Tessa's the apple of everyone's eye

FOOD & DRINK; NEW BRITISH CLASSICS 6: GLAZED APPLE TARTS; Continuing our occasional series on the new classic cooks of Britain, Michael Bateman visits a Derbyshire-based restaurateur who can give any dish a home-grown flavour
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Tessa Bramley stalks her garden, absent mindedly picking flowers, leaves, seeds and berries. She crushes, sniffs and chews them. It's a habit that goes back to her earliest childhood. She was speculatively chewing upon a tiny white woodland flower one day when the thought came to her. Did it not have the sweet, creamy notes of coconut and the spicy, bitter-sweet tang of cardamom? In the kitchen she infused a handful of the small flowers in cream, then she mixed this with caramel to make a mysteriously exotic ice cream. Pleasantly puzzled customers asked, "What is this?"Sweet woodruff, she replied.

Fresh garden herbs are a constant theme in her kitchen. Sage, thyme, parsley and garden mint are freely used, often chopped and mixed with breadcrumbs to form a crispy crust for baked cod, for example. Or they are employed in the smoker to produce unique perfumes. Smoked rosemary leaves to invest a fillet of beef with its pungent flavour, prior to roasting.

Diners are surprised but usually delighted. Rosemary with beef struck one of her restaurant customers, the product director of Waitrose food stores, as rather unconventional. "I know. But I have a vocabulary of flavours," says Tessa. "I seem to know how it will taste before I cook it. In my mind I had a feeling of smoke, hillsides and hot sun which should go together."

Another tour de force, which is almost a signature dish, is pork fillets, which she smokes over sage leaves, or sometimes even lavender. "Lavender is like thyme but spicy." She serves it with crisp slices of fried pancetta on a bed of polenta. But it's polenta transformed beyond the recognition of anything an Italian would serve.

There's little in the garden, it seems, which she can't harness to kitchen use. Crab-apples make a jelly which forms the base for sauces throughout the year. Rose-hips too.

She makes cordials from elderflower and, in season, she uses the highly- perfumed flowerets in sauces. A favourite is a sauce for roast salmon in which she infuses the umbrells (as she calls the umbrella-like stems) in Muscat from Alsace, combining it with fish stock and butter.

"I have a love of the ephemeral," she says. "Each new flavour emerging with its season, such as asparagus. I don't use out-of-season foods."

Tessa Bramley is a remarkable cook. Her restaurant, The Old Vicarage in Ridgeway on the Derby-Yorkshire border, was the Egon Ronay Guide's Newcomer of the Year when she opened it (with her husband Peter) in 1987, and has since been feted by the Good Food Guide and included in the Michelin Guide.

The Independent's food writer Jeremy Round was first to assert that hers was "one of an emerging school of restaurants which is beginning to establish a British cuisine of which we can be proud". Food critic Tom Jaine observed that here was "a home kitchen facing up to the refinement of restaurant cooking".

It's impossible to imagine anyone more homely than this large, jovial, friendly lady who could be everybody's aunt. She was born just three miles from the restaurant. Her father ran a draper's shop, and her grandmother Sarah had been a maid in the grand houses of Sheffield (when the once- wealthy city basked in its world-wide reputation for fine steel and cutlery).

"My grandmother came home and copied dishes she had seen made in the big houses. She had a front room which was only used on special occasions, and served cakes from a silver cakestand. I sued to be sent out on errands, to the chemists to buy nutmeg or cinnamon. I loved the smells of the kitchen."

These are her roots, but a three-year course as a home economist didn't immediately lead her in to cooking. She worked on the sales teams of several food companies before meeting her husband, whereupon she embarked upon many ingenious money-making schemes, selling stuffed piggy dolls and artificial silk flowers.

Eating and entertaining remained one of her passions ("I'm quite greedy"), and suddenly she thought: "If I enjoy making posh dinners, why don't I do it for a living?"

Sheffield was hardly renowned for its cuisine, and when the couple opened their bistro, Toffs, The Good Food Guide reported: "At last, some real food in Sheffield." But, just two years on, Tessa found herself locked into an endless round of making quiches.

Why not buy a place they could fall in love with and make into a serious restaurant? So it was that they fell in love with the Old Vicarage. They bought it at auction, shocking the other potential buyers into silence by kicking off the bidding pounds 15,000 over the starting price.

The house was a ruin and, she confesses, the cost of repairs left them wondering about repaying their bank loan. "Would we have to go commercial or could we do it our way and be known as that 'funny' place down the road?" They committed themselves to being the funny place, but happily won recognition in the guide books, the key to extending their clientele.

They found garden plans among the deeds for the Old Vicarage, indicating that the former vicar was a far-sighted old cleric. In the 1850s he had a vision of a garden of substance, planting a seedling Lebanese cedar and a young bay, which now flourish in all their glory.

Tessa has restored the garden to the original plan, adding her own touches, such as a patio of York stone. The newness of the stone struck an inharmonious note but, drawing on her cook's skills, she scrubbed the stone with a mixture of milk and yoghurt and within days it had adopted an antique appearance.

Sadly, tragedy struck three years after they opened, when her husband Peter died. The same year a terrible storm ripped off the roof of the new dining conservatory but Tessa battled on, engaging the services of her son Andrew.

