One of the best things about travelling around Britain is the opportunity to visit high-quality, local, specialist producers and try and buy their products.

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One such producer is Brown & Forrest, a small family run smokery producing a wide range of smoked goods including eel, salmon and duck, to name just a few.

Started 29 years ago at Bowdens Farm, Hambridge, the smokery now has both a shop and on-site restaurant, where you can feast on the smoked goods before buying a selection to take home with you.

The smokery was on my list to visit during my May trip to nearby West Dorset, but having failed to do so, I was delighted when fellow food blogger Helly suggested a lunch meeting there, the day after Meemalee’s Burmese Popup.

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To allow us to work out which smoked products we wanted to order for our mains, Helly arranged in advance for us to start our lunch with sharing plates featuring a variety of Brown and Forrest’s smoked products including salmon, duck, chicken and eel. This was a fantastic idea and I’d recommend getting in touch to organise something similar if you’re planning a trip with a group of friends.

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Mains were served with a nicely dressed side salad and garlicky potatoes. All came in under £10. Everyone ordered what they’d liked the best from the tasting plate; there were lots of happy eaters.

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Not that we had space, but we all ordered desserts. The sticky toffee and date pudding and the syrup sponge pudding were unanimously voted the winners. The queen of puddings and white chocolate desserts were also good. Only the tiramisu disappointed – a stodgy, overly cheesy and heavy lump which both who ordered it left almost untouched.

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After our lunch (which was less than £20 a head including drinks) we loaded up on goodies from the shop. Pete and I bought some smoked black pudding, smoked duck, smoked trout and smoked brie.

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Meemalee bought half the shop!

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Pete and I had some of the smoked black pudding for breakfast the next morning (along with some delicious Denhay bacon and fried eggs) and we both absolutely loved it. Soft black pudding with just the right hint of smoky flavour not to overwhelm pudding or rest of plate. Perfect!

Back home, we enjoyed the rest of our haul, impressed with the smoked brie too – again, a subtle hand meant the smokiness enhanced rather than overpowered the natural taste of the cheese.

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You can buy Brown & Forrest smoked goods through their online mail order service or, if you’re in the vicinity, I strongly recommend a visit in person.

 

It’s amazing how many blog posts I’ve still left to write from our short trip to Dorset at the end of May. I’ve already blogged the foraging course around which the weekend away was arranged, our meal at Hix Oyster & Fish House, another at The Wild Garlic and even shared what we cooked with our foraged bounty.

Still to come are interviews with the lovely owners of Denhay Farm and also with Mat Follas and Terry Ireland (one of the semi-finalists in this year’s Masterchef). Phew! For now, another restaurant review…

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For the third evening meal of our trip we followed local recommendations and headed to Powerstock for a meal in the Three Horseshoes pub.

I’m glad we phoned ahead to reserve a table as it’s pretty small inside and it was a popular place. Much more in demand were the tables outside, but I’m a funny one about eating outdoors unless we’re talking picnics…

I can no longer recall which beer Pete chose, but the fine sunny weather put me in a Pimm’s frame of mind and I ordered my first of the season. Sadly, the barman seemed unfamiliar with this classic – he measured a shot of Pimm’s into a glass and held the glass towards me. “Oh, noo”, I responded, “it needs a lemonade mixer in it, please”. That he managed but when I asked whether they might have any cucumber or strawberries or even a little fresh mint, he looked utterly bemused. I gave up and accepted my somewhat denuded Pimm’s. Sadly, it was also weak and insipid – I’ve since learned that the standard Pimm’s measure is 50 ml, whereas the barman poured only a single spirits measure (which was presumably the standard 25 ml or possibly a slightly larger 35 ml one).

Still, the sun was shining, we were on holiday, the food had been recommended and we were in fine mood regardless. The menu was chalked up above the fireplace – one of those marvellous menus where you struggle to narrow down your choice between all kinds of tempting dishes.

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As we were waiting for our starter, we were served some bread and butter.

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Having had a late lunch (at the end of the foraging course earlier that day) we decided to share a starter of wild boar and quail scotch eggs, pickles (£6). These were good, though they didn’t need the extra sprinkling of sea salt over them, they were strongly salted already. Tasty meat around soft-centred eggs.

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Pete chose the cod in beer batter, triple cooked chips, chunky tartare (£11). A generous portion of crispy battered fish with a simple salad, with the chips hiding beneath the fish. Even more so than the scotch eggs, this dish suffered from over salting mostly in the batter/ fish.

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I opted for the hanger steak St George, roasted bone marrows, chips ((£18). Unfortunately, the inside of the bone marrow was fridge cold. I called someone over, explained the problem, and had the whole plate whisked away whilst I was still in the middle of a sentence asking whether they could bring a side-dish to take the marrow away so I could continue eating the rest. Oh well, at least they left my bowl of chips.

Some considerable time later, by which time Pete was virtually finished with his dish, my plate was returned. The steak was beautifully tender and juicy. The mushrooms and sauce full of flavour, the sauce having clearly been reduced down to concentrate it. Sadly, once again, the chef was far too liberal with the salt – so much so that I actually couldn’t eat the sauce and scraped it off the mouthfuls I ate. The bone marrow had been tarted up with breadcrumbs to the extent that all bone marrow flavour was completely lost and all that remained was greasy, crunchy, herby breadcrumbs. You’d be forgiven for thinking the dish a complete failure based on the description so far. But, with the exception of the bone marrow, which really didn’t work, it was so almost there, so nearly a very successful dish, that it actually made me feel sad. More sad than I would have had it been completely rubbish.

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So, the Three Horseshoes pub then – a food lovers destination? Possibly so, as I’m confident the main weakness could so easily be fixed.

The flavours are right, the textures are good, the ingredients are of good quality.

The cooking, in the most part, is accomplished but let down by the very heavy-handed salting – I have no idea whether that’s the result of a jaded palate (which I doubt given the excellence of flavours) or failing to taste before seasoning. It’s doesn’t help that there seems to be an attachment to throwing an extra large pinch of sea salt over every finished dish as some kind of garnish, though the over-salting is more integrated than that – the scotch egg meat, the batter and fish, the herby bone marrow mix and the steak sauce… all were too salty and significantly so.

