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Shaun Hill

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Posts posted by Shaun Hill

  1. I'm delighted and relieved that the Walnut Tree's latest incarnation is doing reasonably well. I spotted the thread and thought it easiest just to explain my involvement and how this fits in with other stuff.

    I pitch up at the Walnut Tree most days from just before midday until shortly after the last main course has gone at night - I live 60 miles away. I rarely take a day off - one a fortnight perhaps though my ambition is one a week, usually a thursday - and am shaking the pans during the service rather than merely in attendance. There's a head chef, Roger Brook who worked at the Walnut Tree under Franco Taruschio and Stephen Terry before my time and who is first rate. He does all the stuff that I don't like, the ordering, rotas and such, runs the kitchen in fact. Also he doesn't seem to mind me turnng up each day to participate. In his position it would drive me mad.

    I have several consultancies. The biggest is Fortnum and Mason who I advise mostly on produce, and I turn up almost every week there on a Monday when the Walnut Tree is closed. I also work for the Montagu Arms in Beaulieu but need only see them once a month as they have a superb chef and really don't need much more than encouragement and reassurance from me. Similarly I do a couple a days a year for British Airways and advise the Welsh Millenium Centre in Cardiff on the same basis. I enjoy writing and will produce a column, review or whatever whenever commissioned. My next book is a year late because I've been busy

    All this, folks, pays the bills. I take nothing thus far from the Walnut Tree and in fact ran up a loss of £103K in the first year - no limited liablity so all owed personally - but expect to break even this year and make a profit next.

    I do understand the suspicion though. I did once take a shareholding in a brasserie in Worcester - where I now live - and found that things weren't as I wanted so bailed out. The danger in any involvement other than full time and in full control is that people who are greedy morons will do embarrasing things in your name.

    The Walnut Tree was flattered by recent ratings. It is a good brasserie - just the sort of food and style I really like best - but never going to compete with those making elaborate two or three star meals. Jane Grigson once said that what we needed was a better standard of ordinary and I concur. I'm happy to chat to whoever wants if you come to eat but don't enjoy touring the tables to fish for compliments. So shout up if you want to see if I'm at work. If not. keep an eye on the bar where I will - toward the end of each service - take a glass or two of red wine - the consolation as well as the reward.

    Very best wishes


  2. I was called yesterday morning by the Sun for comment on all this, presumably because the Walnut Tree in an earlier lifetime took a bashing from Gordon Ramsay and that I could be relied on to take a swipe back.

    My view was that cooking stocks, sauces, stews and most pastry somewhere off site made lots of sense financially, that the margins he achieves are his business - if the price for a meal is too high the place will fail - and that eating at one of his spots is optional not compulsory like the rates. I did say that the Kitchen Nightmares programme in my opinion was becoming formulaic and could do with quiet euthanasia.

    So I was mildy irritated to see quotes from me that I didn't say and that do not reflect my point of view in today's paper. I think that the piece was written and the attitude already decided long before I or anyone else was called. The journalist did tell me that I was being too generous about things. Not me, I would have said different if I had thought different

    However, they did ask my age and get that right. Not sure whether that's a result.

  3. possibly I'm the only person who doesn't much care for Pacojet machines. I don't think they make good ice cream, merely frozen mousse with soft texture. A recently churned ice cream made the usual way tastes and feels fabulous - better in my opinion

  4. Peter Kromberg who was the first head chef at Intercontinental in Hyde Park Corner has died of a stroke aged 67.

    I was chef tournant then sous chef under him when it opened - I most liked the months before opening when we practised recipes rather than serving diners - and had a great respect for his crafstmanship and capacity for sheer hard work.

    Sad that he has gone

  5. Bill Baker who owned and ran Reid Wines near Bristol died last night. He was a giant on the British restaurant scene and will be a great loss

  6. Yes I turned up to drink all that free booze. It was an enjoyable evening I too found it difficult to hear anything on the PA system and it was an extra delight not to be personally in the running for anything - takes any pressure or embarrassment away.

