Cheoff

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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!

An Evening With Prue Leith CBE... Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons - Menu

If you have come here from the link in my previous post about our evening with Prue Leith you’ll know that this is going to give details of the meal we enjoyed at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons on that night.

As soon as we arrived home the next day I completed the pressing task of praising the team who had given us such culinary pleasure.

My tweet extends to the busy, invisible kitchen team and all the servers who presented food and wine at our tables so discreetly and efficiently.

I didn’t check on any vintage of the Laurent Perrier served for the champagne reception but it was almost certainly a step up from our frequent 10 euro French supermarket purchases. It went down very well but I shall continue to seek and find its ‘country cousins’. They are capable of giving just as much pleasure in all sorts of other circumstances and for many different reasons. And I’ll continue to consider the best ways of finding champagne ‘cheapos’ of quality.

I was relieved to see that canapés were arranged as Prue would demand… rows of each variety rather than higgledy-piggledy scatter.

Here again is the menu which we were offered.

FOOD

Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons is all about perfection… so let me get the shocker out of the way first. Reader, I found crab shell in my starter. That’s it. That’s your lot on the jaw-dropping revelations. We can move on and I can tell you how lovely every single other element proved to be.

The crab was delicate and bedded on a light, moussy, avocado base. Chilli and radish were present but, as might be expected, they were judged so cleverly that they refused to overpower.

The risotto was a proper zingy affair. Spring vegetables at Le Manoir, thanks to gardener, Jennifer Pryke and her team, are the earlier and jealousy-inducing equivalent of what our raised beds at Chez Cheoff will produce in about eight weeks time. Acidity was the top note. Vegetable crunch and forgiving grains were secondary. If tomato essence was involved it had not achieved the ripeness of summer and announced itself with a youth and brashness which was even cheekier coming from the softness of rice. The whole thing could only be diminished in any way at all by memories of the outstanding September version from our first visit. Extract your own very best essence and cook this at home like I did!

Everything calmed down completely with the lamb. It would have been silly to get excited and miss out on the gentle reverence due to the animal and its treatment by the kitchen. Broad beans, peas, curly greens and mild baby onions were there too. I did wonder why there was so little gravy but the meat was so succulent that it had little need of extra juices. A wonderfully understated example of how to get the very best from nature.

Dessert had notes of a warmer, more tropical (passionate!) fruity season. Lighter milk chocolate and quintessential English tea soon pulled us back to a cooler climate and a suggestion that summer could wait its turn.


WINES

The wines were so cleverly chosen for us. I often search for a bottle which will impress without producing a warning letter from my bank. Here were three thrifty successes one after the other. Good value did not compromise quality. Our glasses were refilled unstintingly and I eventually called a halt to both the white and the red.

Domaine Henri Pelle Menetou-Salon Morogues 2015

This Sauvignon Blanc tells Sancerre to pack up and go on holiday for a few weeks. Great with the crab and then started to sing very loudly but in perfect harmony with the risotto. A really long finish from what many might pass by as a too safe, mid-range choice.

Domaine du Mortier, Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil les Graviers 2011

On previous trips to France the well-established Frédéric Mabileau has provided us with lovely reds from Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil. Relative newcomers, the Boisard brothers, have produced wines which offer much of the quality of their neighbour and might just approach the rather special, infrequently made, Mabileau ‘Eclipse’ given time. Their Cabernet Franc even had a hint of ‘chewiness’. Certainly much more than that wonderfully, meltingly tender lamb.

Domaine Delesvaux, Coteaux du Layon 2014

This was the same great wine which I had recently enjoyed at Gravetye Manor. It made exactly the same good impression as it had first time round. Worth tracking down... and I’m delighted to say that we’ll be close enough to do that on our next trip to France.

Three Loire wines which delivered much more than expected. The red and white in particular seemed perfectly in tune with the spring theme. Vibrant and playful, without the heaviness of fuller heat on grapes from further south.

 

This was a meal which, for the most part, did not excite. I have to qualify that immediately, of course. There were fine flavours, attention to detail, and a lovely sympathy given to every ingredient. But the shock of being confronted with a challenge from chefs who are pushing boundaries is not what goes on at Great Milton. The food placates you. Enjoyment is abundant but restrained. You are cosseted without being made to feel uncomfortable. You are forced into calm as you attempt to dissect all the wonderful detail of planning, care and process which is behind the delivery of your meal. Time and talk with fellow diners feels less frantic as well. I suppose it ultimately seems out of order to disturb the surrounding serenity of such a classic approach and such sophisticated presentation.

I will look elsewhere for ‘throbbing’(!) culinary thrills. But I will always hope to return to Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons for a totally different, but no less real, treat.

The whole evening was different in very many ways to our first experience of Le Manoir. But both occasions were hugely enjoyable. Oh, and instead of a single loved-up couple with eyes only for each other on our first visit there was at least one more doe-eyed duo at our second.

Sam Davey-Joy, ‘Marketing bird from Yorkshire’, summed up the evening much more succinctly than I have. Here’s a screen capture of her tweet which I’ll assume is in the public domain until she sues me for copyright.


So… two posts about one visit. But the prequel covering our Ruby Wedding celebration dining experience will complete a trilogy. Press me hard enough and I’ll divulge.

All images and content are the property of Geoff Griffiths. Copyright Geoff Griffiths 2014 ©