Great British Menu 2014, North West Heat Final

Great British Menu 2014, North West Heat Final

by Monica Shaw 19 April 2014

Week Two of Great British Menu 2014 finished with the North West of England finals. On Thursday we said goodbye to Mark Ellis, leaving Mary Ellen McTague and James Durrant to compete for a chance to serve veterans at a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

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Monica Shaw's mission is to enable people to feel awesome, through food, life, work and play.

Monica Shaw's mission is to enable people to feel awesome, through food, life, work and play.

This week our usual cast of judges - Prue Leith, Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton - were joined by war veteran George Batts who offered his special perspective on the dishes. Both chefs were under pressure to improve key aspects of their menus which didn’t do well during the heats; there was no saying who’d come out on top.

The meal kicked off with with James’ starter, "S-P-A-M", a spin on army ration meals, with spiced pork, molluscs, leeks, pickled onions, pork vinaigrette and a poem. The judges enjoyed it, but didn’t seem overly amazed. Matthew was perhaps most impressed, saying “the pig’s head is just soft and fibrous and vibrant and mellow”. But Oliver was uncertain about the role of the scallops. Still, “it tastes a lot better than the original SPAM,” said George.

Mary Ellen’s "Dig for Victory Salad" followed. The dish, inspired by the grow-your-own movement, featured a controversial “National Loaf”, sour milk cheese, beetroot, braised snails and salad cream. Initial impressions: “both very pretty and very unusual,” said Prue, who felt the dish did a good job of evoking the national spirit but “it’s not so much a pleasure to eat as James’ first course.” George added, “I’m being facetious with the snails - let’s face it, that’s every gardener’s hate."

The fish course saw both James and Mary Ellen offer their take on fish and chips, a favourite wartime treat.

James’ "Ultimate Fish & Chips" with cod cheeks, celeriac chips, mushy peas, curried monkfish and tartare sauce was unanimously booed. “Gosh I really don’t like this,” said Oliver, “The curry is competing with the monkfish.” And as to the celeriac chips: “Why not use a potato chip?!” asked George.

Mary Ellen’s "Vera’s Friday Night Fish Supper", inspired by her husband’s grandmother’s favourite meal, was much more well received despite scoring just a 4 during the heats. Clearly her improvements paid off: Megram sole, black pea puree, twice cooked chips and pickled egg puree with iced white tea on the side saw Matthew exclaim, “proper chips!” “Funny enough I like the black peas,” said Briggs. The judges, however, agreed that the dish, though tasty, was too plain. “I appreciate [the research],” said Oliver,”but that alone doesn’t make a winning dish."

Half-way through the meal, the judges agreed both chefs were neck and neck.

Mary Ellen was first up with her main course, “Bill’s Pot Mess”, named after her husband’s grandfather Bill who took part in the D-Day landings. It scored an 8 during the heats, and indeed impressed the judges, too. “Nice corned beef… it takes me back to when I landed,” said George, “I adore it.” Following corned beef came kale, beef sirloin, turnip, mushrooms and dumplings, finished with jus which Oliver called “absolutely delicious”: “what sets it off is the little jus that combines the flavours really well together.” “If this is what they had in the Navy mess, next time I’m joining the Navy,” said George.

Dig for victory
Dig for victory salad
Beetroot, parsnip and chocolate cake
Beetroot, parsnip and chocolate cake

But James would give her a run for her money with his main course, "Blitz Spirit" that scored a 10 during the heats, the highest scoring dish during the week. Presented as a sharing dish, the course featured beans in veal stock with veal sweetbreads, green beans, mushrooms, veal loin and bread crumbs fried in veal stock and butter. “A feast fit for a king”, Oliver called it, “it looks amazing.” George noted that the sharing aspect fits in well with wartime. As to the flavour? “The veal is a triumph,” said Oliver. “The veg is perfectly cooked,” said Prue, “This is one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten.” George agreed, “this is nothing short of miraculous.”

Mary Ellen still had a chance if her dessert went down a treat. Her "Beetroot, Parsnip and Chocolate Cake” was based on how vegetables were used as sweeteners during the war, and featured carrot toffee, hazelnut butter, beetroot chocolate brownie Scotch Egg with hazelnut egg white and bee pollen centre, finished with a beetroot marshmallow. Oliver said it looked great, but that was about where the compliments ended. “That’s fairly not nice,” said Prue, “The pollen honey middle is medicinally disgusting.” When she asked George if he liked it, he grimaced and said simply, “No.”

James’ take on Sticky Toffee Apple Pudding didn’t fare much better. Apple puree, walnut balls, toffee apples, dots of toffee sauce, sticky toffee pudding topped with a quenelle of cinnamon ice cream reminded George of a “bowling alley”. Oliver said, “I don’t think there’s one outstanding thing on the plate...I don’t care if I never see this again in my life."

All of the judges agreed that Mary Ellen’s interpretation was unbeatable, while James’ cooking was unbeatable. “Both deserve recognition,” said George. But it was the cooking that counted and with James’ main course stealing the show, scoring a 10 from all the judges, it was perhaps no surprise that James came out on top. This left a very disappointed (“but not surprised”) Mary Ellen to leave Great British Menu for the second time. Congratulations, James Durrant! Your main course was a hit - now what are you going to do about that fish course? We look forward to finding out …