    I don't think you should take these things too seriously. Yhey're meant to be fun or at most thought provoking

  7. I'll be closing Merchant House sometime next Spring, probably around early March, regardless of whether it sells as a restaurant or house or even whether it sells at all. It's been a joy - mostly - for the past ten years but when the feeling comes that it's time to change then that's what you should do.

    I have no real idea what happens next or where and don't intend to start looking until January. The work here needs me to have my mind fully engaged on the immediate practicalities of cooking the food.

    My view is that the estate agents are optimistic in the asking price as the house is worth only £500,000 as a residence but you know how it is, I'm willing to take it if someone is willing to offer it.

    I have been surprised that no other chefs have tried their luck in Ludlow over the last few years. The three major restaurants are all full months ahead and there is room for another. This will still be the case after I shut up shop. Hibiscus, for instance, is a world class operation and my view is that it gets less attention than it deserves because Claude is French and his food fairly french in style so perhaps less newsworthy as part of a rural British restaurant revival. Hopefully this will improve after I have departed the scene.

    Hopefully I will be at the stoves somewhere by the summer. It's that or the Big Issue concession for Ludlow.

    Best wishes

  8. What I find stimulating these days is the momentum and excitement that food and cooking now generates. A series of restaurant meals here or anywhere will show bright minds at work on what are basically the same ingredients worldwide. Not all is successful naturally but enough works or intrigues to keep the brain ticking on what's possible and what's good to eat. A big change from 20 or 30 years ago when my trade was still largely the refuge of no hopers

  9. I always cook cauliflowwer in florets so that the thick stalks don't need to be considered when judging the cooking time. Like all members of the cabbage family there is an element of rankness in the smell and flavour and this combines perfectly with spices like cumin, cinnamon and coriander so I'd be tempted to cook the cauliflower, drain it, then dust with some combination of middle eastern spices and finally brush with light sesame or olive oil before cooking out the extra ingredients with a short spell under a grill or in the oven.

    As ever the disadvantage of giving some robust treatment to any side vegetable is that it has a direct effect on whatever else is sharing the plate at the same time so this need to be considered.

    Otherwise you may like to consider deep frying the florets. Boil them as before then make a batter from flour, olive oil and water, whisk an egg white and fold this in before coating the cooled florets and deep frying. These are fine as a warm start also especially with some garlic and tomato confection by way of sauce

  10. Veal shanks - sold as shin of veal - are excellent plainly roasted. Th ideal tecnique for the others is pot roasting. Pot roasting is really an extension of the braising process but implies large joints rather than cubes of meat. Try to add the minimum of extra liquid, especially at the start, so that the meat will produce its own juices rather than poach in stock or wine. It's a slowish business but worth it.

  11. Interesting question with several aspects some of which I'll try to tackle.

    Many of the ingredients you list are as much about texture as flavour and this is an aspect of the meal that is worth consideration in any case. Ratatouille could be blended into a sauce but maybe one with too much going on at once. Better to think in terms of reworking the ingredients so that one of the major players takes a more leading role or has its texture altered. You could deep fry all three - aubergine courgette and peppers - in a light batter and set them on a tomato and garlic sauce, you could stuff the courgettes with a fine dice of the rest, the possibilities are huge because the ingredients act well with each other, like strawberries and cream or peaches and raspberries. If you wanted the mixture to act as a sauce, then dice the vegetables very finely, then you will have the same interaction of flavours but without losing all the texture and the role of a sauce - something that coats and flavours a piece of fish or meat - still fulfilled

    The whole question of what goes with what is complex with major differences in the tastebuds of people around the world and throughout history. The mediterranean diet before Columbus for instance was very different. not just in availablities but in taste preferences. Smelly and sweet combinations were the most sought after, and a fermented fish sauce similar to Nam Pla, garum, was the everyday seasoning, silphium, a now lost spice from Libya which allegedly tasted a bit like asafeotida, occupied the spot as most prized and expensive spice.

    It may be good for you to spend some time tasting the ingredients you mentioned separately and plainly cooked and to approach the tasting as if you were judging wine so that you can combine them or spice them successfully. Cabbage for instance has slightly rank and smelly aspects to its flavour so it it's interesting to see that in Hungary it is caramelised with sugar successfully to flavour pasta.