But service is warm and friendly, the location and feel of the place is attractive and the menu certainly appealing. I would be happy to visit again and see whether the chef is indeed worth his salt.

 

In Wild Garlic Part 1 I shared my first wild garlic foraging and cooking experience, using the leaves of the ramsons plant (allium ursinum) as stuffing in a roast chicken. That was at the beginning of May. Near the end of the month, Pete and I spent a lovely long weekend down in Dorset, planned around attendance on Mat Follas’ foraging course.

Driving along the pretty, narrow, winding lanes of this corner of rural Dorset I was struck repeatedly by just how prolific wild garlic is there. Vast numbers blanket grassy verges in swathes of green and white. Driving with the window open means an almost constant whiff of pungent garlicky goodness. Given the abundance, it amazes me that we associate garlic with French cooking, and not with food from South West England!

During the weekend, we both enjoyed dishes based on wild garlic at Mat’s restaurant, we picked and munched on fresh, raw flowers and stems during the foraging course and we inhaled it’s scent during each car journey we made.

At Mark Hix’s Lyme Regis Oyster & Fish House, I even had deep fried ramsons flowers in my starter, though I didn’t yet know that ramsons = wild garlic and didn’t make the connection.

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So much of wild garlic was there in the area that I decided to forage a big bag of it just before we returned to London. In the country corner we chose, I carefully collected a carrier bag full of flowers on their long, crunchy stems and when I turned away and back again, I couldn’t even spot a gap in the thick carpet of flower heads.

Having very recently seen a recipe for elderflower tempura (and influenced by the Hix starter too) I was eager to tempura my bounty of fresh flowers.

We haven’t made tempura before so checked a few recipe books and followed a very basic recipe, though next time I’ll aim for a thinner batter and use carbonated water, which we didn’t have in the house.

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With their long firm stems, it was easy to dip each flower head into the batter, transfer it into the hot oil and lift it out to drain afterwards.

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We enjoyed the flowers with some absolutely delicious grilled bacon from Denhay Farms, who we visited during our weekend trip. It was a perfect light meal which summed up our little trip.

 

You might remember from my interview with him last year that Mat Follas, winner of Masterchef 2009 and chef proprietor of The Wild Garlic restaurant, came to cooking only recently. His love for cooking grew out of his love for scuba diving: just a few years ago, he found himself bringing home lots of hand-dived scallops and crab but not really making the best of them. His wife booked him onto a day’s course at Rick Stein’s and it all grew from there. Mat’s passion for delivering great food remains inextricably tied to his determination to use locally sourced produce, a fair amount of it dived and foraged for him by small-scale local providers.

I had been wanting to go on a foraging course for a couple of years and have been looking into the many courses available for a long time. Some were simply too expensive for what they offered, others had only a few dates available per year, none of which suited and another still looked fabulous but I knew that 10+ hours is simply too long a day for me – I just don’t have the stamina!

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So when Mat mentioned his new foraging days a few months ago I booked two places immediately, choosing a late May date just a few days before Pete’s birthday, so we could make a long weekend of it.

For just £65 per person, the course provides two foraging walks (one in the countryside and one along the sea shore), coffee to start the day, elevenses refreshments and a fabulous lunch based around foraged ingredients. Having looked at so many courses I know that’s a great deal, even more so given the quality of the food.

We started the day by meeting for coffee at the restaurant. The other attendees drifted in and we were introduced to Theo Langton who provides the restaurant with foraged ingredients and would be leading the course, alongside Mat.

Theo is an absolutely fascinating character. He’s a passionate advocate of making use of the land – taking what is natural and available, in a sustainable way and living from the land as much as possible. During the summer, he and friends take to the road, and visit the many fairs and festivals around the country with their multimedia arts and craft workshop which is always very popular. Some of the group make healthy juices not just from the normal wheatgrass and carrots but from a wide range of edible, foraged herbs and plants. Theo is also involved in programmes to build community capability and resilience, encouraging communities to learn the skills that allow them to respond to power outages, snow ins, fires and other disasters and accidents quickly – living in rural areas can mean that the regular emergency services can take a little time to arrive.

So how did Theo become involved with Mat? Having grown up in a family with quite a food focus (his mother trained with Paul Bocuse) Theo did trained in cordon blue himself, learning skills that allowed him to travel the world, finding kitchen work as he went. In October, he walked into The Wild Garlic off the street, introduced himself, and asked Mat whether there was work for him in the kitchen during the winter months, when there are no festivals and fairs running – there was. It didn’t take long for the mutual interest in using local and foraged produce to come up, and Theo now provides the restaurant with locally foraged ingredients during the spring and autumn months.

Due to a couple of late arrivals, we got off to a late start, but eventually we were on our way, following Theo and Mat out of the restaurant into local streets.

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Immediately, within just a few years of the restaurant, Theo was already pointing out edible plants and he and Mat would then give us ideas on how we might prepare them. It was a beautiful sunny day and lovely to be outside. The walk was at a relaxed and leisurely pace and, for the most part, us back markers were able to catch up to Theo for his excellent explanations, stories and suggestions about each plant. Often, we would stop to taste them too.

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Before too long we left the regular roads for a narrower path, passing alongside an old church graveyard and then mostly open fields. Here, there were many more plants for us to learn about.

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From the narrow path we turned into a field, tromped across that, past Theo’s place and into a cool, shaded lane lined with more wild garlic than I had thought existed in the whole of England! Just before boarding the coach Mat had hired to take us back to the restaurant (and down to the beach later), we took a quick meander around a stunning glade of wild garlic, tinkling stream meandering through, dappled sun and shade…

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I munched delightedly on raw wild garlic flowers and stems – the stems were too intense for some, but I loved them… so pungent and juicy!

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We had walked for a little over an hour before we bundled aboard the coach and headed back to the restaurant for refreshments. Teas and coffees all round plus a lovely chocolate brownie – we were soon fortified ahead of our next outing.

Back aboard the Wild Garlic bus, Mat absolutely relishing his role as bus driver (apparently it’s been a long-cherished fantasy of his), we drove down to Bridport beach, where a food festival was in full swing.