Tessa is certainly an original cook. Original, not a novel cook, not a faddish cook, not a fashionable cook. She reads widely, she travels, she eats in the restaurants she admires. She absorbs a sense of the way in which food is moving, but when she cooks it, it is in her own style.

It's a style which combines something old (filling, northern puddings), something new (New World chillies), something borrowed and something blue (she uses blue borage and lavender flowers in garnishes).

Borrowings include pesto, gazpacho, polenta and tortellini, but she doesn't borrow without thought. For example, the classic Genoese version of pesto contains parmesan or pecorino cheese. "I don't like cheese in it," she says roundly. So her pesto contains no cheese.

Gazpacho is another example. Eating it in on her travels in Spain, she has usually found the flavour coarse. Would it not be gentler, tastier and more balanced if, before being blended with the other ingredients, the garlic was cooked first to soften it? Her customers certainly think she her experiment worked and it has become one of her most asked-for recipes.

When she makes polenta, she thinks not of Tuscan authenticity but of homely mounds of fluffy, mashed potatoes. She beats in milk and cream, and flavourings: garlic, thyme, sage, chives, rosemary and parsley.

Tortellini is a pasta dish which she has colonised. She rolls out her own pasta with a machine, stamps out little circles, stuffs them with goat's cheese, apricots and cardamom, then rolls them into cones, sealing the two corners with a twist. An Italian couple who eat here when on business in Sheffield, always ring first from Italy to make sure her tortellini are on the menu.

Although Tessa is linked strongly with the traditions of the North, she doesn't find it incongruous to annexe ideas and techniques from around the world, pirating flavours, herbs and spices. "In Britain we've always been magpies, that's the nature of British cooking," she says. "Our forefathers were adventurer seamen who brought back spices, cinnamon and cloves. We've always been used to exotic foods."

It's the fashion to put down English food that she regrets. She accepts that between the wars our cooking was poor. "But back before that, British cooking was good in both the cottage and the grand house," she adds.

Her customers evidently agree and they clamour for her recipes. One of the most popular is a never-fail pastry (given here with her apple pie recipe) which she evolved when she ran Toffs and needed to delegate jobs to her assistants.

Tessa is very happy to share her skills. She enjoys an intimate relationship with her guests and says she doesn't mind when they send out to the kitchen for her cooking tips. One customer, who was preparing for a dinner party, rang to ask for advice while making a lemon tart from Tessa's book, The Instinctive Cook (Merehurst pounds 14.99). "I went through the recipe with her. At half past midnight she rang back. 'It worked. It worked'." Now here's a chance to find out just how well Tessa's recipes work for yourself.

GLAZED APPLE TARTS

These French-style apple tarts are delicious served with Caramel & Calvados Sauce and Quick Foolproof Custard (both in Tessa's recipe book).

Serves 4

125g/5oz Old Vic foolproof pastry

For the pastry cream:

300ml/10fl oz single cream

half vanilla pod

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon plain flour

1/3 teaspoon cornflour

1 level teaspoon caster sugar

For the topping:

3 Granny Smith apples

1 tablespoon sugar

30g/1oz unsalted butter

1 tablespoon water

4 bay leaves

icing sugar, to dust

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Roll out pastry on lightly floured surface and use to line four individual, fluted tart tins. Prick bases of pastry, bake blind for 15 minutes in preheated oven.

(To bake a pastry case blind: line with foil and baking beans and bake in a preheated oven at 190-200C/275-400F/Gas 5-6 for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and cook for a further 15-20 minutes. Remove the foil and beans. The pastry shell should be totally cooked and lightly golden - if not quite cooked, return it to the oven for a further five minutes or so.)

Pour the cream into small pan. Split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the cream, and add the pod. Bring cream to boil.

Blend egg yolks in a bowl with flour, cornflour and sugar. Gradually whisk in hot cream. Rinse pan and return custard to it. Cook gently, stirring continuously, until thickened and flour has cooked out, leaving no dry taste.

Remove pan from heat and lay buttered greaseproof over surface to prevent a skin forming. Allow to cool. Spoon into pastry cases when cold.

Prepare the topping. Peel, core and thinly slice the apples. Heat the sugar in a small pan with butter and one tablespoon water until sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil. Add apple slices and cook gently for two or three minutes, until they are softened and coated with buttery syrup.

Arrange overlapping apple slices over pastry cream. Bake tarts in oven for seven to eight minutes, until edges of apple have taken on a deep caramelised colour.

Trim each bay leaf to look like an apple leaf and arrange on each tart. Dredge with icing sugar.

OLD VIC FOOLPROOF PASTRY

Divide the pastry dough into three and freeze two pieces for later use. Freezing the pastry before it is cooked does it no harm. Allow to defrost slowly.

2 egg yolks

1 egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice

6 tablespoons iced water

250g/9oz butter

250g/9oz white vegetable shortening

670g/11/2lb plain flour

1 tablespoon icing sugar

11/2 teaspoons salt

Beat together the egg yolks, egg, lemon juice and water and chill in the refrigerator - this will thicken the liquid slightly.

Cut fats into small dice. Sieve flour and icing sugar together into a large mixing bowl. Using fingertips only, rub in fats to make a fine crumb.

Add all liquid at once. Stir until mixture starts to bind - finish with your hands. Knead gently on a lightly-floured surface.

Cover the pastry in plastic wrap and leave to rest for one hour in refrigerator before using it.

Comments