British Seasonal Food by Mark Hix
Published in paperback on March 4th 2011 (Quadrille, £14.99)
Photography © Jason Lowe
Razor Clams With Wild Boar Bacon and Hedgerow Garlic
Mark Hix grew up in a house so close to the sea in Dorset that he could spot mackerel from his bedroom window. At school he learned how to kill and pluck chickens and after lessons would sidle over to the pier to go prawning with his mates.
Brought up by his grandparents, Hix describes eating simple suppers of nothing more than his Grandad’s homegrown tomatoes served with dark brown Sarson’s malt vinegar, salt and buttered bread. Or a bowl of freshly boiled onions with melted butter. His Gran swore the home-grown onions would keep colds away, but he suspected they ate them because they were cheap. It was ‘a simple household’ where there was ‘nothing posh, just honest, earthy ingredients.’ His evocations of a frugal but happy childhood make British Seasonal Food a quirkily charming book. The recipes make it a great one.
While Mark Hix was eating tomatoes and Sarson’s by the sea, I was eating beetroot dipped in the same brand of vinegar a few miles along the coast. I recognise the childhood he describes. But what he has succeeded in doing is transforming those fleeting memories of sea air, shrimping, home-grown cucumbers and his Grandad’s prized chrysanthemums into a style of cooking that’s strikingly original.
The recipes he describes for razor clams with hedgerow garlic, skate cheeks, cod’s tongues, rabbit brawn, lovage leaf fritters and fried green tomatoes in beer batter are honest but supremely artful dishes that combine local, home-grown and foraged ingredients to magical effect. I imagine his Gran would have sniffed that the recipes are ‘too fancy’. My Great Aunt, provider of the beetroot of my childhood, certainly would have done.
Hix is notorious for his energy and has a ferocious appetite for work. True to his grandparents’ values he still forages for wild mushrooms and seashore plants because otherwise it would be ‘like ignoring free food.’ British Seasonal Food, in this new paperback edition, includes recipes for soused gurnard with sea purslane, fried duck’s egg with brown shrimps and sprue asparagus, as well as elderflower ice cream, apple mayonnaise and homemade celery salt. Most are relatively straightforward to make, if sometimes challenging to shop for.
Mark Hix now has three London restaurants as well as Hix Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis, a few miles west of his old childhood home. He has the kind of crumpled, creased face that Gordon Ramsay used to have and arms like a no-nonsense hospital matron. But his food is delicate, exquisite and inspired.
This is the first Eggs on the Roof book review. There will be more reviews later in the year.
A great friend gave me a present this week — a copy of food writer M. F. K. Fisher’s 1968 book With Bold Knife and Fork. She’d spotted it in the window of a junk shop and knew I’d love it. The book fell open and my eyes fixed on the fabulous phrase ‘Mushrooms are friends of mine’.
At my first job interview to become a trainee journalist I was asked ‘Are you in love with words?’ It’s a question that was, and still is, impossible to answer. But I think there’s a case to say that the question ‘Are you friends with mushrooms?’ is even harder.
Mushroom and Chestnut Pies
These pies are spectacularly good and if left to go cold make the most perfect snack for a picnic — one of the great pleasures in life. I’d even go so far as to say that ‘picnics are friends of mine’.
4 large field mushrooms
Around 4 tablespoons olive oil
Small knob of butter
2 small red onions
1 clove garlic
2 sticks celery
Handful fresh thyme leaves
12 cooked chestnuts (optional, or you could use walnuts, but these too are optional)
Half teaspoon ground cumin
Half teaspoon fennel seeds
I ball mozzarella
20g cheddar or other hard cheese such as gruyere
1 tablespoon creme fraiche
Puff pastry sheet
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C.
The idea of these pies is that the mushroom itself should form the base of the pie. The filling is both creamy and savoury, while the puff pastry on top is flaky and light.
With a pointed knife remove the stalks from the mushrooms, along with a frill of the gills. Chop finely and put to one side.
Finely chop the garlic and onions and fry them gently in the butter and olive oil, reserving a tablespoon of oil for later. Cook for five minutes until soft but not brown. Add the fennel seed and cumin and then the finely chopped celery and cook for a further five minutes. Add the finely chopped leek, the reserved chopped mushroom stalks, the crumbled chestnuts if using and the thyme leaves. Cook for another five minutes. Stir in the creme fraiche and season with salt and black pepper.
Put the remaining olive oil in the palm of your hand and smooth the bases of the mushrooms around your palm to coat them in oil. Place the mushrooms in a heatproof dish and heap the cooked mixture inside each one. Divide the two cheeses equally between the mushrooms and sprinkle over the top. Cook the mushrooms in the oven for fifteen minutes until the cheese is bubbling and melted. Cut the puff pastry sheet into circles the same size as each mushroom and place them on top. The mushrooms will vary in size — I found I needed to cut the pastry with a mug, a glass and a small measuring cup to get the circles to fit snugly. Brush beaten egg over the pastry. Replace the pastry-topped mushrooms in the oven and cook for a further fifteen minutes until the tops are golden and crisp. Allow to cool slightly and serve with a green salad.
What better friends could you have than mushrooms and someone who comes to the door bearing gifts?
When I was a breakfast TV reporter my producer Brian, who longed to make arthouse films, used to groan that we were being forced to explore ‘the u-bend of British television’. He said we’d plumbed new depths the morning I did a live parachute jump strapped into the same suit as a member of the Red Devils sky-diving team.
I thought of Brian today when I discovered the truly awful novels of Amanda McKittrick Ros. Born in 1860 and a shocking social climber, she thoroughly deserves her title ‘the best worst novelist ever’. Brian would have wept if he’d ever read this: ‘The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthly future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing.’ It’s no wonder that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis used to read her work aloud to each other to see who would collapse into giggles first.
Miss McKittrick Ros was clearly addicted to the schoolgirl art of alliteration so I have a feeling she would have adored my Pecan Pear Pain Perdu. Since it’s Valentine’s Day any moment, I’ve produced a heart-shaped Pecan Pear Pain Perdu. But feel free to dump the soppy hearts if you’re not in the mood.
Pecan Pear Pain Perdu
For two people
1 large egg
4 teaspoons caster sugar
2 thick slices stale white bread — hence the term ‘perdu’ or ‘lost’. The slices can be no-nonsense oblongs or you can snip them with scissors into hearts — whichever shape matches your sensibilities or the state of your love life.
Handful pecan nuts
Halve the pears, peel and core them and then cut lengthways into 1mm thin slices. Put to one side. Break the egg into a shallow bowl, whisk with a fork and add 2 teaspoons of sugar and the milk. Dip the bread slices into the egg mixture, turning over to coat each side. Melt approximately 40g of butter in a frying pan over a medium heat. When hot and frothy, add the bread and fry for a couple of minutes on both sides until golden brown. Put each slice on a plate.
Wipe the frying pan with kitchen paper and then melt the remaining 40g of butter over a medium heat, along with the rest of the sugar. Stir until dissolved and then add the pear slices and the pecan nuts. Cook gently for 4 or 5 minutes until the pears are soft and golden and the nuts are well coated. Arrange the pears and nuts artfully over the bread.
Serve with creme fraiche and eat while reading Amanda McKittrick Ros aloud to your partner and staring into his or her ‘globes of glare’ — McKittrick Ros’ truly hideous term for eyes. Make sure you’re wearing sexy ‘southern necessaries’ — her term for knickers — and don’t, for goodness sake, break into ‘globules of liquid lava’ — that’s sweat darling, sweat.