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For me, this second walk wasn’t as successful, though I think most of the group enjoyed it. Theo strode excitedly off into the distance and I couldn’t keep up. I thought it was just me, with my dodgy hips and knees but there was another couple who were further back then us. The first half of the walk didn’t include any foraging so we fell some way behind, missing out on the excited chattering going on at the front. We clambered up a hill and along the coast, in front of a stunningly-situated caravan park before descending back towards sea-level.

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On a few occasions, as we neared the beach, we caught up to Theo when he’d been stopped for several minutes but we’d missed the explanation of the plant and just had time to grab a taste before he headed off again. I was able to pass on Mat’s message about meeting in the car park at 2 o’clock.

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At this point, I made a big mistake. Somewhat fed up of not being able to keep up and thereby missing all the information and also worried about getting back to the car park on time when we did turn around, I decided to turn around and head back early so I wouldn’t hold everyone else up. I didn’t mention to Theo, as he was still on the move, walking down onto the beach itself, though did, of course, let Pete know as he stayed, quickly catching up to the group.

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I started the walk back, taking my time, snapping some photographs, enjoying the quite spectacular views (not to mention the sweet little bunny rabbits munching grass in the sunshine). When I got back, there was still no sign of the others behind me, so I popped into the festival marquee and had a nice time chatting to some of the stall holders before enjoying the most delicious home-made lemonade ever, chilled and refreshing, for just 50p a cup. I had two!

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Just as I was finishing my lemonade, Pete popped in to find me. The group had been picked up in a car park at the other end of the walk, not very much farther than where I’d left them! Oh Kavey, what a mistake you made, silly girl! Thank you so much to Mat who drove the bus back around to the original car park to collect me.

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Both walks were just over an hour long. The first was really easy, all flat terrain and at a very leisurely pace, with many, many more plants and flowers to learn about.

The second was over steeper terrain, but still perfectly doable for anyone of reasonable fitness, you certainly don’t need to be super fit or anything. And whilst I didn’t enjoy it (which is no one’s fault but my own, as I couldn’t keep up) I am sure that the rest of the group had a lovely time.

So, back to The Wild Garlic for a late lunch.

A number of tables had been pushed together so the whole group could dine together. which was really nice. We sat down and helped ourselves to some lovely bottled apple juices on the table and soft fresh bread rolls.

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The starter was a nettle, wild garlic and vegetable soup served in cute individual pans with bread. The soup summed up the morning’s walk wonderfully.

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The main dish was the star of lunch for me – chicken breast wrapped in wild garlic leaves and poached was so very tender and tasty, served with savoy cabbage, new potatoes with those flavoursome leaves again and a slow-dried tomato bursting with the essence of tomato and yet without the overwhelming nature of shop-bought sun-dried tomatoes which, for me, swamp everything else on the plate.

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And for dessert, a little berry Eton mess!

After tea and coffee it was time to wrap it up, but not before Mat brought out gift bags for all of us. Not only do we now have one of these lovely mugs each but also a little packet of wild garlic seeds! Next year I shall have my own crop of this lovely plant!

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Unsurprisingly, given the incredibly reasonable price, the increasing interest in foraging and Mat’s own popularity amongst food lovers, most course dates for the rest of the year are fully booked, but it may be worth asking to be added to a waiting list in case of cancellations.

You can email Theo directly if you’d like to know more about his multimedia arts and craft workshop.

 

After screaming in delight at the telly when Mat Follas won Masterchef 2009 my friends and I had a fantastic meal at his new restaurant, The Wild Garlic, during our summer holiday in Dorset last year. Mat also kindly gave me an interview, which remains one of the most popular posts on my blog to this day.

So last year, our visit to The Wild Garlic was motivated by meeting the contestant I’d supported and eating at his new restaurant.

This year, our visit was motivated by food! Having booked onto Mat’s foraging course (which I’ll be blogging about soon) we also booked for dinner the night before and it was just as good as we both remembered.

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Pete looking at the specials board; wasabi peas and bread; the wine list

Whilst we were ordering drinks and pondering the menu out came wasabi peas, bread and rape seed oil with balsamic vinegar. The peas were very moreish, I didn’t love the bread, found it a little dry but nice with the oil and vinegar dip.

From lots of very affordable wines on the list, Pete chose a bottle of Le Mas Robert Vic Rouge 2008, Vins de Pays d’Oc and I went for a Fentimans Curiosity Cola.

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menu and specials board

With so many tasty choices on the menu and specials board it was hard to choose. Advice from the front of house staff and Mat, who often pops out to talk to guests (all of them, not just the ones he knows), helped us make our decisions.

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ceviche of brill

Pete ordered the ceviche of brill (£7). Served with one of Mat’s delicate trademark salads of leaves, herbs and flowers the ceviche was beautifully light and refreshing – soft fish in orange & lemon juice with a little chilli, shallots, herbs and zest. The resolution to eat more fish is going well!

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half a lobster thermidor; possibly one of the most unflattering images of me in existence – how many chins do I have?

I decided decadence was the order of the day and gleefully ordered half a lobster thermidor £20). It’s served with salad and new potatoes but yes, I had it as a starter! The lobster meat was fresh, moist, flavoursome and the creamy cheese sauce complemented rather than overwhelmed. I had planned not to eat many of the potatoes, since I wanted to do justice to the rest of the meal, but they were so good that most of them seemed to just disappear. Pete helped! A fabulous appetiser and it succeeded in whetting my appetite for what was to come.

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mackerel tartare amuse bouche

Next we were served a complimentary amuse-bouche of mackerel tartare with capers. A mouthful bursting with rich, oily, fishy freshness and sharp caper acidity, it was a welcome diversion before the main event, especially as we chose to wait a little before our next course.

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venison steak, spelt and red berry sauce

My photograph doesn’t do justice to Pete’s venison steak, spelt and red berry sauce (£16) which looked as gorgeous as it tasted. I decided against this, as I’m not a fan of spelt but, as Pete and Mat discussed, whilst it’s not an ingredient that necessarily shines on it’s own, it somehow works incredibly well with the venison and berries. What was particularly lovely about this dish was the rich, gamey flavour of the venison – this doesn’t come always come through, in my experience, but it did in Mat’s dish.

