Much of the food was actually inedible. A burger from the chain Wimpy was just that, with soft bread mixed in the meat, chickens that tasted of the fish meal they ate, orange "juice" like flavored water. Visitors from the States were requested to bring boxes of Captain Crunch cereal.
Clearly, I was no epicure. I thought tea at Brown's Hotel divine -- way before it's chic reno -- we sunk into the shabby floral couches, with plates of cucumber sandwiches (white bread, thin sliced cucumber, butter, no crusts, cut on the diagonal), stirring brown crawly sugar and milk into the fine china cups. For tea at home I favored Bakewell Tarts, individual pie shells filled with jam and gooey almond-flavored fondant. Many of my teeth were also filled in this period, no surprise.
But the UK has had a food revolution. It's one trying to happen here, though they are light years ahead on this one.
It's organics, local food, grown, raised and procured by folks with passion that comes through in every bite. It's a thriving restaurant scene, pubs being refurbished and adding menus taking advantage of seasonal treats -- a welcome change, one cabbie told me, from drinking establishments that might just have the odd Scotch egg (a hard boiled egg wrapped in sausage) to coat your tummy.
The impetus for this State-supported revelation was Mad Cow, the bovine disease that decimated England's food chain in the '90s. Since then, with establishment of the Department of Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and their popular "Buy British" movement, farmers, producers and purveyors have gotten grants and education to strengthen the local food chain.
While it's become stylish, as here, to eat organic, it's even chicer to be involved. D’Aylesford Organic, the brainchild of Lady Carole Bamford, sets the standard for farm-to-fork in the UK, with 7 shops and restaurants throughout the country selling the bounty of their Gloustershire estate. Emma Holman-West, steward of her 4,000-acre family estate near Stratford-upon-Avon, has reinvigorated the local 18th-century coaching inn, The Bell, with groovy decor and sophisticated local food. Charlie Luxton, a former suit with Soho House (he was aboard for the luxury hotel's debut in NY's Meatpacking District) has turned the Beckford Arms, on the Fonthill Estate in Wiltshire, into a destination for those wanting the idyll of the country, the laid back comfort of a pub, but the style of boutique hotel.
The drive to the Beckford Arms, a scant 2 hours from London, is open motorway until a veer left at Stonehenge, just 15 miles away. Entering the magnificent Fonthill Estate through a graceful stone gateway, past a manicured swan lake, feels noble. We arrived in time for a walk before dinner -- the area is crisscrossed with public footpaths that take you off road through fields and over dams, where only sheep tread.
Before dinner, we chose to have a champagne in front of a vast stone fireplace on cushy sofas -- but the inn is riddled with charming niches, from the bay window in the pub to the bar itself, a dining room that opens onto the garden, or the cozy sitting room, set with tables before wavy glass windows that reflect the candle's light. Our son, age 7, instantly felt comfortable rambling his way to the bar for a lemonade, where Colin the barkeep threw in a few magic tricks and friendly locals encouraged his imitation.
Dinner, after all this splendor, was hardly the point. We could have had a burger and chips, then crawled under the thick duvet and watched the inn's DVD of Dr. Doolittle with a cocoa -- but chef Pravin Nayar is having none of that. Recently proclaimed one of the finest gastropub chefs in the UK, his menu is nothing short of mouthwatering, a showcase of local bounty and simple, elegant technique.
I started with pigeon, served with a divine black pudding and roasted hazelnuts. Next, a local Brixham hake, pan-sauteed and served with salt-roasted beetroots from South Petherton and a poached egg, all drizzled in brown butter. Nayar was only too happy to give the recipe -- so easy, he came out and explained it himself instead of sending out a written page as many other chefs do. You may not be able to get Brixham hake (or hake at all for that matter, I substituted wild halibut -- any thick white fish will suffice. )
Do try this at home.
Pan fried Brixham hake with beetroots from South Petherton, brown butter and poached eggcourtesy of Pravin Nayar, The Beckford Arms
Thick fillets of white fish, 1 lb will serve about 4
8 beets, medium sized
4 good fresh eggs
1 teaspoon vinegar
butter, half a packet
fresh horseradish root
First, salt roast the beets. Pack the beets in salt and roast, about 40 minutes for medium size beets. Pierce and peel. Cut in quarters.
Pan fry the fish, skin side down, in rapeseed oil (the fields here are full of rapeseed, (a name we change to grapeseed) and he uses local oil-- do what you can) and butter, until the flesh starts to separate and is no longer opaque.
Boil water in a small pan with steep sides and about a teaspoon of vinegar. (To keep the shape of the egg.) Pull the pan off when it begins to boil and let sit on the edge of the flame. You want the water to be about 90 degrees, for if you poach it too high the egg "goes all sloppy." Add the eggs and poach about 3-4 minutes depending on the size of the egg. (Nayar's tip: "If you can lift it and it wants to stay on the spoon it's ready, but if it wants to fall off the spoon, not ready.")
For the brown butter, heat it over a low flame in a small skillet until it is copper in color, the hue of a nice ale. Strain through a cheesecloth to get the brown bits out, if you like. (You can do this up to a week in advance, if you like, then reheat.)
Plate the fish and surround with beets. Top with egg and drizzle with butter.
For my version:
large bunch parsley
two cloves garlic
one pound wild Alaskan halibut
1/2 cup butter plus two teaspoons
Heat a tablespoon of grapeseed oil in a small skillet and add a pinch of coarse salt after a few minutes. Let salt emulsify. With a scissor, cut parsley in about 1 inch widths over hot pan. With a microplane or grater, grate about a teaspoon of lemon zest over. When crisp, set aside.
Melt a tablespoon butter and a tablespoon of oil in a skillet big enough to hold the fish. When the oil is hot, swirl it around in the skillet, return to heat and add a pinch of salt. When the salt emulsifies, add the fish. Cook until the flesh separates and is no longer opague -- but not too long, or it will go tough.
Cook the butter and the eggs as above.
Plate: Spread a spoonful of parsley and top with fish; layer on the egg and drizzle brown butter.