Great British Menu 2016: Scottish heat recap

Great British Menu 2016: Scottish heat recap

by Food Urchin 04 September 2016

Danny Kingston looks back on the first week of Great British Menu, analysing the courses and camraderie between the three Scottish chefs as they battle for a place in the banquet.

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Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Great British Menu is back, for what seems like its 200th series and like a warm old friend, who likes to swear, sweat and generally cause an almighty mess in the kitchen, it looks like it will be business as usual for the show. That is, there will be peril. There will be pressure. There will be moments of glory, most certainly. And good ol’ Matthew Fort will get to say ‘well, we’re in for a blaady good treat and make no mistake’. At least three times, per show.

In keeping with the inherent themes of Britishness, Britannia and Blighty, the inspiration for our competing chefs are the Great Britons of this nation. The quiet overachievers, the humble chislers at the coal surface, the do-gooders who selflessly raise money, help others and improve our lives. You won’t have heard of any of them but still, it’s a lovely proposition. Moreover, these people will have all been awarded an MBE or OBE or whatevs; by her Royal Maj, the Queen! Who was ninety this year, don’t you know. So basically, in this series, the brief for the chefs has to encapsulate the rise and development of British food; throughout the second Elizabethan era; in honor of the ordinary and extraordinary folk; who make this country so great.

I’ll be honest, it’s all slightly tenuous but like the Gallagher brothers once said, you’ve gotta roll with it.

To kick off the competition, we had three chefs from north of the border enter the kitchen, namely Adam Handling, Michael Bremner and Ally McGrath. Actually, Ally is the only one who still cooks in his Scotland but no matter, judging by their broad brogues the other two still qualify. Although speaking of judging, I was surprised that there was no mention of Adam’s foray on MasterChef: The Professionals. He is a steely chap though, that Adam. I can imagine him saying prior to signing up, ‘I will do this programme but for God sakes don’t mention Masterchef!’

All are first timers on GBM and before discovering who was going to mentor and score them on their dishes throughout the week, there was a nervous kerfuffle amongst our three as to who it was going to be. Then, when Daniel Clifford walked through the door, it was like their worst fears were realised. Which perplexed me a bit as the chef-patron of Midsummer House and Flitch of Bacon, always comes across as decent sort of bloke really. But maybe the chefs know different though. Maybe Daniel is…..eeeeeevil. Mwahahahahaha.

Starting on Monday with the starters, the chefs had to line up, present in nifty wooden boxes and explain to teacher what their dishes were going to be. Adam went first with his ‘Boarding Passes Ready’, a take on a packed lunch that went beyond soggy tomato and cheese sandwiches. Consisting of potted ham, truffled cheese pies, chicken butter and curried mussels, his aim was to incorporate the best ingredients of the four home nations and introduce a little bit of fun; with little bags and little blob of wax. It tickled Daniel immensely, who awarded the dish an 8 but he also felt that some homemade lemonade wouldn’t go amiss.

Great British Menu
Great British Menu

Entertaining Ally was up next with his ‘Guts and Glory’, a veritable feast built from a whole wild Scottish rabbit, to epitomise the minerals needed to gain an award from the Queen. From that rabbit he gleaned a brined and seared loin, a haggis using the pluck, a confit leg and a Scotch egg and served up pickled onion crisps, fondant turnip and a rather fecal looking black pudding puree. All served on slate, for that wonderful, jangling cutlery on stone effect. Daniel, however, wasn’t that impressed. It said ‘Scotland on plate’. But ultimately, Daniel wanted ‘modern food, that is going to smash me in the face’. And for just a second, there was a glint in Ally’s eye.

Last up was Michael, who is based in Brighton at his esteemed restaurant 64 Degrees, and he served up a homage to that most famous of Scottish gardeners, Jim ‘Just Look at Ma Roots’ McColl. Called ‘The Beet Grove Garden’, his vegetarian starter looked to turn that classic of beetroot and goat's cheese salad on it’s head. By introducing birch sap, to introduce a ‘sweet and sour’ flavour, along with apple matchsticks and oatcake over a bowl of smoking douglas fir and birch leaves, the dish had plenty of whistles and bells. Alas, they didn’t chime for our mentor and Adam even went so far as to say that the beetroot part was ‘pointless.’ Mieow.