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rose rose veal with pinenuts, almonds and champ

When I first read rose rose veal with pinenuts, almonds and champ (£18) I thought the double rose was a typo! But Mat quickly explained that the dish consisted of rose veal served with a rose essence sauce. Rose rose! The dish, he said, was inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi‘s rose and almond chicken breast. I’m happy to give Yotam and Mat shared credit – the combination of succulent meat, sweet and oily pine nuts, crunchy almonds and aromatic rose is genius and I loved it! The champ was one of the finest examples I’ve eaten too – smooth, potatoey potato (not a great description but potato-lovers will surely know just what I mean?) mixed with a generous helping of spring onion, I found the allium kick a great contrast to the sweet, soft meat.

Both of our mains were garnished with more of Mat’s herb and flower salad – some of the leaves were an absolute revelation, so much so that I asked our waitress to find out what they were.

My favourite was identified as perilla. I’ve since looked it up and discovered that it’s the purpurascens (purple) variety of Perilla frutescens and is also known as Purple Shiso. To me, it tastes somewhat like holy or Thai basil, which is from the same lamiaceae family of plants. Thanks to Mat’s recommendation, I’ve been able to buy some seeds from Jekka’s Herb Farm, from their stall at the Chelsea Flower Show.

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Now, I know you might be wondering how we could possibly manage dessert after all that but, you know, we’re properly dedicated gourmands! The lemon verbena and carragheen pudding with rhubarb (£7) appealed, except for the rhubarb (I’m not a fan) though I’ve never tried this type of seaweed, let alone in a dessert, so probably an opportunity missed. After some considerable dithering, we ordered two to share.

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lime tart

From the specials board we ordered the lime tart (£7) which came with ice-cream. This was an absolute winner for me. The pastry was soft and thin, providing a whisper of solidity for the filling. The texture of the lime custard was soft and wibbly-wobbly like a jelly with only just enough gelatine. The taste was similarly subtle – a refreshing citrus lift rather than the all-too common, in-your-face, mouth-puckering acidity that makes some lemon and lime puddings a turn-off for me. Mat mentioned a recent review in which the critic felt the lime tart needed a more robust lime flavour, a criticism Mat felt might be fair. I can see that there is room for a stronger lime kick but would hate to see the smooth, gentle savour of the tart lost.

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mixed berry ‘eton’ mess

The mixed berry ‘eton’ mess (£7) was lovely with nicely-sized chunks of meringue, lashings of whipped cream and lovely fresh berries, though personally I’d have liked a higher fruit and cream to meringue ratio. On the other hand, Pete thought the balance was spot on – you just can’t please everyone!

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detailing on the iconic Marnie Moyle tables

As you can tell, we had a wonderful meal and a wonderful evening. There are many things that make The Wild Garlic such a wonderful restaurant.

The interior is both casual and classy – it works for a for a quick cake and coffee break, it works for a relaxed dinner with friends and it works for a special celebration. The welcome is properly warm and the front of house staff are friendly, helpful and on-the-ball. Mat himself is genuinely interested in his customers and in ensuring they have a great evening. He always takes time to come out and talk to his guests. The sourcing is excellent; the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves though, of course, it needs a talented chef to transform them into such simple yet elegant dishes. The food is fantastic.

There’s only one downside – that it takes three hours for me to get there!


Coming soon: a new interview with Mat, an interview with Masterchef 2010 contestant Terry Ireland (currently working in The Wild Garlic kitchen) and a review of Mat’s foraging course.

 

West Dorset has become a place of pilgrimage for food lovers. Not only is it a land of abundance, with wild garlic growing… well, wild… along the verges and dairy cows mooing in delight over the lush green grass, it offers a fabulous selection of top class eating experiences of which we sampled only a few during our 3 day visit.

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Having made a resolution to eat more fish, Hix Oyster & Fish House was firmly on our list and I made a reservation a few weeks ahead of our trip.

Its location couldn’t be more beautiful, perched on a hillside overlooking a beautiful harbour and a wide expanse of sea. We parked in a nearby car park, followed the wooden arrow and ambled down the steep path towards a cute and quirky wooden hut with sea-themed flotsam and jetsam under the sign outside.

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One side and the back of the restaurant are floor to ceiling windows. Before long we were seated at a side window table (ask for one in the bay window for the very best views) enjoying the sunlight flooding in and the beautiful views.

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bread and scallop frills; Hix Oyster Ale; a view into the restaurant

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water jug and views

For drinks, a jug of tap water, a Palmer’s Oyster Ale branded (and possibly made) especially for Hix and a fresh lemonade. And with these came a board carrying lovely, soft bread, a generous pat of butter and hot, freshly fried crunchy scallop frills. All absolutely delicious! Pete was a fan of the Oyster Ale too – we visited Palmers last summer, during a week long holiday in the area.

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At the back of the restaurant is a delightful little bar terrace, jutting out over the gardens below and offering an even better perspective on the great outdoors. For a while, we could not tell where sea ended and sky began…

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Time to order. Whilst the waiter (possibly also the manager) was reasonably attentive and efficient, he certainly didn’t make the ordering process very smooth. I wanted a little more information about a few of the dishes. Here’s one exchange about a dish described on the menu only as lobster and monkfish curry:

Me: The lobster and monkfish curry – what kind of curry is it?

Him: Delicious!

Me (after waiting a few moments to see if a more useful answer was forthcoming): Yes. I meant what kind of curry, is it Thai, Indian…?

Him: Indian.

The resoluteness of his one-word answer made me lose the will to try and find out any more about style of curry. In case you’re wondering whether he was in a hurry or if I’d been asking a ridiculous number of questions, the restaurant was virtually empty and this was only my second question, the first of which he’d answered much more helpfully. Perhaps he didn’t know, in which case I’d have much preferred him simply offering to check with the kitchen.

We made our order and it wasn’t long at all before our starters were served.

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deep-fried sand eels and Ramson flowers with tartare sauce

My first question before ordering was about the deep-fried sand eels and Ramson flowers with tartare sauce (£8.00), and that one was answered in a more useful fashion – the waiter advised that they were like whitebait, and they were a bit – a little softer but with that same gentle fish flavour, working well in the light crisp batter.

It’s only now as I’m writing this that I realise (having researched it after getting back from Dorset, for a recent post) that Ramson = wild garlic! At the time, I was wondering what plant this unfamiliar Ramson was, and no, not much garlic flavour came through to trigger a realisation. But the texture of the flower heads enrobed in the crunchy batter was wonderful.

