Sunday, 17 April 2016

Gastrography: Michelin star chef, Gavin Neweth, recalls his signature dish

My signature dish - the one that I literally use in place of a handwritten signature to identify myself on legal documentation, when writing bank cheques, or in the line at passport control - can be traced back to my early childhood in Lincoln.

It is a hand-baked artisan cauliflower, centred on a bed of wilted bluebell stems (curated by the English Woodland Trust), speckled with a bluebell purée, tented with a triumvirate of heritage ant-sugar tweals, and cloaked in a nostalgic radish haze.

The dish is a reinterpretation of a simple meal that I was regularly served as a young boy, elevated to the exacting standards of fine dining. To the uninitiated this means that the portion size has been significantly reduced, everything is deftly piled on top of each other, and there are weird dabs of sauce dotted all over the place. Also, you will be expected to drink expensive wine with it.

I grew up in a poor family. One evening, when I was four years old, my father announced that he was going to the pub. He never returned home, although I would sometimes catch glimpses of him, boisterous and red-cheeked, through the grimy candlelit windows of The Merry Bargeman.

My mother was faced with the uphill challenge of feeding seven children on a limited budget, in a cottage whose ground floor sloped steeply from the kitchen stove to the small dining nook. It is a testimony to her thrift, her culinary skills and her experience as a hill walker that we never went hungry.

The dish that she cooked most often is called 'Cauliflower served on a platter'. It is a traditional Lincolnshire recipe with as many variants as there are residents of the county. Everyone seems to have their own particular take on it, even newborns and people who have moved to this area from other parts of the world.

My mother would visit a local greengrocers where she would purchase the cheapest cuts of cauliflower, which, at the time, were the haunches. On her way home she would pass through an area of woodland where she would pick bluebells. She would blanch the stems in the boiling torrent of water that gushed from the outflow of a nearby enamel factory.

Occasionally she would attempt to manufacture a sauce from the bluebell flower heads. When this went wrong, as it invariably did, she would fly into a terrible rage and hurl the cast-iron pan across the room, splattering the walls in lavender-toned gloop.

In my Mayfair restaurant, Croissant? Croissant!, staff recreate this effect by pipetting dots of my bluebell purée onto the walls. To experience the dish in its entirety, diners must vacate their places at the table, forgo the cutlery, that has long acted as a barrier between restaurant patrons and their choice of food, and apply their tongues directly to the décor.

The addition of tweals to the dish was my mother's idea. Scattered around my childhood home were plentiful ant nests. Each of these would yield long, spiralling filaments of ant-sugar, which had been crudely spun by the workers of the colonies over successive generations. My mother would arrange these tweals in a pagan wigwam formation over the baked cauliflower. This sweetened garnish would sometimes end up impaled in the roofs of our mouths. Ironically, many years later, my older brother, William, lost his left eye after it was skewered on a tweal, while he was backpacking in Thailand.

In my re imagining of the dish I used heritage sugar tweals. The London Evening Standard recently claimed that these are the same antique tweals that were stolen last year from the London Museum of Tweals, in Rotherhithe. In my defence I would like to point out that, if the paper had any evidence of my involvement, either in the theft, or in the trafficking of stolen goods, I would be rotting in jail by now.

The most important component of the dish is the radish haze:

As a child my mother was given some radishes by the Duchess of Kent, who had been served them as part of a salad in a pub lunch. My mother never forgot the peppery flavour of watery pulp and wanted to pass this experience on to her children.

After setting the cauliflower down on the table she would exhale the memory of the radishes, that burned deep within her soul, as a phantom seasoning, infusing the dish with the pungent recollection of the small root vegetables.

To recreate this effect in the restaurant, I employ a woman, who bears a striking resemblance to my late mother, to dress in some of her old clothes, drink gin, and eat radishes all day. Our patrons love the theatre that arises from an inebriated women blowing invisible seasoning over a steaming cauliflower. Being subjected to drunken rant about what a louse my father was, and, every so often, being walloped around the back of the head for spurious reasons are all part of the experience!

After my father left, my mother smashed our china crockery. We could not afford to replace it. Fortunately she found a job sweeping the local orchard. The kindly farmer allowed her to bring home the fallen branches, which were re-purposed as plates. It's why today everything in Croissant? Croissant! (even the soup!) is served on branches that I foraged from Kensington Gardens.

Taken together, the dishes on my menu at Croissant? Croissant! tell the story of my life. The time my bike was stolen by older boys and thrown into a canal, is represented by a miniature pasta bicycle, served with a clear leek broth made from my own tears. Diners who wish to experience the mixed emotions I felt the last time I moved house are presented with a small cake, which is taken from them when it is half-eaten and replaced by a much larger, nicer cake.

When people express a fascination for my life journey and ask me when I will be writing my autobiography I direct them to my restaurant. When I am on the premises I will happily hand-sign, in biro, the individual ingredients of any dish, for an additional charge. 

(Gavin Neweth will stand trail for tweal theft in May, 2016.)

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