as it’s more likely that customers will return to THEIR restaurant for their autumnal fungus fix having seen the overflowing mushroom box come through the front door! Porcino (piglets in Italian) are the favourites amongst Italian chefs and restaurant customers alike. We know them by the common name of Cep but in fact, they are from a group more properly referred to as Boletus. With around 36 different Boletus in the British fungus list alone, most of which are edible, you start to see the sheer variety available and we haven’t even started on the Ink caps or the newly emerging Parasols!
In the current Tesco magazine a passionate and no doubt very nice Managing Director of somewhere or other, reports delivering 5 tons of three varieties (one of them native to Asia) to Tesco of mushrooms a week – three varieties! In the Dean Wye we have another giant flavour of the wild mushroom world – Chanterelle – a soft egg yellow funnel shaped mushroom with an exquisite taste. In spring Morels with their honeycomb heads, grow under our apple tree! Another spring fruiting mushroom is Chicken of the Woods, delicious when young and fresh. The Germans and the Dutch love them! Parasols, mentioned earlier, are delicious and gloriously paper-white when cut, if picked very early. The text books will tell you that, although not poisonous, they can be very bitter once opened.
With a gay spirit of adventure I decided to test that assertion of bitterness and sliced one of the open caps (they are so large – small kids use them as parasols hence the name) before frying them in a little butter, I added parsley and a little black pepper just before serving and tried them. They looked fabulous but the text books are accurate and I pulled a muscle in my contorting face trying to get them out of my mouth as soon as possible.
Even if you can identify a specimen, the common names don’t always instil confidence. Take for example, Trombette dei Morti (Trumpets of the dead). This mushroom apes the shape of a black trumpet but its Halloweenesque name actually arose because it grows around the 2nd November, All Souls’ Day. It’s other common name of Truffles of the Poor hints at its widespread use once dried and powdered as a food additive because of its intense aroma.
If you are interested in learning more about mushrooms we can recommend the book Mushrooms by Roger Phillips. It has very helpful with, sometimes life-sized, images of each mushroom together with a useful information panel and notes on edibility.
Hari and Colin Fell at the Tudor Farmhouse have been a little bit busy lately. As well as investing heavily as proprietors in all aspects of their fine hotel and restaurant dream to get it to their own high standards, they also work very hard running the very beautiful and very successful 20 bedroom Clearwell hotel (which – by the way – is ideally situated to explore the best of the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley). Amazing then that they have the energy for regular physical exercise lifting all that silverware at recent awards – Taste of the West Champions “Best South West Restaurant 2015” and Hotel of the Year 2015 from Sawday’s. Impressive!
We caught up with Hari over a very nice midweek lunch. Hari is a very efficient and hard-working co-owner and keeps the place ticking like a clock, but she is also very friendly, charming and attentive and her staff looked after our table of two very well. Lunch – was a real winner and very tasty too.
I saw the smoked Haddock, leek and oyster soup in the list of three starters and to be honest I had already decided on the first course before I read the other two. A very similar thing happened across the table and so – “that’ll be two soups please”. For the second course we ordered one Stone bass, also known as Wreckfish in the UK, with attendant vegetables and one roasted cauliflower steak with pickled shallots and mash.
Smoked Haddock, in my opinion, always has the potential to make for a fabulous soup, if you can get the accompanying balancing ingredients spot on. Think of Cullen Skink a Scottish speciality of smoked Haddock, cream and potatoes a tour de force when done properly (Yorkshireman Brian Turner makes the finest I’ve ever tasted) but if it’s just off perfect, well, you have got trouble.
Head chef Rob Cox has the Tudor Farmhouse haddock, leek and oyster just right. A few nice pieces of haddock to give that great smoky flavour and aroma, with a few diced potatoes and some very fine julienne of fried leek with a golden yellow egg yolk in the bottom of the plate. The soup is well seasoned and served from a small jug at the table. As it pours the creamy light green soup fills the bowl to create an island paradise of the rest of the ingredients. Break the yolk and mix a little in each spoonful to complete the rich creamy and luxurious taste of the whole dish. Very nice indeed.
Stone bass looks like the big brother of the more familiar sea bass. The local name of Wreckfish comes from it’s chosen habitat in deep water shipwreck sites and it’s most often caught by trawlermen in UK waters as it’s generally too deep for sea anglers. The meat is white and firm and because the species is a little larger, makes for a substantial fillet with a meatier texture than its more familiar relative. Tudor Farmhouse serve it perched on lovely dark green “black” cabbage which makes a wonderful contrast with cumin scented carrots and carrot and swede puree. Lovely crispy skin side up, it looked fab on the plate. How did it taste – well nothing went back!
Vegetarian food can so often be side lined in a carnivore’s mind-set and overlooked on a menu. This in my estimation is a great mistake. Although a lifelong carnivore, I love main course vegetable dishes (that happen to be suitable for vegetarian customers in my own mind-set) when they are done well with the same attention to detail you expect from the rest of the menu. Cuisines from around the world don’t seem to have such a problem with this. Think of the great Chinese and Asian vegetable dishes and things like the Vegetable Thali, a medley of several different vegetable dishes, served in good Indian restaurants.
The butter roasted cauliflower steak was great! A thick slice of cauliflower cut from the heart of the head and down through the main stalk to hold it all together before being oven roasted with butter was just perfect. The stem was tender with just the right amount of bite and the florets were soft and delicious. The roasted butter gave a delicate nutty flavour and there was a touch of piquancy from the topping of pickled shallot. A spoonful of very creamy mash and I think, Rob Cox, you can call that a great success. I would certainly order that again!
Chosen dessert was a very attractive vanilla mouse with apple, rosemary and sweet rosemary oil with nasturtium leaves and a little granola for crunchy texture – again very, very tasty and it looked fab on the plate.
So well done Tudor Farmhouse our superb lunch was served in very homely surroundings in the smartly furnished warm honey stone and original timber front dining room you would expect from a good class country hotel. The cooking was inventive and skilful with great flavours in exactly the right balance. The two course lunch was £22 and my lunch partner couldn’t resist the dessert for just £3 extra!
Honours well and truly deserved Hari & Colin.
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