Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Imagine yourself in a pub..."

"Close your eyes. Imagine yourself in the Cotswolds in England. Imagine yourself surrounded by your friends and family. Welcome to the Kingham Plough, transported to Stratford, Ontario."

England's culinary community has been on a serious roll this century, with a lot of attention being generated by celebrity television chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Nigella Lawson, and Jamie Oliver (a great cook who's become an even better activist), along with celebrity chef/restaurateurs like Heston Blumenthal (of The Fat Duck fame) and Fergus Henderson (master of snout-to-tail cuisine at St. John in London, who I had the pleasure of hanging with at Lassdale Farm's Terroir dinner last March).  

My wife Lisa's family took us along on a trip to England a few years ago to a little farmhouse nestled in an idyllic countryside. The place had a great kitchen and a veggie garden in full swing so this was my kind of spot. But I knew we were in heaven when we walked to the end of the lane and found the local pub, where the ale was like nothing I've ever tasted and the food was fantastic. Fresh, creative, locally sourced - not the kind of scran I'd expected from an English local. This revelation  was my first gastropub experience.

My most recent gastropub experience was last week when my folks joined Lisa and me at The Prune for our first Stratford Chefs School Dinner of the season. I realize The Prune is not in any way shape or form a pub, but as our student host for the evening encouraged us to close our eyes and picture a pub in England, I found myself transported back to that authentic first experience.

The international chef who brought the English gastropub to Stratford was Emily Watkins of The Kingham Plough in the Cotswolds of Oxfordshire, England (that's her above leading the students in the kitchen). Chef Watkins is renowned for her use of seasonal and local ingredients on her daily-changing menu. Before becoming chef/proprietor at The Kingham Plough (which she runs with her husband Miles, who was also in Stratford with her) she cooked at the esteemed Fat Duck with the aforementioned Chef Blumenthal. I was therefore really, really excited about this meal, and it did not disappoint.

The first dish was a Crab Bon Bon afloat upon a Crab Soup. Setting the precedent for a series of dishes using a single ingredient in more than one way, the Bon Bon was crunchy on the outside and creamy and light on the inside with a little heat in there too, which balanced well with the rich bisque-like soup.

The entree was a loin of venison coated with a beetroot jelly and topped with a horseradish foam, served alongside a beetroot potato maxim (BTW 'beetroot' is what Brits call 'beets'). The use of the sous vide method to cook the venison allowed for every area of the loin to be perfectly, uniformly rare, which rendered it very much the same colour as the garnet red beets that surrounded and enveloped it - a trick of the palette reflecting Chef's clever, artistic and world-class cooking. And local and seasonal, as I gathered Chef Watkins picked up the beets for this meal at the Slow Food Sunday Market!

I think everyone's favourite dish of the night however was the Cheltenham Cheese Pudding. Modest-looking but spectacular in its sharp taste and airy texture, it was served topped with thyme and apple and accompanied by an aged cheese crouton that was out of this world. Over dinner I mentioned how much I would like to learn how to make this dish, and was chuffed to find out that diners were all being given copies of the recipe on their way out!

For dessert we all indulged in a winter treat with a malted chocolate parfait and crispy chocolate mousse alongside a shot of hot chocolate sauce.

After dinner was finished Chef Watkins came out to chat with the diners alongside the student chef she had mentored through this fantastic meal - Whitney van Manen. Once again, the Stratford Chefs School Dinner series brought an international star chef to our city, and for just one night we found ourselves eating true British gastropub fare. 

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