I found the tartare sauce a bit overpowering against the delicate eels and flower heads, and there was far too much of it on the plate for the volume of tempura.

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Cobb smoked salmon ‘Hix cure’

The Cobb smoked salmon ‘Hix cure’ (£11.75) was superb, the cure gave it a really quite special flavour. Whilst a basket of lemon halves wrapped in muslin were offered, no bread or garnish was provided, which surprised us a little.

Unfortunately, the kitchen had obviously decided to make haste before the rush (the place only started filling up a little later). Quite literally within 2-3 minutes of our starter dishes being cleared away (which was itself very quickly after we’d finished eating) our mains were served! This was way too fast, and we were pretty disconcerted – at this rate we’d be in and out of the place in under half an hour – not at all the relaxed, enjoyable evening we’d envisaged.

Still, we got stuck in.

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ling fish fingers with chips and mushy peas

Although Pete toyed with ordering the chicken, bacon and egg salad the restaurant’s reputation for fish saw him opt finally for the ling fish fingers with chips and mushy peas (£14.50). These were fabulous! Beautifully soft fish fillet wrapped in a thick, crunchy breadcrumb coat, they were poshtalgia at it’s best! The mushy peas had a freshness that matched their vivid colour. The chips were good too.

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Cornish hake with clams, garlic and parsley

My Cornish hake with clams, garlic and parsley (£20.00) was a thing of beauty. Again, the fish was perfectly cooked and bursting with juice. The sweet little clams, garlic and parsley balanced it marvellously whilst letting the gentle taste of the fish shine too. I don’t often order fish as a main course – too much of a red meat lover – but this is the kind of dish that persuades me I must do so more.

Wary of how much we’d been rushed into our mains, we decided not to even order desserts until after a short break on the outdoor terrace where we stood, drinks in hand, watching the light change as the sun sank, out of view off to the right.

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sunset views from the terrace

Unfortunately, our ten minute break outside couldn’t have come at a worse time. Although we’d mentioned to the waiter before popping out that we’d order on returning to the table in a few minutes – when we came back inside the three front of house staff (barman, waitress and waiter/ manager) were overwhelmed managing drinks orders for the two larger parties that had arrived, and serving dishes to the other tables. We waited patiently, but just when I thought it was surely our turn – the various long-winded drinks orders finally served, bread and nibbles served, other tables visited and looked after – instead the staff turned to taking food orders from the two large groups instead.

If I sound a little petulant, I am. I genuinely don’t mind waiting longer during busy periods, when I can see well-trained and aware staff keeping mental track of who is waiting for what, and am confident that we’ll be slotted in to their quickstep. I think what made me cross was that we’d been forgotten.

Some quite considerable time later, when we finally piped up and called the waitress over, we were able to put in our order for desserts – to our waitress’ credit, once we were able to attract her to our table, she was happy to explain a couple of the desserts to us. It took a long, long, long time again for them to arrive and, although we asked for coffee to come at the same time, it was forgotten until we mentioned it after we’d finished our desserts.

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lemon curd cream with raspberries

Pete’s lemon curd cream with raspberries (£7.00) was a lesson in simplicity. The rich sweet lemon curd folded into whipped cream was balanced by the acerbic raspberries and coulis; chef had resisted the temptation of making the coulis too sweet. Could not have been better.

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shipwrecked tart with clotted cream

My shipwrecked tart with clotted cream (£7.50) was, despite that burned crust, a hit. I really loved the flavour combination of sugar-coated walnuts, hazelnuts and chestnuts but found the balance of nuts to sticky binding syrup wasn’t right and what should have been, I think, a firm but moist mass kept disintegrating into frustrating crumbs. Still – it tasted mighty fine.

Overall, we very much enjoyed our meal. Although we had some issues with the service (I’m curious if they were under-staffed or simply blind-sided by the two tables of six arriving in such close succession) we did find them friendly and willing, if rather inconsistent. The setting itself is magical (and rather romantic, I think). The food is, as I’d hoped, pretty good.

And you’ll see, in a later post, although I didn’t make the mental connection between Ramson and wild garlic, it must have clicked subconsciously – just before heading back to London, we foraged a generous armful of wild garlic flowers which we deep-fried in tempura batter for a light dinner that evening! I’ll call that the Hix influence!



This post was supported by Restaurant Vouchers who bring together those handy 2 for 1 and discount vouchers for Pizza Express, Ask, Burger King, GBK, Little Chef and many more.

This has no impact on the content of the review above; indeed Hix Oyster & Fish House is not one of the restaurants affiliated with the restaurant voucher scheme.

 

A review of our evening at Mat Follas’ The Wild Garlic in Beaminster is long overdue. For those champing at the bit for feedback on the meal, it was lovely. Food, service, ambience… everything came together to create a wonderful evening which everyone in our party very much appreciated.

The Wild Garlic, Beaminster

The Wild Garlic is proving popular with locals and out-of-towners alike and weekend nights in particular were solidly booked months ahead. Luckily for me, I made or August booking weeks before the restaurant even opened it’s doors in June.

Several large Marnie Moyle tables were pushed together to seat our large party of 15 adults and 6 children in a long ‘L’ shape. Most of the kids were seated at the far end by the bay window, separating them a little from customers at the other end of the restaurant and giving them a bit of space to move around. Mat underlined his genuine welcome to the kids by letting us know that he was happy for them to move around, crawl under the tables or play in the window area. I am sure this helped reassure the parents that a little boisterous behaviour would not be a problem.

Two of Mat’s affable front of house team

We quickly settled in. The tables had already been laid with carafes of water and glasses, a nice touch. Mat’s warm welcome was echoed by his front of house team.


Our group settling in

Mat distributed and discussed the menu and his front of house team got busy taking drinks orders and serving nibbles.



Mat hands out menus, the specials board is written and hung up and we order

As well as wasabi peas we also enjoyed a wonderful pea and cottage cheese dip served with home-made seeded savoury biscuits. Delicious and very moreish, these kept us going whilst the kitchen worked their magic.

Before too long our starters began to arrive.

