Naturally as a chef, I love the seasons. When the nights start to draw in and the afternoons start to turn a bit chilly, my mind starts to think about warmer, more comforting food. I start to think about some excellent locally shot game from Grizedale, some great shellfish from the West coast of Cumbria and I also look to the hedgerows for blackberries, elderberries, pears and if you’re super lucky maybe the odd quince here and there.
I’ve lived in Cumbria for 11 years, having been born in Essex and spent most of my working life in basement kitchens of hotels in London, it was a bit of a shock to move to such an amazing county. A county that still surprises me for its rich agricultural heritage, its fantastic people and probably most importantly it’s natural larder. Local produce in London didn’t really exist although they are some incredible food pioneers in London and the Home counties; it has nothing on this corner of the British Isles.
I live in Kirkby Stephen, a small farming town sitting close to the North Yorkshire and Durham borders. Both my two girls attend the local primary school and both are very lucky to have a circle of friends that include many children of farmers, cousins of farmers, grandchildren of farmers and so on. Life in a small farming town revolves around the seasons, particularly the life of a sheep farmer. Tupping, lambing, shearing are things the children talk about as well as One Direction, Jessie J and boys!
It wasn’t until we moved to Kirkby Stephen that I really recognised the whole local food movement and how it affects the local economy. It had never really occurred to me previously that the price I pay for my lamb in my kitchen affects the livelihood of a farming family in my local area. At its most simple it’s a direct link between field and kitchen.
I also love using game in autumn and we get some great wood pigeon and venison from John Stott at Cartmel Valley Game Supplies. I’ve known John ever since I arrived in Cumbria and he provides an incredible array of local game. He also has a fantastic smokehouse but that’s another story! Wood pigeon is something that we use as a starter, quickly cooked, served pink and works well with some love sharp blackberries, some smooth Jerusalem artichoke puree, peppery watercress and a rich red wine sauce. Don’t bother using the legs from the pigeon, just the breast meat.
Venison is my favourite meat, low in fat, high in taste, although it can be an expensive meat; I always try to match some expensive loin with some cheaper cuts to make it more affordable. We tend to buy whole saddles of venison, then butcher it ourselves, keeping all the trimmings to make some venison mince and cleaning and trimming the loins. With chefs (and customers) becoming more sophisticated in our cooking and eating, we use a water bath to cook some of our cuts of meat. This involves vacuum packing our portions of food, in this case venison, cooking at a fairly low, but food safe temperature, then a final cooking in butter. Cooking at low temperature doesn’t damage the muscle structure of the meat, producing a better eating experience. It also produces a very even cooking that you can’t achieve with conventional oven cooking.
With my venison mince I would make a little venison cottage pie, a great wholesome dish on its own, but served as a garnish, it works fantastically well. Roots and tubers are coming into their best, so to eat with the venison I would serve some roasted baby beetroots, a celeriac puree, some buttered curly kale. For a little fruity richness, some lovely caramelised quince pieces. Serve the venison loin cooked pink, a miniature cottage pie and finish with a red wine sauce spiked with a little cracked black pepper.