Terence Laybourne runs the most acclaimed restaurant in the North-east, called 21 Queen Street. The measure of the achievement can be put in perspective. Writing in 1982, Drew Smith - editor of the Good Food Guide - described the North-east as a "Black Hole of Gastronomy" and said it was time someone came up from London to sort them out. Can you imagine?
Well, Terence Laybourne was the one who sorted them out. A Geordie through and through, he comes from a mining family on his father's side, a shipbuilding family on his mother's. A life in cooking, it has to be admitted, seemed an unlikely option for a lad from Lemington, six miles west of Newcastle (across the Tyne from the Blaydon races). Family food was tasty but basic. "The nitty gritty is that there is no Geordie cuisine," says Terence. "North-east cuisine is primarily poverty cuisine. Nothing refined; it was cooking for men who worked in shipping or down a pit. They needed fodder, lots of energy, and it had to be cheap."
Pork, because it was less expensive than beef or lamb, was the main source of meat - not the expensive cuts, mind, but cheeks, knuckle, trotters. There was always a ham shank on the table, he remembers, with slices of bread 34in thick, and pease pudding. "It was blood and guts food. You'd start with broth, then the veg, huge chunks of potato, carrots and butter beans. Then the meat arrived."
There were stotties, too - thick, round, flat cakes, like heavy focaccia, which were bounced on the floor to see if they were done. And pot pies, better known as suet puddings. Suet and flour were the prime ingredients in a variety of puddings and "clooties" (dumplings cooked in a clootie, a cloth). The most famous was, and is, leek pudding, stuffed with chopped leeks.
Along with breeding whippets and pigeons, the main regional pastime among Geordie working men was competitive leek-growing. At this, Terence Laybourne makes a face: "These leeks are completely unsuitable for cooking," he explains. "They are big, watery and coarse."
It wasn't a love of food that led him into his chosen career. The slump in the North-east meant there were no jobs going in his special areas of interest - engineering, cars, motorbikes. A friend triggered his curiosity for hotel work, showing him pictures of decorative buffet displays, butter and ice carvings. At 15 he signed on at Newcastle's Swallow Hotel. It was pure chance that a mate urged him to apply for a job in the Channel Islands, starting an adventure in cooking that took him to some of the best resort hotels in Germany and Switzerland.
His first mentor was a severe German chef in Jersey, Claus Mollin. Impressed by Terence's application, he duly packed him off to Germany to master the hotel chef's skills. Four years later, on a break from Bad Ragaz, a spa town near the Engadine, Switzerland, he was smitten with homesickness. There he was in Switzer-land, working hard and saving money ("there was nothing to spend it on; I was surrounded by geriatrics"). Over in Newcastle were his mates, all having a good time. "I never went back."
Instead, he asked for a job with what was, in 1977, Newcastle's best restaurant - The Fisherman's Wharf. It was, as its name suggests, a fish restaurant, but to Terence's astonishment they served only frozen fish.
"I'd been working with the best ingredients," Terence says, "truffles, foie gras, fresh lobster, so this came as a real shock. I said to the owner, Franco Cetoloni: 'We're just 10 miles from the sea here. Why frozen fish?' 'It's cheaper,' said Franco, 'and Geordies can't tell the difference.' I said: 'I'm a Geordie, and I can; I can't believe I'm the only one.' I really dug my heels in."
Franco Cetoloni soon made him head chef and then put him in charge of a new restaurant, Fisherman's Lodge in the Jesmond district of Newcastle. Then Terence got married and honeymooned at Moulin des Mougins - Roger Verge's then three-star restaurant in Provence. His wife, Susan, was bowled over by it, and then Terence confided his own secret ambition to open a restaurant that aimed for the stars.
In 1988 he made the move, buying 21 Queen Street in what was then a charming but run-down corner of Newcastle. It was tucked away beside the city's famous iron bridge, the model for Sydney harbour bridge.
Cooking with tremendous verve and style, he was an instant success. One of his first reviews was by Emily Green of The Independent. "It gave us a bit of flying start," says Terence. The Good Food Guide and Ronay Guide joined in the praise, and suddenly the Michelin was in there, too, pinning its prized rosette on Terence Laybourne's proud chest.
He says there never has been a Geordie cuisine, but maybe there is now. Using his extraordinary professional skills, he has created a fusion of local ingredients which meet the expectations of local customers.
It hasn't been easy to find the raw materials. He's largely on his own there. "I do get turbot and sole from North Shields, but I wish there were more suppliers. I get lobster from Blyth, scampi from Berwick."