Mixed beginnings then but with the fish course round looming, you’d expect that our chefs would soon gain ground. Because as everyone knows, Scotland produces some of the best shellfish in the entire world. Plus our chefs are Scottish. So put them together and we should get 200%, at the very least. I know Daniel was expecting scores of nine and ten, and you know what, they all did rather well.

Adam again went first, hoping to bump his leading score up a couple of notches further with a dish called ‘The Jewels in Our Seas’. Once more looking to inject some fun and ‘funkiness’ into a classic combo of lobster, crab and scallops, the novel elements would consist of tempura, sea herbs and nasturtium leaves and that all-dramatic dry ice. He even tested his dish out on Captain Eric Melrose Brown, one of the greatest naval aviators of all time. With a massive collection of honors to his name, he deemed Adam’s course to be ‘superb’, as opposed to the food served up on aircraft carriers, which was ‘rubbish’. After tasting it for himself, Daniel had to agree. Although his crab sauce could have been warmer.

Great British Menu
Great British Menu

Salmon was to be the main star for Ally’s dish, which was curious because the chef openly admitted that he didn’t particularly like the fish. He ploughed on nevertheless, dressing his lightly poached salmon with crabmeat and scallops, along with pickled fennel, fennel puree, salt and vinegar crispy kale and a scattering of sea herbs, on a shore of pebbles and seaweed. As it was similar to Adam’s approach, the former Masterchef contestant admitted he was a little worried but fussy Daniel felt that Ally’s presentation could have been better and ribbed him for pouring too much crab sauce on the plate. Again, that crab sauce. Damn.

Whilst all this was going on, Michael was calmly preparing his course called ‘A Message to the Lode Star’ using humble mackerel and an old salty dog called Willie Hay CBE, as inspiration. As Daniel commented, it was a ‘big risk using a poor man’s food and to try and make it banquet worthy’, but Michael evidently had lots of tricks up his sleeves. Set into half a wine bottle with a poem attached the mackerel, which was lightly cured, marked the start of a journey or five stages, that aligned perfectly with the brief of food through the ages. Second to mackerel came a potato and caper salad. The third pickled vegetable. Fourth, a steamed clam delicately wrapped in a pancetta and dashi gel. And last but not least, a cooked oyster, topped with an oyster emulsion. It moved Daniel to tears and he gave it a unequivocal ten, which was all very lovely to watch. I mean, in the past, I’ve been moved to tears by shellfish before. But for entirely different reasons.

From almighty highs then, it might have come to no surprise that things came crashing down to earth for the mains round. All three chefs were emboldened from the previous day but all three took their eyes of the ball a touch.

Taking things to a Spinal Tap 11, Michael promised an intriguing course based around mallard but it soon became as unfathomable as it’s name, ‘The Rose of Eskdalemiur’. Well, maybe not unfathomable but Daniel certainly had trouble pronouncing it. Using king oyster and girolle mushrooms, along with fondant onion topped with truffle and stovies, constructed with potatoes and confit leg meat, it all looked rather impressive. Yet Daniel felt let down by Michael’s beguiling-sounding blackberry and beeswax puree, and he really didn’t like the mallard.

At first, I thought Ally had named his main course ‘The Badboys of Britain’ but that was just down to my unaccustomed ears. It was actually called ‘Backbone of Britain’ in reference to the aforementioned people who raise money for charity, come rain or shine. He tested his dish out on Lynne McNicall OBE, who runs It’s Good 2 Give, out in the open and going by her words, ‘If he can do it lochside, he can do it in the kitchen’ – you would have thought he was in with a fighting chance. His combination of sirloin with beef shin, smoked marrow and mushroom ketchup sang modern cooking. However strong the story though, for Daniel, the portion size was too big and the steak, caramelised with butter and thyme needed to be rested longer.

