I love Great British Menu. Feels good to get that off my chest. I know that the haters will whinge about the repetitive framework, the barrage of overly cheffy dishes, the pomposity of the judges, the gratuitous use of the word ‘unctuous’, the fact that surely we deserve a more fulfilling and challenging examination of culinary prowess than serving food in ration boxes to hit contritely conceived nationalistic briefs… And the haters are, for the most part, correct. But screw them.
Repetition is soothing; I don’t necessarily want my cooking shows to be an intellectual work out. If I’m not going to eat the food then why do I care if the concept, technique and presentation deliver more than the taste? More fool the pantomime villain judges, who have no choice but to tuck in and bicker. I enjoy the novelty of using food to address a creative brief, and if that means bells, whistles and dry ice then I’m all for it. Eventually, the quality cooking shines through. Unfortunately, there really is no excuse for anyone saying unctuous.
One of the most gratifying aspects of the show (perhaps even more so than puzzling over whether Richard Corrigan is a complete bastard or an inspiration) is the fact it reminds the nation that we have a thriving culinary world outside of London. While it’s almost inevitable that a chef from the capital will make it to the final banquet, Great British Menu has acted as a launch pad for numerous chefs from the regions. And the last two years have belonged to the North East. If 2015 saw the clamorous rise of Michael O’Hare, 2016 witnessed the humble ascension of Tommy Banks.
The self-taught farm boy charmed judges and viewers alike with his care for local produce, respect for his peers and firm family values. Also, his cooking is wonderful and he looks like a superhero.
My overt GBM fanboying was handsomely rewarded by a fellow believer, who offered a seat at a table of six for lunch at The Black Swan at Oldstead, Tommy’s North Yorkshire Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms. Welcomed by a beamed ceiling, exposed stonework, roaring fire, cocktails scrawled on the blackboard, couches, armchairs, candles and a library of Ordnance Survey maps, there was never the faintest threat of stuffy big city fine dining. This is more Middle Earth than Big Smoke.
And yet, the dining was indeed fine. I often find long lunches to be a more pleasurable way to navigate a tasting menu than booking in for a late night. I’m more attentive in the daylight, have more patience and am quite content to sleep off the excess in the late afternoon. Our thirteen-course menu may have had a similar running time to Return of the King, but it played out fluently and captivatingly, with utter precision and the odd touch of magic. Let’s break it down:
Relaxing by the fire with a rhubarb and apple martini, we were presented with the pre-match nibbles. The smoked eel and apple tartlets packed bold, umami cheese, sharp fruit and deep salty fish into the daintiest pastry basket imaginable; the ox cheek croquettes offered an overwhelmingly beefy bite, grounded by a smooth cauliflower puree. We were then led to our table in a gastronomic stupor.
The langoustine with caramelised whey and chicken dumpling were only slightly more sizeable but equally impressive. The trick is not in transforming flavours in order to surprise, but in heightening the essential properties of each individual ingredient.
Spelt risotto (topped with much black truffle) was a creamy, savoury joy. By the time we’d scooped the last of the sauce from the rustically ornate blue bowls, we were finally ready for our bread and butter. Ready but not prepared. We should have known, by its inclusion as a course, that this would be more than ordinary. The homemade sourdough loaf was stunning in its own right but the sour butter, developed to the point at which it is transitioning to cheese, was unassumingly sensational.
I never thought I’d get excited about beetroot. I’m not really sure I even like it that much. But if you baste it with enough beef fat and adorn it with goats cheese dots and seed tuiles then I’ll make an exception.
Blow torched scallops with rhubarb were a highlight. Sweet seafood, sharp rhubarb, buttery emulsion and artichoke crisps makes for a rather awesome foursome. The quality didn’t quite carry through to the halibut with celery and celeriac. The slight overcooking of the fish was a minor blot on an otherwise faultless meal. Very pretty though.
The meat course was venison with shredded sprouts and a red cabbage puree. The deer, glazed with homemade black garlic was as tender as you could wish, which was a mercy as by this point we were all full to bursting and tired of chewing.
A man must be judged by his ability to overcome adversity so, despite expanding stomachs, we powered on through the trio of desserts. The lollipops of flavoured gels and parfaits provided interactive fun before we were treated to the superstar pud. The sheep’s milk ice cream with Douglas fir oil parfait, an iteration of one of Tommy’s GBM successes, was a triumph in showcasing unusual flavours. Likewise, you’re unlikely to find an artichoke, chicory root and thyme cake in your local deli; but it works.
At £85, the tasting menu is not cheap (I speculate that the £50 lunch option is ample, if not exhaustive). But, you do get what you pay for. Diners can look forward to the results of quality, homegrown ingredients, culinary curiosity, refined technique and fully realised flavours. All in all, it’s a great, British menu.