Northumberland is renowned for its Kielder Forest roe deer, and they appear on his menu. "But they're never seen in the locality," he says. "Most of them are sold on the hoof to Germany. Roe deer are small, delicate and tender. I don't know why the British go for the larger red deer." He gets delicious, small lamb from the moors, too - "but no one here wants lamb with small carcasses. Most of those are sold to Italy."
Terence's dishes, distinguished by an inventive and decorative presentation, derive from across the world. You'll find Chinese, Thai and Japanese touches (tempura-fried prawns with crisp cabbage and lobster cream) as well as shades of the Mediterranean (red mullet with roasted vegetables and tapenade). But it's easy to discern his Geordie roots, not to say his Geordie root vegetables, his butter bean mash, his pease pudding.
Also in evidence on the menu are ham shank, ham knuckle, braised pig cheek, pigs' trotters and other pork bits, popping up in different forms. Not least of them is his Newcastle choucroute, which contains smoked ham among five different pork cuts.
The Laybourne version of choucroute, that famous speciality of Alsace, is homely and easy to make. Here it is. For four people, you need a whole white cabbage, finely chopped, and sprinkled with coarse salt for an hour to remove its bitterness. Rinse the salt away, and drain.
Then fry half a chopped onion in duck or chicken fat (or in oil) till soft but not brown. Add the cabbage and toss well. When heated through, add six juniper berries, crushed, a pinch of dried thyme, a bay leaf, some roughly crushed peppercorns and a glass of white wine (Alsace Riesling by choice). Put on a tight-fitting lid (a Le Creuset casserole is ideal) and cook in a preheated oven for 35 minutes at 130C/250F/Gas 1.
TERRINE OF HAM KNUCKLE AND FOIE GRAS
4 ham knuckles
65ml/212fl oz white wine vinegar
2 large onions
3 celery sticks
1 bunch thyme
2 bay Ieaves
8 parsley stalks
12 head garlic
10 peppercorns, sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper
For the foie gras: 1 foie gras, about 625g/114lbs
112 teaspoons salt
14 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
12 teaspoon sugar
pinch of mace
2 tablespoons Armagnac
2 tablespoons tawny port
To make the terrine, begin three days before. Soak the ham knuckles overnight in cold water to cover. Place the foie gras in tepid water for 15 minutes to soften. Drain it, remove the fine outer skin and any veins, plunge into heavily iced water and chill in the fridge for four hours.
Dry it well on a clean cloth, place on a tray and season with the salt, ground pepper, sugar and mace. Sprinkle with Armagnac and port. Cover with clingfilm and marinate overnight.
Next day, allow the foie gras to return to room temperature, then roll in clingfilm into a sausage 30cm/12in long, and 5cm/2in in dia-meter. Wrap the clingfilm-covered sausage in foil and twist the ends tightly.
Bring a pan of water to the boil, reduce the heat, add the wrapped foie gras and poach at 70C/160F for 20 minutes - the water should be barely shivering - then plunge immediately into iced water. When it is cool, but not completely cold, twist the ends of the foil over again to pull the foie gras tighter and create a neat sausage. Chill overnight.
Place the knuckles in a large pan, add cold water to cover, bring to the boil, skim and add the vinegar, vegetables, herbs, cloves and peppercorns. Return to the boil, then simmer very gently for four hours. Remove ham knuckles and whole carrots, and discard everything else.
Line a 1.5 litre/212-pint cast-iron terrine with clingfilm. When the ham is cool enough to handle, strip off the skin and set aside. Strip off the meat in large chunks and cut the carrots into 5mm/14in slices.
Scrape and discard any excess fat from the ham and skin. Line the base of the terrine with a layer of skin, then fill to one third with ham, and scatter with most of the carrot. Season.
Unwrap the foie gras, discard any excess fat and lay the foie gras in the terrine. Pack the remaining ham and carrots around and over the foie gras, seasoning well. Finish with another layer of ham skin. Cover with clingfilm, place a wooden board on top, then add a very heavy weight. Chill, weighted overnight.
Turn out the terrine, cut into thick slices and brush with a little walnut oil. Season with sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Serve with pease pudding (below) and a leafy green salad, dressed in walnut oil.
275g/9oz yellow split peas
65ml/212fl oz walnut oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 pinch chopped blanched tarragon
salt and freshly ground white pepper
Cover peas with plenty of cold water and leave to steep overnight. When ready to cook, drain the peas, cover with fresh cold water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until tender. Drain, allow to cool and, when cold, place in a liquidiser or food processor. Add the walnut oil, vinegar, blanched tarragon and seasoning, then puree until smooth. !Reuse content