Thursday, 13 May 2021

Come and celebrate our local produce

THE food police would chuck me out of the Chefs’ Magic Circle for serving strawberries in December, or

THE food police would chuck me out of the Chefs’ Magic Circle for serving strawberries in December, or Brussels in June. I’d happily swap Christmas pudding for a bowl of sun-ripened strawberries, gritty sugar and thick yellow Jersey cream.

A peculiar contradiction that we’re fussy about eating certain imported unseasonal stuff but enthusiastically shop for others. Grapes in June and tangerines in December are fine.

The environmental police get righteous about food miles and carbon footprint. Export revenue from Scottish whisky and salmon is greater than Scotland’s oil revenue — those food miles and carbon footprint are okay, but you’ll be in a pickle if they catch you eating South African courgettes in January.

As soon as the clocks go forward and daffodils appear, we want to tuck into roast lamb on Easter Sunday. New Zealand lamb, to be precise. Most British lamb is born at Easter — fat, happy, grass grazed and ready for the butchers in September.

Britain’s Fiftiess postwar meat rationing ended with the arrival of the New Zealand lamb. An “eat lamb at Easter” marketing campaign encouraged eating it out of season. And it stuck. Funny how March New Zealand lamb air miles are okay, but March asparagus from Chile is not.

Cooks, gastronauts and glossy food magazine editors get hot and bothered about British, regional and seasonal. Chefs often cut their noses off to spite their face with the regional seasonal rule, by not including magical out of season or imported elements.

Grilled lemon sole and curly kale: lovely. Add a few capers, squeeze of lemon and nut brown butter. Delicious.

But there’s a limit to how sexy they can make February’s edition of the BBC Good Food Magazine with just beetroot and early forced rhubarb.

Oxfordshire isn’t blessed with a particularly good cocoa bean harvest and I’m not giving up chocolate.

Buy British, regional and seasonal when it’s good and if your recipe requires, or belly hankers for, a few unseasonal foreign imports ... so what?

Come July 1, the planets are perfectly aligned, bio-dynamics are at bursting point, the dominos are lined up and Mother Nature is presenting the very best of our local produce at the Crooked Billet, Stoke Row.

A five-course tasting menu of Henley and the district’s most beautiful offerings. Emma and Jed Jackson’s Ipsden Blue Tin Farm Dexter beef and saddleback pork. Crayfish and brown trout. Hare and venison. Allotment goodies and greenhouse magic. Spelt flour from Stonor, honey from my hives, Oxfordshire sugar beef. (Salt from Wales!)

Wines from Ruscombe, Luxters, Hambleden and Fawley. Classic Champagne grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier go into the award-winning local sparkling wine made by Cherry Thompson and Barbara Laithwaite at Wyfold Vineyard — next door to the Crooked Billet. On July 1 even the mineral water is local.

As Britain’s most prolific agricultural county, Oxfordshire has excellent dairy for churning butter and ice cream. Nettlebed Creamery is my favourite, where Rose Grimmond uses extra creamy, organic unpasteurised milk from the healthy cross-bred herd of Friesian/Swedish Red/Montbeliard that grazes the Nettlebed Estate to produce the most buttery unctuous oozy heavenly cheese on the planet. Sex on a cheeseboard.

A celebration of local produce, Crooked Billet, Stoke Row, Wednesday, July 1. A five-course evening taster menu starring Henley’s most beautiful ingredients.

I’ve cajoled the Nettlebed cheesemakers into doing an after-dinner talk about the benefits of their unpasteurised milk and gorgeous cheese.

The secret to great cooking is great shopping. Chefs can over-fuss with ingredients and get too clever. On July 1 the ingredients will sing for themselves.

For table reservations and details, call (01491) 681048. Mention this article when booking and I’ll greet you with a complimentary saucer of Cherry and Barbara’s Wyfold “Champagne”.

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