Review: La Becasse, Ludlow

This is the first time I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant on the very day its Michelin star was taken away. I am pleased to report that everyone front of house behaved impeccably and gave no sign of the disappointment they must all have been feeling, and none of the dishes were over-seasoned with the chef’s salty tears of frustration. Indeed, it was a great meal.

I’m gonna have to name-drop horribly here. I’ve dined at lots of Michelin starred places, and a bunch of them that La Becasse beats hands-down for service, ambience and cooking. Champignon Sauvage, Hand and Flowers and The Stagg at Titley to name three. No disrespect to these places, we enjoyed our dinner at them all, but they aren’t as good as La Becasse. Naturally enough we studied our dining experience pretty closely this evening (having been there before, there was no novelty factor and so this was easier to do) and I honestly can’t find fault with the service or the food. I guess I’d better get on and review our meal.

La Becasse has a jolly clubby dining room. Few restaurants have the good fortune to be situated in a large medieval townhouse with centuries-old oak panelling on the walls, and they bring this romantic old country sensibility up-to-date with a splendid contemporary red carpet and elegant tableware. Lighting is kept low and unobtrusive. You feel like a contented country squire.

The appetiser was a warming spiced lentil soup poured over tiny cubes of Ticklemore goats cheese and a bead of harissa. It was a good prelude, neatly expressing all of chef Will Holland’s themes that would be expanded on through the meal; local produce, inventive combinations and delicious results.

The first starter (yes, we had the six-course gourmet menu) was a carpaccio of pigeon paired nicely with slippery little cubes of mango and a neat stick of chilled foie gras. Lovely though it was, the second starter knocked it easily into touch. Dramatically presented on a square glass plate with a ruby red border, chunky cubes of Ragstone cheese coated in a delicately truffled crumb were herded together with wafers of biteable beetroot, supple raspberries and tiny cubes of balsamic jelly. It looked ravishing and ate even better.

The fish course was a hearty combination of halibut, shredded ox tail and sauerkraut. Each of these elements tried to sing loudest, but the result was a harmonious choir of flavours. I’m saving my breath for the main course. Venison, parsnip, chocolate, lime, chestnuts and parmesan sounds like a challenging edition of Ready, Steady, Cook. In fact it made for a sublime autumnal dish, centred on a meltingly good piece of venison. The chestnuts were glazed with honey and lime, the parsnips roasted with a bit of a parmesan crust, there was a friendly blob of chocolate sauce and our table was also given a little jar of tangy whinberry (or bilberry, blaeberry, hurtberry) relish to share. This is exactly the right way to celebrate local, seasonal produce.

Cheese was an additional course and seeing that we weren’t entirely sure how much room we had La Becasse showed themselves to be generous, giving us one cheese course to share between the four of us. There was enough of the five cheeses for each of us to enjoy, plenty of bread and biscuits, some lovely relishes and so it was rather startling to have it appear on the bill as a mere tenner. Universal praise went to the refreshing pre-dessert of lime and ginger jelly with maple parfait and a punchy lift of hickory-smoke foam. Dessert was a deconstructed chocolate and cherry torte with a salt caramel jelly, very moreish but not presented to its best potential.

All in all, a faultless evening and thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe the Michelin people were fussing about the length of the wine list? It certainly isn’t an epic tome, but it’s long on quality and the sommelier led us to a New Zealand pinot noir with dark cherries and impeccable smoothness to go with the venison. No matter what the fat tyre man says, it is still worth taking a weekend break in Ludlow for a very special meal.

Chilli con carne (sin carne)

This is one of my absolute staples, a really good chilli that is full of deep flavour. It’s also one of those great fridge-is-empty meals because there’s nothing in the ingredients list that shouldn’t always be hanging around the kitchen somewhere.

Now, this recipe does use vegemince. That’s because I think the taste and texture work great, and I don’t have to bother going out and buying beef mince. If your chilli must be con carne, just brown the same amount of beef mince in a pan at the outset and then add it back into the chilli when I add in the vegemince. Or take my advice and keep vegemince in the freezer!