A number of our group ordered the tomato and pea soup with cheesy soda bread listed on the specials board. A short while later, we were told that there had been a mix-up and the soup today was actually courgette and goat’s cheese. Those who had ordered soup were given the option of switching to a different starter. I’m glad Pete didn’t because this soup was a revelation. I would not have thought to combine these two ingredients and yet they really brought out the best in each other. The courgette mellowed the sharpness of the cheese and the cheese added richness, creaminess and depth.

Courgette and goat’s cheese soup

The squid was perfectly cooked and the sweet chilli dressing over it’s fresh flesh gave it a lovely zing without overwhelming.

Sweet chilli squid

Not only did the pork belly starter look great, it was also delicious. A creamy mushroom sauce coated the generous serving of lardons. I am glad the friend who ordered this let me taste! But only a tiny bit – he liked it as much as I did!

Wild salad with slow roasted pork belly lardons cooked in wild mushroom jus

I wasn’t sure whether the strong flavours of garlic and miso would overwhelm the sweetness of scallops but I shouldn’t have worried. The dish worked well, and again, it was visually very appealing. The miso seaweed was a particularly nice accompaniment.

Hand dived scallops cooked in garlic butter with Miso infused seaweed

As the starters came out so did the pasta Mat had made for the children. They seemed captivated with the tiny star or flower shaped pasta and I’ve been told that more than one of them has been demanding it from their parents ever since!

Starters cleared away, the mains were served. Both Pete and I went for the water buffalo sirloin, as did several others in the group. Whilst most were served as ordered, including the blue one, both our medium rares were closer to medium well. Luckily, the meat was tender and full of flavour so the dish was still enjoyable and we chose not to send them back. I wasn’t a fan of the smoked mash, which surprised me as I do liked smoked foods. But I was in the minority (and someone quickly made short work of my leftovers).

Water buffalo sirloin steak with roasted vegetables and smoked mash

The whole John Dory was absolutely huge and cooked to perfection. The flesh was extremely moist and so delightfully fresh. Another happy diner!

Whole John Dory with caper butter, new potato and wild salad

The lamb went down well not only with the adults who ordered it but also with some of the kids. What stood out about the lamb for me was not just the quality and flavour of the meat but how well the mange tout, pea puree and salsa verde brought out the inherent sweetness of lamb.

Lamb loin with mange tout, salad, pea puree and salsa verde

During ordering, one of our party asked whether it would be possibly to serve the lemon sole special (served in the same way as the John Dory) already taken off the bone for her? Only when assured this would be OK did she go ahead and order. Unfortunately, when the dish arrived it hadn’t been boned so she sent it back. What was returned to her was a bit of a disaster. Less than a third of it had actually been boned at all and that bit still retained a very high number of bones. Although the fish tasted good, the mess of flesh and bones made it unappealing and much harder work than it should have been. Her comment was that, if she had been told it would be a problem she would have ordered something different.

Fresh berry mess

In another nice touch, Mat came out and gave us some New Zealand Cadbury’s Fish chocolate bars for the children. I later learned that these are traditionally given out when kids have behaved themselves through the meal! Sweet!

Desserts were fabulous. The fresh berry mess was an impressive looking dish and I’m afraid it’s rightful owner guarded it carefully. I didn’t get to taste but can confirm from his expression that it was extremely tasty indeed with a nice mix of fruits and a good balance between meringue, cream and fruit.

Gooey chocolate brownie

The gooey chocolate brownies went down a treat, especially with some of the kids who got well stuck in. They asked for theirs to be served with ice-cream instead of cream, which the kitchen kindly did.

Chocolate mousse and Lavender mousse

Pete and I decided to share Mat’s signature lavender mousse and a chocolate mousse. Both were served in kilner-style jars and beautifully presented. The lavender mousse was the very essence of this distinctive flower. The chocolate mousse, for me, could have been more intensely chocolatey, perhaps a touch darker, but was also enjoyable.

The nectarine, ginger and whisky crumble went down well though the two comments were that it needed some cream or custard to provide a cold and moist counterpart to the crumble, and that the whisky flavour didn’t really come through but that the nectarine and ginger was a tasty combination.

Throughout the meal we were regularly looked after by the team and I think I can speak for everyone when I say we had a lovely, relaxed evening of good food and company in a warm and welcoming environment.

The bill, including a range of soft drinks, beers and a little wine, came to approximately £35 per head for adults and about a tenner for children (kids pasta, a regular dessert and drinks). Plus service.

Here are some images of our group enjoying the evening:





Some of us enjoying the evening

And some comments they’ve made:

It was fabby. Lovely food. Delicious but not too rich or too heavy.

Loved the decor and the wooden tables and lack of fuss, the friendly service and the focus on the food.

I felt spoilt for choice with the menu but didn’t regret any of the selections I made.

The John Dory was melt in the mouth – went well with the capers.

I didn’t feel too laden down to have dessert and what a dessert – the loveliest ‘mess’ I’d ever tasted!

Thanks for booking us into the Mat Follas place – very good indeed, and a fine way to end the holiday.

The kids _still_ go on about ‘star’ pasta!

That was probably the best Mess I’ve had!

What he should really have done was set up his restaurant near Guildford so that I could eat there more often!

(Click here for the previously posted interview with Mat).

 

Despite the inconsistency of the judging, the clearly unrepresentative editing (even before I read accounts from contestants), the nauseating sexualisation of desserts by one of the judges and the bizaare nature of some of the tests, I rather enjoyed Masterchef 2009. There’s much I’d love to change about the format, mind, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

And for once, I picked and supported the winner early on. The discussion and debates about the entrants (not to mention the judges decisions) raged across food discussion boards (such as the BBC Food Chat board) but both Pete and I were firm followers of Mat Follas aka Ming The Merciless and his appealing, heartwarming personality and unique brand of comforting food, well cooked and simply presented. There was much screaming at the telly during the final stages and much elation when his triump was announced.

Keen to keep up with what Mat was doing following his win, I quickly came across his blog and became a regular follower, leaving a comment now and again. We touched base on the UKFBA website and became twitter friends too. (Mat’s a gregarious chap and very much a part of the foodie twitter community).

I followed with interest his posts about finding a suitable venue, cleaning and decorating it, choosing the right furniture, taking on staff and working on the menu.