Adam probably had the biggest fall from grace in this round, because he wanted to take on the mighty Sunday roast and give it some Asian flavour with his ‘Great British Dinner’. And fair play to him, as he definitely brought a host of premium ingredients to table, in the form Scottish wagyu beef, poached langoustines and courgette flowers; stuffed with a ginger, lime and langoustine mousse. A diverse plate that reflected Britain today. Perhaps the stumbling block here though was a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and Daniel felt that it didn’t really fit the brief. ‘This is a course for lunch, not dinner,’ he said. Which must have been tough to swallow for this passionate, young chef.

Great British Menu
Great British Menu

With everything to play for then, the final dessert round loomed and Adam, despite getting a shoe-ing for introducing unknown elements in the previous round decided that he was going to make a lemon meringue pie, using yuzu instead of lemons. Thus demonstrating that he truly does have balls of steel. And going down the deconstructed route seemed to increase the jeopardy further. Rather than serve up a pie whole, he dotted the plate with piped meringue, yuzu curd with a raspberry sauce secreted inside, aerated white chocolate, smashed peanut butter shortbread and garnish of confit lemon peel and verbena, and dry ice! Phew. But it all worked. Daniel felt that it was a touch too sweet and needed sharpening up, but it worked. And so did the whisky.

For all of Adam’s innovation, Michael’s approach based upon childhood memories and called ‘Home Sweet Home’ seemed by contrast, a bit too gimmicky. Essentially a take on jelly and ice cream, with shortbread, salted caramel and whisky thrown into the mix, the notion of toasting sticks of chocolate ganache covered with meringue over a mini torch divided the dessert rather than bring it together. Daniel thought it was fun but that was about it.

Ally, having mastered the dark art of tempering chocolate during a quick ten minute chat with a friend, looked like he was going to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He certainly had a tense time of it but his pudding, named defiantly ‘No One Harms Me With Impunity’ and centered on ‘The Order of the Thistle’, had a lot going for it. Matching colours with Scotland’s national flower (and highest order) he plated up a handsome bowl of pistachio mousse and sponge, cherry sorbet and syrup, aerated dark chocolate, freeze dried cherries and topped with the medal, made from tempered white chocolate and edible transfer. It was, in Daniel’s words, his strongest dish and when it came to scoring, brought him level with Michael.

Adam went through but given the tie-break situation, Daniel had to make a decision based on the quality of both their dishes throughout the week and because Michael had wowed so much with his fish dish, that got him through. Of course, Ally was gutted.

The final judges round would obviously have the final say as to who would go through to compete for the banquet and helping out Prue, Oliver and Matt on this occasion was none other than journalist and former kitchen porter Tim Hayward. A man venerated for his writing and passion for food but who should also be avoided in public, due to his unhealthy preoccupation with sharp knives.

Matt was particularly delightful and cutting about Adam’s starter by smirking ‘well, if this a celebration of food at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, it shows just how far we’ve come’. Although Tim had plenty of applause for his chicken butter and Oliver still swooned over his ham.

Michael’s fish course was met with undulating admiration from everyone with coo’s of ‘phenomenal’, ‘interestingly intriguing’ and ‘every flavour was faultless.’ But his re-jigged mallard dish was pronounced as a ‘monument of caramelisation’, ‘dry, metallic’ and that his ‘mushroom didn’t taste like mushroom, his onion didn’t taste like onion’. I mean, good Lord, what would the sadly departed Willy Wonka say about that?!

Both their desserts received mixed responses too. Although I did giggle at Tim’s astute observation that there was something ‘red and liquid-y’ in Adams yuzu meringue and laughed out loud when Matt bellowed ‘IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, YOU JOYLESS LOT!’ on hearing doubtful murmurings about Michael’s pud.

It was a close one to call but it seemed that Michael’s innovative, all 10 scoring fish dish that propelled him through to the final heats. Asked about how he felt, Adam went on to say that it was ‘like you went down my throat and pulled my heart out’. Which, judging by the look on his face was a coded sort of response, but hopefully we’ll see him back on GBM in the future. Either that or as a critic diner on the next series of Masterchef: The Professionals.

Next week, it’s the south west. Yarp.