    On a more general note, acids like vinegar and lemon are regularly associated with fish. My view is that this is a mistaken extension of the affinity that lemon and vinegar has with fats like butter or oil - to act as balance - and that it is the buttery sauces or oiliness from deep frying that calls for that sharpness and not the delicate flesh of the fish itself.

    The subject is massive though and I wouldn't pretend to have all the answers many of which can be personal to yourself and your own tastebuds. I think you are wise to work on relatively simple combinations at least to begin with. Remember that something like an apricot or a lamb cutlet is already a complex item with large numbers of flavour molecules and that highlighting aspects of these existing flavours is a large element in success with complementing and contrasting them as next step.

    I'll stop now before I start to bore you

  12. The amount of olive oil a ratatouille type concoction will take without looking greasy is entirely dependent on the ratio of oil to non oil liquid - juices from the tomato, stock, wine or whatever - in the pan. What you are seeing when there is a pool of oil rising is an imbalance between these two in the same way as a curdling mayonnaise, either too much oil or too little stock. Whisking in hot water or wine, a tablespoon at a time, will put things right. The same can happen if the ratatouille is kept warm for a long while or reheated as the non oil liquids will gradually evaporate leaving the quantity of oil - which won't evaporate - too large proportionately to cope with

    If the amount of oil is more than you want in this sort of dish in any case then this is what to do. Fry the vegetables separately and drain the oil for reuse with the next ingredient. With this system you need to fry the aubergine last as it will absorb the most. Finally fry the onion, garlic and tomato in whatever's left and add the vegetables to the pan.

    Best wishes

  13. I think that your method is spot on. The difficulty with coarser or bigger green leaves is the trade off between fresh tasting and soft texture. Unlike the method for most greens I use minimal water and then add olive oil or sesame to the drained result. If you shake the pan around whilst doing this the oil will form a temporary emulsion with the remaining droplets of water and steam. The advantage of this is that all the seasonings will distribute themselves evenly as with mayonnaise.

    The best aspect was that you take care of the vegetables not just whatever meat or veg is centre stage. Not everyone does.

  14. I would be loathe to split the fish and add stuffing to the middle unless it was say some lobster mousse replacing the bones in turbot or sole. The advantage of the spice and chipotle mixture on the outside of the fish is that it will take the main blast of heat and much more of the cooking process than the more delicate flesh underneath. It tastes better that way

    I think the best bet is to increase the amount of spice paste that you cover the fish with in proportion to the thickness of the fish and if necessary carve it into slices after cooking - maybe even use a pastry brush to spread the mixture down and evenly across the fish so that the right amount of flavour is there for each serving.

    Best wishes

  15. I sympathize with your plight and wonder whether the effort in preparing octopus is actually justified by the result or whether they are best left to annoy other sea life whilst we tuck in to some tender and delicious squid.

    I have always used one of the methods you have already used and discarded, dropping the octopus into boiling water for a minute or two then rescueing it to somewhere cool, repeating this two more times then simmering for an hour. At this point the octopus is ready to be cooked again - and for another hour - as part of some stew.

    Have you thought that this is as good as it gets?

    Good luck

  16. I cook turbot off the bone in fillets preferably from a 3kg fish. The size of the fish will determine how dense and hard the thicker part of the fillet will be, smaller fish are softer and easier to judge but to my mind a 3 - 4 kg fish has the ideal texture. I am happy with it steamed or roast but rarely braised as fish this expensive needs to be shown at its best and braising will tend to overcook the flesh. I've never found turbot suited for deep frying

    The thicker the piece of turbot the more difficult it is to tell exactly how it is cooked inside for it doesn't break into flakes in the way of cod or salmon and will feel fairly hard at every stage of the cooking process. I'm afraid practise is the only real solution. There is a certain amount of give from within the fish once cooked when you press it gently and the feel of a rubber ball inside when it is still too raw.

    Sorry I cannot be more help. The only other answer is to carve the fish into two once you think it is just done - which lets you cook it some more if wrong - and try to remember the correlation between how it felt and how far it turned out to be cooked.

