FIRST CATCH YOUR RABBITS

At Longueville Manor, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the Channel Islands, fresh local produce is chef Andrew Baird's trump card. Michael Bateman talks Jersey Royals, cream, scallops, oysters, fresh garden vegetables - and wild bunnies

Jonathan Miller says that we don't show enough respect for potatoes. The difference between a good and a poor potato, he says is as marked as that between a grand cru classe wine and a plonk. (This is not, by the way, Dr Miller the theatre producer talking, but Mr Miller, the Fortnum & Mason food-hall buyer, who is something of an expert on potatoes).

How is the public to know what's what? The answer, suggests Mr Miller, might be to put labels on bags of potatoes as they do on wine. So you might get something like this: "Nadine. The waxiest of all potatoes. Grown for flavour on Alison and Barry Garner's farm in New Buckenham, Norfolk on light clay, the traditional base, `man's land', in order to maximise flavour, rather than a sandy base, `boys' soil', which gives a bigger yield but less tasty tubers. In spite of a dry summer, late rains assured a good finish. Good baked and boiled, hot or cold (for salads), or sliced and baked with milk or cream as a gratin (or Pommes Anna)."

Wouldn't this be more useful to consumers than so-called nutritional information offered on food packs? And why not? Energetic efforts have been made in the last few years to raise potato awareness. Varieties such as Pink Fir Apple and the French ratte have made their debuts on supermarket shelves. And there is more to growing potatoes than planting the right variety. As the people of Jersey know.

If there is a grand cru classe of the potato world it must be the Jersey Royal. The first potatoes of the season, grown under glassy surface in February, fetch pounds 2.50 a pound, with prices dropping when the main crop arrives.

The "wine" label for a Jersey potato would go something like this: "Jersey Royal Fluke (to give its authentic name). A classic variety grown in Jersey for over 100 years originated by Farmer Hugh de la Haye (1835-1906) by fluke. Given a huge potato with 15 eyes, he cut it into 15 pieces and planted them, expecting monster potatoes. Instead he was rewarded by clumps of small, kidney-shaped tubers with incomparable sweetness and flavour. Grown on hillsides sheltered from prevailing south-east winds, fertilised with iodine-rich seaweeds, these are considered the world's finest potatoes by some."

In Jersey, predictably, the Royals are a prominent feature on the menu of the Channel Islands's only Michelin-starred restaurant, Longueville Manor in St Saviour. Its young chef, Andrew Baird, 29, serves them in season (April to May) but such is the demand from customers he has to keep Jerseys on the menu all year, so he's obliged to scrape down the smallest potatoes from other Jersey main-crop varieties, Pentland Dell, Maris Piper, Estima.

In any case, they are not only Jersey-grown, they are grown to order by a lady down the road, dug and delivered on the day he needs them. Freshness is as important with a new potato as with any produce, he says. So delicate is a newly dug Royal it needs only rubbing with the finger to remove the skin. "They should be cooked as simply as possible," he says.

Andrew Baird is a Yorkshireman, son of a British Railways hotel chef (they used to be the top chefs in the country). Andrew worked with some famous chefs (such as the Mighty Quinn, Michael, of Ritz fame) before winning this hotel job at the tender age of 23.

Longueville Manor is a member of the Relais and Chateau chain, whose grand country houses are usually set in equally impressive gardens. The Manor is no exception, a very beautiful property which embraces a l2th- century nunnery. It is owned by the Lewis family. Malcolm Lewis, with sister Sue, runs it with the charm and efficiency you'd expect of a graduate of the Lausanne Hotel School. In fact, Longueville Manor is considered one of the finest hotels in Britain, having been chosen by the Egon Ronay Guide as Hotel of the Year in 1991 (it's in a lovely setting, looking up a wooded valley of oaks and planes, with meadows, coralled horses, beehives high on the banks, and black Australian swans strutting their stuff in the duck pond).

A big responsibility for a young chef, you might think, but in some respects Jersey is a chef's paradise. The gourmet potato is the least of it. There is quality fish, with freshly-caught brill and turbot always available. And there are whopping, firm-fleshed sea-bass weighing 8lb to 12lb, which can be filleted to make 18 portions. There are fabulous lobsters and spider crabs, too. They don't come cheap. "The French and Spanish are always waiting to snap up the premium fish," says Andrew. "They will pay silly money." Herds of Jersey cows produce the richest milk, cream and butter, though not meat. Beef and lamb have to be imported from mainland Britain. Game birds are almost non-existent, few birds of any kind escaping the guns of the mainland French.