The Wild Garlic, Beaminster

And shortly before it was due to open back in June, my brain finally made the connection between The Wild Garlic’s Beaminster location and our annual holiday with big gang of friends. Once I realised that our Charmouth location was a mere half an hour’s drive from Mat’s new place, I immediately got in touch to arrange a group booking.

Mat is – as anyone who watched him on Masterchef could no doubt guess – a helpful, friendly and gracious person to deal with and we pinned down a booking for 15 adults + 6 kids.

Ming The Masterchef aka Mat Follas

Of course, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to interview Mat for the blog so Pete and I made our way to the restaurant two days ahead of the booking. Pete got far more sympathy than he deserved for his truly atrocious hangover and I very much enjoyed grilling Mat, though I’m afraid I’m really not much of an interviewer – what played out was more of a (very enjoyable) two-way conversation than a professional “I-ask he-answers” affair!


Light, modern, clean and quirky interior

Unlike many restaurants serving food of such a high calibre, Mat has deliberately created a casual and welcoming interior. The Marnie Moyle tables are a great style anchor.

Tiny kitchen space

I’m amazed at how Mat and his team cope with such a tiny kitchen. After enjoying the evening meal on our second visit, my amazement verges on complete astonishment!

Pretty salad, delivered moments before, on wooden plates

Mat’s ethos is to use natural, locally sourced ingredients, (many foraged or provided by local amateurs) and to bring out the best in each. Both flavours and presentation are beautiful.

The Interview
Fast Rider & Restaurant Style

Mat’s philosophy about motorbikes gives quite an insight into his feelings about restaurants – he says, “The scruffy bike in the square is mine. My philosopy on motorbikes is that they’re ridden not cleaned. If the day’s good enough to clean it then I’ll get on it and use it.”

And that’s kind of how Mat is about restaurants – Mat’s restaurant is all about the food and the company. As those who read his posts on the Guardian WoM blog will know, he certainly put a lot of thought and effort into décor. And I can tell you that he succeeded in creating a a warm, welcoming interior with a kind of Scandi-Dorset casual chic! But what he’s most focused on is ensuring that the food and drinks served are exceptional and that his customers are encouraged to relax, settle in and enjoy their visit.

We talk a little about a restaurant local to me – it sadly closed some months ago – which excelled at providing consistent good quality meals coupled with a genuinely warm welcome. Unsurprisingly, they had a large base of loyal and very regular customers! Mat nods in recognition and says how keen he is to ensure that he gets it right for the locals. This seems to be going well so far – it’s locals who’ve encouraged him to open for morning coffee/ brunch and he already has regulars, including a Tuesday Lunch Club of OAPS.

Happily for our group (of 15 adults and 6 littles ones), Mat says he really likes having children in.

I respond that “a lot of places can be quite funny about it. I understand there are some types of restaurants and occasions where taking kids doesn’t make sense. But there are some people who think kids should go everywhere and some that think they shouldn’t go anywhere.”

Mat answers: “I think kids should be out with you as part of their growing up. But we do struggle with it… we do dishes like a whole spider crab on the table and smooth rocks off Chesil beach [to crack it with] – a lot of customers love it and a small percentage absolutely hate it just because it’s a bit noisy…

I’ve had a few people come in and be determined not to like it.”

K: “I imagine it will get to the point where those who don’t like it will find a restaurant that suits what they’re looking for better…”

M: “There’s a very good restaurant down the road there that does linen on the tables…”

Mat’s approach to table setting is suitably relaxed. He uses paper napkins instead of cloth serviettes, places cutlery on the napkins instead of laying a formal place and sets out drinking glasses and jugs of tap water rather than a selection of wine glasses, many of which must simply be cleared away again when customers order other drinks.

This seems to be working. Mat tells me, “I’ve had people coming for anniversaries and they absolutely loved the atmosphere and that they don’t have to dress up. We have more and more locals coming, they can see what we do, they come with the right expectations…”

The Family, Changing One’s Life and Sourcing Food

K: “What do your family think of your new restaurant venture?”

M: “The family are enjoying it. Jasper, my oldest, loves it. He comes and works Saturday and leaves with a good amount in tips, about £10. At 11 that’s pretty good pocket money. And they all love coming to the restaurant. And they see me…I don’t know if they see more of me, but it’s quite nice that they can actually see what I do… When you have a corporatey job and it’s not relevant to their lives, the kids have no interest… whereas here there’s a direct relationship.”

K: And I assume you can bring them with you and involve them in finding the ingredients and supplies?

M: “Yeah, they came along to the water buffalo supplier this morning to get the meat and they loved it! They point at the animals and say yummy!”

I tell Mat about my sister-in-law. A few years ago, when her kids were younger, she not only grew lots of fruit and vegetables in the back garden, but also raised rabbits and chickens for meat. The children had a healthy understanding of where meat comes from. They knew that the animals they enjoyed playing with would end up on the table. I have a huge respect for the lesson she gave them.

Vegetarian Cooking

Mat immediately identifies: “To me, that’s what we are, we eat meat, that’s what we do!

You’ve probably seen some of my innocent [online] exchanges with the veggies – I do understand their point of view but I don’t agree with it, frankly.

I do make a point of having vegetarian dishes on the menu. It’s interesting actually because on the blogging sides it tends to be very London focused and I’ve had discussions with people [who have said] “you should have two or three selections for vegetarians on the menu” – actually, last night I had just one vegetarian in so I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to do a whole big menu for vegetarians. I need to do a veggie option that I would eat. I’m now doing that. What we have on today is a fennel thyme gratin, it’s really really nice, it’s really – meaty is probably the wrong description – it’s got a lot of umami flavour – that’s meaty by another name!”

I remember that there were some great veggie ideas in the comments to Mat’s Guardian blog entries on this topic.

M: “And I’ve gone and bought some of the books that were recommended on that and that’s where we’re getting some of the dishes from. I’m doing a thing for the Dorset County Show in a couple of weeks and their whole marketing angle is about loving your veg and the thing is that parents who don’t like certain vegetables put their kids off those vegetables so the whole point of this is to make dishes that the parents will start eating – rather than trying to convert the children to eating more veg we need to convert the parents first. So I’m doing a sprout dish, a celery dish and a broadbean dish. I need to come up with dishes…”

At this point we interrupt our chat as a bag of salad arrives. It’s collected by a local lady and includes a mix of salad leaves and edible flowers. And it’s stunningly beautiful!