    Good luck

  17. Most European varieties of freshwater crayfish were wiped out by disease some years back. I'm not sure what has been replacing them - Turkish rather than American I thought.

    They are farmed commercially but on a small scale and are generally very expensive now for what meat you end up with. My wife is Finnish and I remember that crayfish went on most everything there during the season - pork chops for instance - but that the lake by her family home hasn't had any crayfish now for years. So one has to drink the Vodka without the excuse of shellfish now.

    They are easy to prepare. Just before boiling, the middle section of the tail is twisted and pulled to yank out the canal carrying waste. They are then dropped into the boiling water for a few minutes, shelled and eaten.

    The Chefs you mention came from around Lyon where local freshwater fish, pike quenelles especially, is still mainly what's on offer rather than the turbot, hake etc of the seaside, so no real surprise that crayfish figured prominently in their dishes whilst they were available.

  18. I'm not sure that I'm completely qualified to answer this. The flour is different from country to country and nowhere more so than in France where you can buy a dozen different white flours for bread alone - regularly with a lot af additives and acid enhancers by the way - as well as even softer flours for not just cakemaking but for saucemaking. In England it's generally just a choice of standard all purpose or bread flour.

    I would buy a hard white bread flour - remember that the French use softer flour for baguettes and the like - and substitute a proportion of the recipe's flour with this.

    My preference here is for the flour made by Dove's Farm which is both consistent and top quality. I use their hard flour for bread and regular for all else. Brown flours and mixtures are more difficult and the Dove's Farm multigrain is only okay. In fact the commercial mixtures such as Granary - Rank Hovis Macdougal I'm afraid - and Turkestan are regularly a better bet especially if you add what you prefer to the mix as well. I for instance like sunflower seeds and oatmeal which will soften the dough. For brown flours we are talking bread only as I never use them for pastry.

    If it's any consolation there are difficulties whenever recipes move from country to country. American recipes often call for corn syrup which is unobtainable here and texts will advise substitution with our Golden syrup which is not the same thing at all.

    Sorry not to be more help

  19. The short answer is yes for this reason. It's important that the water returns to the boil as quickly as possible - hence the big pot so that the cold veg make only a short-lived impact on the overall temperature. After cooking avoid any contact with acid at least until the last moment before they are to eaten. Lemon juice over the asparagus will turn it brown after a few minutes, presumably an acid sauce or dressing does the same.

    Restaurants sometimes go in for what is termed blanching - dropping the vegetables in boiling water then lifting them into iced water to stop the cooking. This keeps the vegetables bright green but is otherwise pointless for the veg take as long to reheat as they do cooking from raw. They also taste less good and fresh this way.

    I attended a meeting of physicists and similar clever sorts in Sicily a couple of years back - the molecular gastronomy thing - where the salt in boiling water was discussed at length. The conclusion -which was at odds with my own expectation - was that the salt in the water made no real difference and that traces of dilute salt on the veg surface were all that you ended up tasting.

    I still put salt in the water though

  20. Judging the right amount of salt to use when seasoning is a problem for which you can only offer a personal answer. Tolerance to salt varies from person to person and I have found it to be also a generational thing. My parents used much more salt than I do but my children are accustomed to less than I prefer.

    I am always guided by what suits my own palate. Whether right or wrong, at least I know when I think it's okay myself. I try to err on the side of just under but leave salt - but not pepper - on the table for those who want more and am only offended when I see people spraying on tons before having tasted.

    In fact table salt tastes raw to me if added after everything is cooked and I have often been tempted to roast the salt before grinding it as in parts of China.

  21. The foie gras from France comes in different categories with "foie gras extra" being the most suited for frying rather than steaming or baking in a terrine. My method for foie gras frying is this.

    First let the liver come to room temperature then when it is soft lift out as much of the sinew, veins and membrane as possible. Return the liver to the fridge and let it set hard again.

    Heat a dry pan until red hot. Slice - thickly - and season the liver or as much of it as you want. Drop two slices at a time onto the pan and let these sear quickly on each side - they will still be raw in the middle.

