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Le Champignon Sauvage - Thirty Magnificent Years

August 15 2017

I have known for a long time that a remarkable anniversary would take place this year. I meant to find out much earlier exactly what the date of that anniversary might be. To my shame, social media finally let me know.

At 6:45 pm tonight I telephoned ‘Le Champignon Sauvage’ to ask if today was the day. David Everitt-Matthias answered and confirmed that it was. I uttered congratulations that were garbled, perhaps even unconvincing, and certainly nowhere near as huge and heartfelt as I had intended.

So I resort to this place where I bring thoughts and occasionally assemble almost the right words to express them.

Please look yourself for links to stories, achievements, awards and recipes which have been generated by David and Helen and their teams. You will also find reference to a staggering brigade of talented chefs who have benefited from training and influence in that Cheltenham kitchen.

You can find a good account here of the man and woman responsible for the restaurant which Cheltenham and the rest of the world are so fortunate to have.

This extract confirms one more remarkable, recurring event in the thirty year existence of that truly wonderful place:

Married two years earlier, after meeting at the Four Seasons where Helen worked front of house, the couple moved to Cheltenham Spa in the Cotswolds to open their dream restaurant in 1987. David Everitt-Matthias has not missed a service since.

Thousands of services, of course. So far I have been utterly privileged to be a customer at table for three of those services. Our son James, already a keen and adventurous cook at a much earlier age than me, alerted me to David’s cookbooks and we both started to enjoy working at the recipes.

In 2010, a year after publication of ‘essence’, Jan and I booked to eat for the first time. After a meal every bit as wonderful as hoped for we could only imagine that an overheard whisper might explain the candle which was lit on a petit four. Helen apologised for what we had completely failed to notice as her ‘lack of attention’. She gave us our bill and explained that she did not dare spend too long at our table for fear of giving the game away. James had telephoned and pre-paid our bill as a joint birthday present. His writing looks a lot like Helen's, don't you think?

Exactly a year and one week later we were back. James was with us to celebrate his thirtieth… which means that I was now celebrating my sixtieth! Jonathan joined us to complete the duo of sons who have given us even more pleasure than a visit to @Lechampsauvage. The meal was a riot of excellence and enjoyment but my abiding memory must be the look of wonder, recognition and delight on James’ face over the starter which Helen presented and described to him.

Those two autumn visits were followed five years after by a late July booking with sons and their partners.

We all relished the complexity, creativity and demands of a meal cooked by David and his brigade. I had the best rabbit starter which exists inside the Orion Arm of the Milky Way and saw page 139 of ‘beyond essence’ come to life as my dessert. The huge impact of our first visit has grown with each subsequent meal.

A whirl of techniques, combinations and visual aesthetics might confuse but Helen and team are on hand to help with choices and answer all questions. With so much on offer in each course it is fairly easy to lose track of exactly what you have experienced. That is one reason why I have not yet attempted to properly describe full details of our meals on these pages. But there is one inescapably clear thing when you eat David’s food. Be it a fine cut or a humble, foraged plant, you will experience the fullest and most faithful flavours in each ingredient and in every mouthful. We all assume that the results of such accomplishment come at a price. And yet, Le Champignon Sauvage still offers stupidly good value for money whichever menu you choose.

Don’t take my word (or Jay Rayner’s!) for it. Go and see and taste for yourself. I won’t be too jealous if you do... we are booked in again this October!

Last week I foraged for bullace and stripped half a kilo of lemon verbena leaves to make a sorbet and a jelly, relying for both on David’s recipes. So, I was still busy missing the chance to make a fuss of the very person whose goodness I continue to grab.

Too much side-tracking from me, as usual. Let's get to the important part.

I am very much aware that hundreds of people have contributed to the success of this Cheltenham restaurant over its history. But, for the most part, this is my personal thanks to David for what he has brought into my life. I know how gentle and humble he is. The testament of chefs who have worked with him confirm that. He has proved immensely generous to me in direct and indirect ways. I have been able to build up reference points to make a better balanced judgement of his achievements (and there are others who have comparable, if different culinary skills). But I am already convinced that none of them will match him for the glorious excitement which I find in eating his food and in trying to cook it. 

Of course, there is one other person who needs further inclusion. Helen, so smart mentally and in appearance, is an integral part of the restaurant experience. Granted, she is a seasoned professional but how easily she glides from the assurance which that gives into other modes. These include the ability to identify opportunities for mischievous humour and the subtle raising of an eyebrow, steering you towards a much more interesting and rewarding choice from the wine list. I could quite understand some wishing for a quieter service when they might enjoy even more of Helen’s attentions.

Le Champignon Sauvage would undoubtedly have been a great thing if it had simply been David's work but sharing his dream with Helen has made the whole thing become a beautiful affair.

I salute both Helen and David for the thirty year milestone which they have passed and repeat my thanks and congratulations to them for creating something so very, very special.

And, yes, I am posting this a day in arrears after editing it to my liking. Late to the pass. Not exactly up to David's standards but "Better late than never"... as he would never say!

Flat Iron Steak

There is no secret about the value and flavour of flat iron steak but it would be daft if I didn't give it a mention here just in case its delights have passed anyone by.

This particular cut was in the plan for a barbecue lunch with friends in the middle of last week. The ornery old British summer produced one of those frustrating days which led to adjustments in the cooking. All food was delivered after preparation in the kitchen... and after enjoying the meal our guests left just as a dry, perfectly behaved, warm summer evening was beginning. Grrr.

I decided to marinate the meat for an hour in this mix:

2 teaspoons Worcestershire Sauce
A pinch of chipotle chilli flakes
A good grind of black pepper
4 tablespoons Glenmorangie whisky (other malts are available!)

Meat purchased (as always!) from Brown's Family Butchers, Grimsby

Don't fret too much about extra treatments for this cut. If cooked properly, it still contains enough flavour without additions. Cook it on a medium to high heat for five to six minutes each side. Spoon over some more dashes of marinade if using. And then do the most important thing... let it rest. Wrap or loosely cover with foil for ten minutes. The whole thing will be stressed and excited for a while but all that muscle, veined with fat, rewards you richly if you wait for the science of cooking to take over and deliver.

This shows half of the slab I bought after the cooking and resting. I eventually chose to grill the meat. A griddle pan would be fine... and the barbecue should, of course, be considered if you are reading this in the south of France!  

More contact colour would have been achieved on coals or a hot pan but the succulence and flavour was up to standard. This cut delivers much more than its price at your local butcher would suggest. I really should divulge Mrs. Cheoff's recipe for 'Smoky Barbecue Sauce' at this point, shouldn't I. Let's leave that in prospect for another post when the weather is getting us all igniting bags of charcoal again, eh.

If I have happened to catch up with anyone here who hasn't yet tried flat iron steak... TRY IT!

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