Serves 4, and I’d grade this “pretty hot”
1 stick celery, chopped small
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp worcester sauce
1 habanero chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tin kidney beans, drained
1 bottle Mexican lager (optional)
½ bag vegemince
½ pint beef stock (or veg stock if you want a vegetarian chilli)

  1. Wow, that’s a long ingredient list. It’s really simple, honest…
  2. Dry-fry the coriander and cumin seeds together in a big saucepan, then grind in a pestle
  3. Put a good glug of olive oil in the pan and start frying the celery and onion
  4. Once they’re going golden, add half the ground spices, the thyme, the garlic and the cayenne
  5. Just fry for 30 seconds to get the flavours going then pour in the chopped tomatoes
  6. Now add the chilli, the tomato puree, the worcester sauce, cinnamon, the stock, and the drained kidney beans. If you’re using the beer, add half the bottle now and a bit less stock
  7. Leave the whole thing simmering for an hour
  8. Add the vegemince, stir, check the seasoning and then leave it to simmer for another hour

See? That wasn’t so hard. If you want the chilli to taste really good, cook it the day before and then reheat it on the day you want to eat. You can also use any kind of chillies, dried, fresh or pickled. And it goes without saying that you’ll need to experiment to find your preferred level of heat. Serve on top of plain boiled white rice, with a dollop of guacamole and a dollop of soured cream. I often melt some cheddar on top of mine too. If you can find pickled jalapenos, a few slices sprinkled on top is also great.

I’d better get the ultimate guacamole recipe up soon!

Mushroom hunting

I always have a little canvas bag, or just a paper bag, in the rucksack when we go for a long walk in the country. In my pocket, if it’s a short walk. Because you never know when you might find… mushrooms!

I love finding stuff in the countryside and then eating it. Ransoms in spring, bilberries in summer, mushrooms in autumn. It’s not a serious interest, I wouldn’t know wild sorrel if it bit me and I certainly draw the line at roadkill! Mushrooms are my favourite, as there are so many different varieties and identifying the edible ones makes the whole thing more of a game. If I’m ruthlessly honest, shop-bought mushrooms have a better taste and texture than many of the ones I find wild (although there are definite exceptions). It’s still fun to cook and eat something you’ve collected.

Today we were lucky, we went walking up on Clee Hill where there aren’t even any woodlands and basically stumbled over loads of field mushrooms and puffballs.

These are good to eat. I had lamb chops back home, so we ended up with oven-roasted lamb chops, pan-fried mushrooms, fluffy mashed potatoes and a few beans. The field mushrooms were just like shop ones, the puffballs had tough skin but a nice marshmallowy flesh inside. I also decided to experiment with a black pepper sauce similar to the one we enjoyed so memorably with crab in Singapore. PHEW. Turns out I slightly overdid the chilli and along with the massive fragrance of toasted pepper I almost blew a gasket. Superb. But I might try it again and get something that sane people can eat before I put a recipe up!

I’ve gone out mushroom hunting at least a couple of times every year for the past six or so years, and haven’t poisoned myself yet. I didn’t take any lessons, I just bought a good book on mushroom identification and behaved sensibly. So don’t be scared, go and find some mushrooms. Here are my tips:

  • If you can’t positively identify it, leave it
  • If it seems a bit like an edible one from the book, but some features are a bit different, leave it
  • If you’re pretty certain it’s an edible one from the book, but there’s another one in the book it could also be, leave it
  • If it’s an old and yucky looking specimen, leave it
  • If it is really young and not surrounded by older specimens that can be properly identified, leave it

In summary: just make sure you’re really certain of your identification. If you hear yourself say the words “it’s probably…” then don’t eat it!

Even with all this caution, I think you’ll still find a bunch of mushrooms you can identify properly and take home to nom. Of course, this assumes you can find mushrooms at all. As I said, I’ve been looking for a while and I’ve still never found the bountiful supplies of mushrooms that the real enthusiasts and experts boast about. Some expeditions I come back with enough for a meal, other times scarcely enough for a garnish. I probably haven’t found the right places, or being a lazy soul I’m going out too late in the day when some other bugger has already been along and got the best ones. Who knows! It’s still fun, and it’s a lovely surprise to find some really good mushrooms when you’re just out for a walk.

If you want a beautiful book which includes a good identification guide, I love Antonio Carluccio’s Complete Mushroom Book. It’s a bit big to take out on a stroll though, maybe get something pocket-sized too.

Scones, cream, jam

Or as we like to call it, The Cream Tea. It’s been one of my favourite things about any day out ever since I was knee-high to a garden gnome. We were on holiday in Cornwall and took a boat trip up the Fal estuary which stopped at a place called Smugglers Cottage for the ubiquitous cream tea. I’ve no idea now whether it was actually a good one, but it started a life-long affair.

Enough with the frivolity. This is a serious matter. There are an awful lot of crap cream teas out there, and I vaguely imagine that thousands of foreign tourists return home from a holiday to Britain wondering what all the fuss is about, having had a dry scone with a niggardly portion of jam and vowed never to touch the stuff again.