    Lift the slices onto a small roasting tray and leave somewhere warm - the very bottom of the oven perhaps or in my kitchen a spot high up above the cooker and therefore warm. The heat will seep through the slices of liver within a few minutes leaving the centre moist whilst the outside edges remain crisp. The timing varies with the thickness of the slices. I like them to be quite thick so that the flavour of the foie gras comes through as well as the texture of the outside

    This method creates a bit of smoke so if you are cooking for lots of people then use the pan in batches of two slices at a time

    Most french foie gras is battery farmed from ducks and so you have to shop around to find the best quality. The traditional associations with Christmas come from goose liver which is still very seasonal and at its best - like goose itself - around that time.

    The pitfalls with foie gras are regularly to do with managing the temperature so that you don't end up with too much buttery oil. Generally low temperatures are the answer. The frying method just combines this with a swift searing. The livers are full of little threads and veins that can floss your teeth as you eat if left in. They are always best removed whilst the liver is soft rather than straight from the fridge.

  22. I have used a pressure cooker for softening tough joints of meat and found it worked fine - especially with gelatinous cuts like shin or feet. I rarely use a pressure cooker now though as I find the long slow cooking at moderate to low temperature works better.

    Of course I spend all day in the kitchen so the occasional poking and stirring to check moisture levels presents no burden. Pressure cooking seems to have become less common now other than for jams and marmalade. Possibly because people are a bit intimidated by tough joints of meat anyway. Also because it represents yet another gadget to store and dust if it isn't to be used on a regular basis - most wedding present lists will have a microwave rather than a pressure cooker. Not sure what that may say about things

  23. There are two objectives in reducing stocks or sauces.

    First is to allow an opportunity to skim away any unwanted fat or grease, effectively cleaning up the liquid as it reduces. Best method for this is to add a small quanitity of cold water from time to time which will provoke a rush of foamy scum to the surface, This also compensates for some of the volume loss inevitable during reduction. The sauce or stock will darken the longer you keep this up and hopefully become more viscous also, giving body and substance to the liquid.

    Secondly, reduction will concentrate the stock and this need only be done until the right intensity of flavour is reached. At this point you decide how thick the sauce should be and thicken it as needed. Three main methods here. For white stock based sauces arrowroot is fine. It acts like gelatine and used in small quantity will give the same sort of body that prolonged reduction might. Its disdavantages are twofold, the effect wears off after any further prolonged boiling also the texture will suffer if too much is used - so dilute the arrowroot in cold liquid and whisk it in little by little.

    Butter will thicken sauces but at the cost of making them richer, the more you use the less vibrant the underlying flavours in the stock or wine. This is fine for some things but not for everything.

    Best is plain flour. But this is easily the most tricky method for the bad name that flour based sauces acquired, for stodginess and heaviness, is regularly well deserved. The flour must be used in small quantities proportionate to the total liquid. maybe 2 tablespoonfuls per gallon and then either roasted or fried until light brown before use. Chefs will either dust the bones with the flour before roasting them or add a tablespoon to the frying aromatic vegetables that they are adding to the stock. This way the flour cooks out completely.

    If this is too much song and dance for a pot of sauce then use potato flour - fecule de pommes de terre - which is the least intrusive of the cornflour - cornstarch - type thickeners. Add it the same way as arrowroot, diluted in cold wine or water the whisked in a little at a time

    Good luck

  24. News that I'm a prominent player in the slow food movement came as a surprise to me. The magazine must be confusing the fringe elements of the cooking scene.

    I did participate at the Erice workshop on molecular gastronomy a few years back though and gave a presentation on flavour. I had been invited a couple of years before that also - to talk on "fresh" as a culinary term - but instead sent Nicholas Kurti written thoughts on the subject.

    Molecular gastronomy is a pompous sounding title for what should be a fascinating aspect of cooking and the original idea was to bring in the practical experience of three or four chefs and combine this with the scientific expertise of thirty or so top ranking physicists.

    I found it all reasonably illuminating but don't want to create combinations solely because they are possible. It's difficult enough as it is

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