Mat jokes : “It’s really hard dressing a plate with a salad this good isn’t it?”

Where did it all start?

Salad admired, I change tack and ask when Mat first realised he was interested in food, because clearly, it’s not a career path he chose until recently.

M: “Not so long ago; probably only 3-4 years ago. I was doing a lot of scuba diving, getting lots of crabs and scallops and things that you can eat and I was just conscious I wasn’t making the best of it. And My wife just bought me a day’s course at Rick Stein’s which I loved.

I mean I’ve always cooked but it’s always been the lasagne, the chillis and fairly standard kind of things. So then I started cooking with that [fresh seafood] … and I’m a bit of an obsessive so it just became an obsession and now we eat really well and the cooking’s gone pretty well…”

Childhood Memories

I want to go further back and ask Mat, “what are your favourite dishes that your mum used to make? Or childhood food memories?”

M: “Childhood? My mum used to make mince that was boiled and deep fried potatoes and that’s what I grew up on. I lived on grey mince and potatoes.”

K: ” I’m seeing why the foodie stuff came later! What about school dinners?”

M: “I went to boarding school when I was 10. I can remember being told I was going to boarding school. The best thing about it was I didn’t have to eat my mother’s cooking any more. I genuinely grew up with just a complete desert of any cooking talent.”

K: “No grannies that cooked great stuff?”

M: “No, my gran brought me up. From the age of 10 on I lived with my grandparents. And she did mince as well and she made curries which meant she got a teaspoon of curry powder and put it in the mince.”

In a voice that’s both fascinated and horrified, I ask “In the boiled mince?”

M: “Yep. So that was my childhood diet! Never any other cultures, nothing.”

K: “But I thought NZ was a pretty good place for food?”

M: “It’s fantastic. It’s one of the best places in the world – Now! When I was growing up it really wasn’t. It was kind of like old England.

K: “Guess that makes sense in terms of the shared culture…”

M: “And I went to boarding school and that was like a public school here I guess. I know how to cook liver and I appreciate people who enjoy liver slightly pink and soft and tender and lovely but my liver has to be shoe leather. I love it but I grew up on it!”

Loving Food

K: “So what food makes you happiest when you eat it these days?”

M: “Well cooked comfort foods. I’m doing a bread and butter pudding for lunch. Things like that. I never used to cook them and I’ve started cooking them and I cook them a bit here. And it’s nice with the locals – especially on the Tuesday for the Tuesday Lunch Club – it’s nice to do them a bit of comfort food and they really enjoy it… and that’s quite nice. Apricot jam, nectarines and all sorts through it and it will be really nice.”

K: “And what about savoury? I’m guessing seafood rather than meat or both?”

M: “No both. I was always a really big big meat eater, a really good steak I love. Sunday roast, chicken roast all of that. I love my food. Seafood, good seafood I really love but it’s hard to get good seafood.”

The conversation moves on to London prices for seafood and how much more Mat can offer for the money down in Dorset. I mutter that “I’ve not eaten very much fish and I would like to start eating more but the trouble is when I see something really gorgeously beefy on the menu I just can’t resist it, or lamb. I always think I must eat more fish because I do enjoy it when I have it but it’s just so hard choosing it over some of the lovely meat dishes.”

Mat agrees, “Yeah I tend to order meat when I’m out for a restaurant meal. Especially when I know the fish isn’t going to be as good as what I’ve done, which is a bit arrogant… but I tend to go for the meat too.”

Travelling & Working

I ask Mat if he has travelled much and about his international food experiences and he tells me he travelled a lot in South East Asia.

K: “So what’s your favourite food things that you came across?”

M: “Thai! I lived on an island in Thailand for a year, worked as a diver and it was just heaven – food and drink and diving every day!

From there, Mat went back to university in his mid-twenties and by his third year, he was setting up a computer company with a bunch of guys from Hong Kong and Taiwan. There was lots of travel during this period of his life. From that, Mat continued in the world of IT, most recently working for IBM before giving it up to switch to a career in the restaurant industry.

Ming The Merciless

We stop for a coffee break and I meet Mat’s charming little girl, Meadow, before we turn back to the questions.

Having followed Mat’s progress throughout Masterchef, and quickly become used to referring to him as Ming, based on his resemblance to Ming the Merciless, I ask him what he thought of the nickname?

M: “Yeah, yeah I was cool with that… I wanted it in the programme… I said “I really hope News Of the World does the look alike”, coz they do that every week, and they did!”

Masterchef

I wonder if Mat is still in touch with his Masterchef fellow finalists?

M: “Yeah, Andy was down here a couple of weeks ago… and I offered Chris the second chef job here… which would have been ideal for him…”

I tell Mat that, as far as we could tell according to what the producers/ editors chose to show, it seemed that Mat and Andy were the stronger contenders, with Chris not quite up to the same standard.

M: “For us it was obvious it was a two horse race, and Andy was very much ahead way into the finals… “

K: “You could see the skill Andy had with certain types of food, unbelievably precise…”

M: “Andy is more skilled still – his technical skills are well above mine and probably always will be… but we do different things.

We got on really well – production hated it, production wanted us at each other’s throats but no we got on well. But there was definitely competitiveness, proper competitiveness, that was the fun of it. What I didn’t want to do was win or lose to someone who was mediocre. Andy understands why he didn’t win – he doesn’t have his own style yet…”

K: “Watching, it seemed that you developed during the series?”

M: “Oh definitely, my cooking is completely different to when I started…”

K: “Did you expect to get so emotional through it?”

M: “No, god no! I mean, well you know what it’s like in corporate life – you never show emotion at all ever. So it was kind of weird but it did mean a lot – it’s about putting a piece of yourself out there and it’s not something I normally do.

The final, I know I was emotional at the end of that, but that was the culmination of three weeks of just… not sleeping… I didn’t know I could do it so it wasn’t until the final… that I actually managed to cook the three dishes in the time allowed, I had no idea going into the final if it was going to be a success or a complete disaster!”

Part 2 – a review of our group’s evening meal at The Wild Garlic…

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