LUDLOW'S MICHELIN MAN

NEW BRITISH CLASSICS 4: SCALLOPS WITH LENTIL AND CORIANDER SAUCE: Shaun Hill came to town, and Shropshire found itself on the culinary map. Michael Bateman continues his series defining the new British cuisine

SHROPSHIRE isn't renowned for its country cuisine, more for a famous poem. In fact, A E Housman's "A Shropshire Lad" was written 100 years ago this year. And suddenly Shropshire is worth a detour, as they say of Michelin Guide recommendations. The Shropshire lad that everyone is talking about is Shaun Hill, who, within a year of opening his restaurant The Merchant House in Ludlow has carried off an envied Michelin star.

In truth, Shaun Hill is a bit more than a lad, a star in his own right for many of his 30 years at the stove. He has a sophisticated knowledge of food, having worked at Carrier's in Camden Town, the Gay Hussar in London's Soho, and quite a few more, as well as his own place in Stratford- on-Avon.

Shaun Hill is one of the most interesting, honest and articulate cooks in the land, and his many admirers and friends have been curious to see what he would seek to achieve in what might be such a (gastronomically) modest setting.

Would he try to reflect local tastes? Well, he wasn't going to load his menu with Ludlow Lobscouse, Shrewsbury Collops and Oswestry Fidget Pie, for a start.

"I didn't go to the library to read all the cookery books with old Shropshire dishes," says Hill with a smile. "The people who thought up English Fayre ought to be shot. There are not many British dishes which have stood the test of time. They're dinosaurs which ought to be allowed to die." Though he's not averse to researching old books, being the author of a scholarly work on the food of Archestratus in ancient Greece (Prospect Books, pounds 5.95). In fact, before he took up his career in the kitchen he read classics, and actually turned down a place at Queen's University, Belfast.

Shaun Hill doesn't believe he should defer to the British palate, because there isn't one. Throughout history we've been magpies, grabbing anything tasty that came our way. We use lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves now as freely as once we used vanilla and nutmeg, the exotics of their day.

"There aren't uniquely British taste buds," he asserts. "We're not talking about the cooking of Lyons or Italian food. In our childhood you'll find that Findus played the biggest part." So he scoffs at olde English food, pies and puddings with syrup and suet, food full of butter and cream. "The way people used to eat is irrelevant now. When I worked at Carrier's we used a five-gallon churn of cream every day."

So how did he set about opening a new restaurant? He'd been a director for seven years at the upmarket Relais and Chateau Gidleigh Park, in Chingford, Devon, where he'd won a Michelin star, and twice been voted Chef of the Year. But his cooking style, he considers, was affected by the fact that half the customers were from San Francisco. So who would they be in Ludlow?

"I'm not into market research, but I needed to feel it was the place for me. So I came to reconnoitre the place. It's small town with 9,000 inhabitants, all centre and no suburbs." A hill town, actually, but was it a Hill town?

Apparently, yes. "I found that it supported seven or eight first-class butchers. There was a bustling market. There were good vegetables. It seemed to me that people enjoyed good quality food and expected to eat well. I didn't see a lot of frozen food on sale. For me, the deciding factor is that what you cook should be what's available. Not stuff that has been passed through six sets of hands and been in a cold store for two weeks."

He liked what he saw, and bought this half-timbered, old merchant house, as a home, converting the ground floor into a small 20-seater restaurant. "I wasn't going to make a fortune. But there were no overheads." Staff consists of assistant, William, cooking, his Finnish wife Anja and a waitress, Tracey, serving.

He was busy from day one. The menu grew organically (literally so in the case of the meat and poultry). He built on the abundance of game, venison, pheasant. Birmingham fish market, the largest outside London, is no great distance.

And, to his delight, the River Tame which races past the bottom of the garden, yields pike. "This week someone brought in a pike, as big as me." Is pike prized in Ludlow? Not until now. But Shaun knows the regional French recipe for quenelles de brochet made with the minced, boned flesh, mixed with a little cream and white of egg, poached and served like an light and airy sausage.

It's an initiative that sums up his philosophy. "Start with good ingredients, and then see what you can do with them. I think this is the strength of regional French cooking. It's not about pyrotechnics on the plate, the style of haute cuisine. The skill is to know when not to add an extra ingredient."

"I like to cook the food that I like to eat. I prefer the complex flavours of offal, liver, kidney, sweetbreads, to pieces of meat itself. I love cooking vegetables. We don't make the most of veg in this country. Too often they are bridesmaids, forever supporting a plate of meat." As the author of a book on vegetable cooking for the BBC he has a full repertoire of delights, such as artichoke bottoms stuffed with spinach.

