How I created my winning Devon Home Cook menu
PUBLISHED: 12:30 18 April 2016
Alex Murdin, winner of the 2016 Devon Home Cook competition, reveals the creative thinking behind his menu and shares a seasonal recipe
There’s a cold wind on Dartmoor but it smells like coconut. It’s early spring, I’m walking along the Dartmoor Way, down towards the sound of the splashing River Swincombe.
I feel the biting easterly wind on my cheeks, even though there’s a bright sun above. It is this light that turns the yellow flowers of the gorse into flame against the pale browns of the grass and heather.
The smell makes me think of where the frothy white river is flowing to. It joins the West Dart half a mile away and then tumbling down through the steep sided gorges to Dartmouth and out to a wide ocean that ultimately laps the coconut palmed shores of far off golden beaches.
As an artist this experience of smell, sight, sound, and touch in the seemingly bleak landscape of Dartmoor, which leads me to think of far off places, is the same as experiencing an artwork where the senses we use let the art transport us to the idea of a new place.
Instead of making a video or a sculpture from my experience of the gorse and moor I came to think of a menu, the one I ended up cooking for the Devon Life Home Chef of the Year competition.
The three courses were to be the journey I had made in my mind - but in reverse.
Starting by the sea at Dartmouth, the first course was a lemony tartare of Start Bay scallops with smoked salmon from Mike’s Kingsbridge smokehouse, dotted with peppery, rose flavoured Grains of Paradise to evoke the far away shores where intrepid sailors from Dartmouth once traded.
Following the salmon upstream the main course brought me up to the hills of Dartmoor where the roe deer slip silently through the woods. The loin of roe deer was accompanied by beetroot fondant, red cabbage and apple, parsnip pureed, deep fried parsnip string and a red wine sauce.
The whole was a palette which recalled the deep purples of the heather, earthy peaty brown pools and the white marbling of quartz in granite.
The dessert brought me home to a warming fire after a cold day on Dartmoor with one of my wife’s recipes for a pear and almond cake and the added comfort of pear brandy and Langage clotted cream.
I continue to find the landscape of Dartmoor an inspiration. To really know a place you have to eat it. This can however present a challenge and early spring is always a difficult time of year for anyone who wants to taste the place they live.
The worst of the winter is probably over and the snowdrops and daffodils, while welcome, are poisonous. But there are still tastes to be had. I frequently walk along the banks of the river Dart near my home and in the oak woods around New Bridge Wood Sorrel can be found all year round. These little bright green plants nestle at the base of deciduous trees.
Recognisable by their delicate trifoliate leaves (sometimes referred to as a shamrock), slender crimson tipped stems and white flowers in the summer they have a spring fresh slightly sour lemon flavour, a zing that makes the lips pucker. As they grow by the Dart I pair the Wood Sorrel with smoked brown trout and lightly pickled slices of fennel, adding a few primrose flowers for their delicate scent.
Further downstream by the medieval arches of Staverton Bridge the Wild Garlic, also called Ramsons, are now coming up. When you come across a patch of them there no mistaking the slightly overwhelming sweet garlicky smell and mass of dark green spear like leaves with sprays of small white flowers.
The taste of raw Wild Garlic can also be a bit too much and the secret to cooking with it is to make it into a vibrant green pesto. Blend the washed leaves with rapeseed oil, hazlenuts and a hard tangy cheese like a Devon Oke. Once made this can be used in many ways, as the star of the show in a dish using it to marinate spring lamb, or drizzling over Romanesco broccoli, or spreading on a thin slice of the new Emmenthal-like Haytor cheese from Curworthy to make the best cheese toastie.
One of the best dishes I have ever tasted used wild garlic. After winning the Devon Life Home Cook of the year competition I was fortunate to win a morning cooking with Anton Piotrowski and the team at his Michelin starred Treby Arms near Ivybridge. One of the dishes Anton cooked for me was a dish of coral pink salmon, an emerald wild garlic sauce, pickled ruby-red rose petals, liberally coated with pearly horseradish and soy snow, a jewel of a plate.
A good plate of food is more though than a pretty picture, it something that stimulates all the senses, taste, smell, texture and even the sound of the tinkle of ice on glass. Add your memories of walks and swims in the woods and rivers and you have the final ingredient that makes it a work of art, an experience that takes you back to the smell of gorse and sound of the river.
Wild Garlic and cheese toastie (for 4)
I have recently become a big fan of Nordic cooking, made famous by the Nobu restaurant in Copenhagen. Earthy delicate flavours, sweet and sour combinations and a strong emphasis on foraged ingredients. Try this Devon version of a simple recipe for a Wild Garlic toastie from Simon Bajada’s “New Nordic” book. Once made the sauce can be used on many things, like a pesto sauce it’s great with pasta, roasted meet or cooked green vegetables. Be careful when picking wild plants, never eat something you are not sure about and always leave plenty left to grow next year (the “Hedgerow: River Cottage Handbook No 7” is a great place to start with identification).
75g salted Devon butter
8 thick slices of sourdough bread
200g of sliced cheese which melts well (try Curworthy’s Haytor cheese)
50g hard mature cheese, for example a Devon Oke
50g hazlenuts (or walnuts) lightly toasted.
1 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of white pepper
75ml rapeseed oil
Put all the ingredients for the Ramson paste in a blender and slowly add the oil until the mixture is fully combined. Check the taste and see if it needs seasoning. The sauce can be kept in the fridge for a few days if necessary. Butter one side of each slice of bread and then spread the paste on the unbuttered side of four slices, topping off with slices of cheese. Place the remaining slices of bread, butter side outwards on top. Then either put them in a sandwich toaster if they fit, or fry in a large frying pan for 3-4 minutes until golden brown, then flip and toast for 3-4 minutes on the other side. Use a heavy plate or dish of some sort to weigh them down whilst frying.