There are three absolutely key elements to a good cream tea. I ‘splain…

  1. The scone must be fresh and ideally warm. Yesterday’s scone might be bearable if warmed through first, but the day-before-yesterday’s scone is bird food
  2. The jam must be sufficient to put a good dollop on each side of each scone provided
  3. The cream must be sufficient to put a good dollop on each side of each scone, and must not come out of a squirty bottle
  4. The tea must be brewed in a pot

Whenever I stop for a cream tea and get given a measly thimble of jam and a shrew-sized scoop of cream I want to scream. It’s jam, not bloody marmite! This is supposed to be a lusciously naughty snack and the crowning glory of a Nice Day Out, you penny-pinching, miserly, old harridan! Instead I feel like Oliver Twist when I have to go up to the counter with my thimble and beg “please Miss, can I have some more?” They don’t look horrified though, they just calmly charge 50p for another thimbleful.

Is it so hard to follow three simple rules? Or four. Haha, can’t count. That’s all you need for a pleasant cream tea experience. Now, for the perfect cream tea you should be making buttermilk scones. And it should definitely be strawberry jam, fiddling around with other flavours is just not necessary. The cream should be clotted cream, of course. But to be honest the world won’t end if it is freshly whipped double cream. Your scones can have dried fruit in, I care not. Loose leaf tea is better, but a couple of bags in a pot makes a fine cuppa.

Yesterday I baked scones for the first time ever. I had to think long and hard about this. Will I still think of a cream tea as the perfect end to a Nice Day Out if I can make them myself whenever I want? They are stupidly easy, after all. I think it’ll be okay though.

Simple buttermilk scones
225g self-raising flour
50g lightly salted butter
25g golden caster sugar
150ml buttermilk

  1. Pre-heat an oven to 200C. Sieve the flour into a mixing bowl then rub in the butter along with a good pinch of salt. You want a crumbly mixture. Then you can mix in the sugar
  2. Add most of the buttermilk and mix with a palette knife, do it gently as you don’t want a tough dough. You’re looking for a ball of slightly sticky dough, if it’s too dry you can add a drop more buttermilk until it works
  3. Plop the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead just a few times, then pat it gently until it’s about 2.5cm thick. No need for a rolling pin, really
  4. Use a 6-7cm round fluted cutter to cut out scones, then gather the bits together and pat out again to cut a couple more scones – you should get about 8 or so
  5. Place on a greased baking sheet, sift some flour over, and bake for 10 minutes or until they’re going golden brown and have stopped rising

I don’t have to tell you how to spread jam and clotted cream on, right? Study the photo! Oh, and eat them all within 24 hours, they don’t keep well even in a sealed container.

Quick courgette pasta

Vanessa was feeling uninspired about courgettes last weekend, so I’ve decided to try and help. Remains to be seen whether I can.

So, courgettes. I think courgettes are a great part of the summer and a lovely calming presence in a dish. Although when I think about it further, there’s really only two ways I use courgettes in my day-to-day cooking. This article is the sum total of my knowledge of courgettes, at least until I do some more experimenting.

Approach 1 is to char-grill them in a pan. For this an aluminium pan works just as well as a really heavy metal one; the important thing is the ridges to get the lovely black stripes on your courgettes.

  1. If you have a mandolin or enjoy showing off your knife skillz, the very best way to cut the courgettes is into thin ribbons the whole length of the fruit, no thicker than a coin. If this is too much hassle, just cut them into slices about 5mm thick but at an angle so your slices are long ovals. Either way, the skin should be left on.
  2. Next lay all your slices out and sprinkle them with salt. Over 20 minutes this will draw a lot of the moisture out and you can toss them in a colander to drain it off. I usually do some patting with kitchen roll too, and I’m often in a hurry and only give them 10 minutes.
  3. Now get the pan hot, rub oil over all the courgette slices, wash your hands and then put them in the pan to char. The courgettes, not your hands! They’ll need turning half way, and they don’t take long if the pan is hot enough – you’re aiming for some nice dark brown stripes on each side.
  4. Once all your courgettes are done and in a bowl you can pour on a bit of fresh olive oil, squirt on some lemon juice, grind on some black pepper and throw in chopped fresh mint or parsley or basil or thyme. They shouldn’t need salt as they get enough from the de-watering process.

And these courgettes are magic served with almost anything from lamb chops to skate wing. With their oily coating they’ll keep a day or two in the fridge as well.

My second courgette thing is a really simple pasta. Really simple. This is supper for two.

Grate a couple of medium courgettes with your cheese grater, skin still on. Grab them all up in your hands and squeeeeeeeze over the sink, squeezing out as much water as you can. In a pan warm up some olive oil and add finely chopped garlic and chilli (optional). As soon as it is sizzling, throw in the courgettes and fry them gently. Two or three minutes should be fine. Season with salt and pepper, add some fresh olive oil and a handful of grated parmesan. Stir this mixture into whatever pasta you have chosen to cook and there you have it. Two entirely optional refinements to this are: 1) add a couple of chopped-up rashers of crispy bacon, 2) add a handful of torn-up basil leaves.

Enjoy courgettes!