He dislikes the fashionable practice of presenting a separate plate of vegetables. He might serve with a rack of lamb a harmonious quintet of morsels; say baby leek, finely-sliced green beans, some slices of artichoke, shavings of parsnip and a few curls of Savoy cabbage leaf. They will be blanched in boiling water to bite-soft tenderness, and then moistened in hot stock before serving around the meat.

Shaun Hill's artistry is obvious in every touch. His style is not eclectic in the sense that everything from the four corners of the world competes for attention on the plate. He chooses his basics with care, corn-fed pigeon, saddle of venison, breast of pheasant, and then uses fine judgement to heighten, shape and balance flavours, employing anything from North African spices to oriental seasonings to achieve this.

Without being a health bore, he's at pains to make sure diners don't have to go for a 10-mile walk to shake off the effects of the meal when they leave the restaurant.

"I haven't much use for a lot of dairy products, eggs, milk, butter, cream. Where I can, I replace them with something lighter." Instead of a buttery sauce for a rack of lamb, he'll serve a gravy which is a reduction of the meat juices and wine, along with what he calls a hot dressing - an emulsion of olive oil and hot light stock. The meal I had for a set lunch (at pounds 25 surely a great value Michelin meal) started with the brochette of pike; then rack of lamb with two sauces, a medley of vegetables and a crispy potato and olive cake. It finished with a chocolate confection, coffee sauce and vanilla ice-cream.

I'd missed his Thursday special, scallops with lentil and coriander sauce, though it's been his favourite dish for many years and I'd tasted it before. We give the recipe below. It's a Thursday dish because that's the day the man comes with divers' scallops. There are four kinds: whole ones frozen; scallop meat in tubs (OK for mousses); dredged scallops in the shell, but dead (and often gritty); and scallops taken by divers, which are alive and sweet.

Shaun Hill doesn't serve the orange roes, though you can do so if you wish - put them in to cook first, as they need a longer cooking time. He usually chops them and puts them to boil with the stock, which gives a lovely flavour. The lentils give some body to the dish, and their earthiness contrasts with the scallops' delicate sweetness, which in turn benefits from a slightly oriental flavour.

Lentils should not be considered one of those foodstuffs that suddenly become wildly exciting, and as suddenly go straight out of fashion. Use green Puy lentils by preference. They have the convex shape of a lens and retain their substance when cooked, as opposed to the flat lentils which cook to a mush.

SCALLOPS WITH LENTIL AND CORIANDER SAUCE

Serves 4

16 large, very fresh scallops

sesame or groundnut oil

For the sauce:

half an onion, peeled and chopped

1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed

1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed

2 large, ripe tomatoes, skinned, or 2 tablespoons tomato passata, home-made or from a jar

300ml/10fl oz chicken stock

To complete:

50g/2oz unsalted butter

1 tablespoon creme fraiche or soured cream

juice of half a lemon

1 small bunch fresh coriander, chopped

For the sauce: the puree base for this dish can be made up to 12 hours in advance. First, soak the lentils for at least four hours - but preferably overnight - with occasional water changes, then parboil in salt water until they are tender, usually about five minutes. Drain.

Fry the onion, the garlic and the ginger in some of the oil until golden. Add the crushed cardamom and allow the mixture to cook off the heat for a few seconds. Next add the tomatoes and about two-thirds of the cooked lentils.

Cut the corals from the scallops and clean as described in the instructions below.

Bring the chicken stock to the boil, add the scallop corals, cook for between five and 10 minutes, and sieve the coral stock on to the lentil mixture. Throw away the corals. Simmer for 10 minutes, then puree in a liquidiser.

The scallops: must be very fresh. They should be washed at the last moment (no more than 20 minutes before cooking), and shouldn't be in contact with water for longer than necessary to clean off grit or sand.

Never use frozen scallops for this dish, nor any that have been soaked in water (a common fishmonger's practice to make them swell). Water-clogged scallops will stick to the pan as they cook, then shrivel and toughen as the water bubbles out of them.

Clean the scallops, then cut them horizontally into three or four slices and brush them with oil. Use an oil which will enhance the flavour of the dish, like sesame or groundnut, and avoid highly flavoured oils like olive. You need only the finest coating of oil if the pan is hot enough.

To complete: reheat the lentil puree in a clean pan, whisking in the butter, the cream and the lemon juice. Check salt is to taste. Add the coriander leaves and the remaining whole warm lentils to the sauce. Spoon the sauce on to the plates.

Cook the lightly oiled scallop slices in a very hot, dry frying pan for a few seconds on each side, and lay them on the sauce.

You are aiming for a golden, caramelised outside with a soft and barely cooked inside. It is important to have your frying pan really hot to get the dish exactly right - if the scallops boil or steam, they will lose the concentrated flavour needed to balance the sauce. !

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