But the good chef knows how to maximise local resources, such as plump native oysters from the new oyster beds in the Royal Bay of Grouville, patiently built up by Doug Le Masurier, exploiting the rocks at the limits of low tide, 1,500m from the shoreline. Andrew uses them to enhance fish dishes, adding a few poached in the cooking juices. "Though I must say I prefer to serve them au naturel."

Scallops are another famous local resource. Unlucky are we in Britain that we can only buy dredged scallops, soaked for 24 hours to plump them up and so full of water, that they boil hard when you try to cook them. Andrew only buys scallops collected by divers who gather them by hand from among the rocks. "It is very hard work. We use three full-time divers. We get through 100 dozen a week."

He serves scallops as a garnish with other fish, sea bass or lobster, or simply pan-fried with a saffron potato mash. "I'm not actually a fan of your oriental flavours," he confesses." But I do a scallop salad with sesame oil, chillies and soy sauce, in very small quantities."

He can also get his hands on some relatively free supplies. Mick the Mushroom Man and his son Jamie bring in a feast of fungi in season, chanterelles, shaggy ink caps, parasols, baby puffballs, honey fungus. His friend Julian Pritchard, when he's not fishing, takes out his gun-dogs Ben and Bernie with three polecats (large ferrets) and brings in wild rabbit, a real treat if you take the trouble to prepare them with care (see recipe).

A local farmer brings him a three-month-old suckling pig every week, which Andrew converts into something of a signature dish, jointing it, and roasting some parts, braising others, to produce a kind of Jersey choucroute, the crackling and pieces served atop a timbale (mould) of cider cabbage. Accompanying these set-pieces will be a cornucopia of tasty vegetables (the island's early season tomatoes may have been eclipsed by Dutch greenhouse production, but the flavour is still there).

Fruit, vegetables and herbs come from the walled kitchen garden. It may underline the 12th-century monastic spirit of the place, but it has a shorter, though dramatic history, having contained a row of greenhouses owned by a tomato-growing farming neighbour.

One fateful night in October, 1987, they woke up to a shattering explosion, as the glass roofs exploded under the force of the hurricane, hurling a million splinters of glass into every corner of their grounds, lawns, swimming pool, pond, rose gardens. It was a devastating blow, ripping out 70 fine mature trees from the valley walk behind the hotel. But nine years on, happily, they have not only repaired the damage, but they bought the neighbour's land to make it into a medieval kitchen garden with granite walls 20ft high.

This must help them save a lot of money on buying vegetables from the market? Owner Malcolm Lewis gives a hollow laugh. "It would be cheaper to get rid of the kitchen garden and the gardeners and buy the stuff. But that's not what it's all about."

Here is Andrew Baird's nourishing and tasty autumn broth of wild rabbit, cooked with fresh garden vegetables.

WILD RABBIT BROTH WITH NOODLES AND PESTO

Serves 4

2 wild rabbits

100g/4oz noodles

100g/4oz leek

100g/4oz carrot

100g/4oz celery

2 Savoy cabbages

100g/4oz onion

2 bayleaves

8 crushed peppercorns

6 juniper berries

50g/2oz basil

2 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

First of all you will need to find the rabbits. You may be lucky enough to know someone who will catch them for you; otherwise most local butchers will be able to get hold of some for you. Ask them to remove the rabbits' fur and portion them both into legs and loin. The remainder of the rabbit can be used for stock.

Peel and cut leek, carrot and celery into fairly neat dice. Place all the trimmings in a small stock pot together with the onion, bay leaf, peppercorns, juniper berries, one clove of garlic and all the rabbit trimmings (not legs and loin).

Cover with cold water and bring to simmer. Simmer and cook for two hours; when the rabbit stock is cooked, pass it through a strainer.

Meanwhile, season and roast loin and legs in a fairly hot oven (400F/200C/Gas 6). The loin will take approximately seven to eight minutes and should be fairly under done. The legs will take a little longer at around 12 to 15 minutes. Once cooked leave to rest.

Place the carrot, leek and celery in a saucepan, add one and a half pints of stock and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile remove rabbit from the bone and dice the meat.

Once vegetables are cooked add some shredded Savoy cabbage, the cooked noodles and the diced rabbit meat. Bring back to a simmer and add pesto (see below), season to taste.

Serve in a large soup plate.

To make your own pesto simply liquidise a clove of garlic with 50g (2oz) fresh basil and two tablespoons olive oil until smooth.

If you want to be adventurous and make your own noodles you will need a pasta machine to roll them out. The recipe is as follows:

250g/8oz "OO" pasta flour (Italian)

2 egg yolks

1 egg white

4 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

Place flour in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add egg yolks and egg white. Mix gently into flour.

Add olive oil and seasoning and knead into a smooth dough.

Wrap the dough in cling film, and place it in the fridge for one hour to rest before rolling out.

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