WHY TAKING POT LUCK IS SO BRITISH

Revived English Cuisine is flourishing at the Castle Hotel in Taunton. Michael Bateman meets Phil Vickery and Kit Chapman, the Gilbert and Sullivan of the restaurant world, who are re-inventing a patriotic kitchen repertoire with a history that goes back centuriesNEW BRITISH CLASSICS 7: POTTED DUCK WITH SPICED PEARS
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Picture a dish of rose-pink mullet, served with buttered black pasta and yellow cherry tomatoes. Mmm. It is just one of many classy dishes which has won the talented chef Phil Vickery a Michelin Star for the Castle Hotel, Taunton.

Watching guests enjoying it in his elegant dining rooms, the hotel proprietor Kit Chapman, you imagine, must feel a warm glow of pride. Not at all, says Phil Vickery. "He detests the dish. Especially the black pasta."

But, just a minute: Kit Chapman gave Phil Vickery the book from which the recipe came: The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Indeed, it was a Christmas present. "That's right," says Vickery. "But now Kit tells me, `I wish I'd never bought you that bloody book'."

For Kit Chapman is not any old proprietor. He's the leading crusader for British cuisine, seeking to revive and re-invent a kitchen repertoire running back centuries; to restore our "rich and noble gastronomic heritage," as he puts it. He is author of two books, Great British Chefs (volumes I and II) in which he features the work of some 36 patriotic chefs.

Kit Chapman is no xenophobe, but as a frequent traveller in Europe he would claim that standards of restaurant cooking have been slipping in both France and Italy. We no longer have much to learn from them - France in particular. "Beneath the surface," he proclaims, "the core is rotting in the gloire of its own self-importance. It's an edifice propped up by a couple of dozen high-profile, publicity-minded chefs."

In Italy, too. "In cities like Siena and Florence restaurants have surrendered their standards to the tourist shilling. You will eat better Italian food in London." So why on earth did this red, white and blue proprietor give his chef The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. What could he have been thinking of?

A previous Christmas present would have hit the bullseye. He gave Phil Vickery Good Things in England by Florence White. This is a landmark book unique in its day (1932), a compilation of simple country recipes. We're talking pies, pasties, puddings and cakes, Huffkins, Singing Hinnies, Sally Lunns. It was Florence White's stated aim to capture old family dishes before they were put to flight by the "fashion for foreign cookery and modern fads".

A sentiment Kit Chapman would endorse. Black pasta, indeed. Though it has to be said that few of Kit Chapman's selected British chefs share his total faith in our "noble" traditions. Rowley Leigh: traditional British cuisine is an "historical theme park." David Adlard: "It's a tradition best buried." Paul Rankin: "British cooking will be dead in 30 years."

Yet Kit Chapman succeeded in establishing the Castle as a bastion of English cooking, partly because its reputation was largely built on a now-famous partnership with a certain unfledged, talented and extremely ambitious recruit: Gary Rhodes, the television cook. Although Rhodes's reign at the Castle ended six years ago, Revived English Cuisine continues to flourish under Vickery (whom Chapman has appointed a director).

Think of Vickery as your street-wise W S Gilbert, and Chapman as your lofty Arthur Sullivan, and you get the picture. Phil Vickery is only too aware of his proprietor's Arthurian aspirations. "But I have a free hand to grow, cook and serve what I want. When Kit beats the drum for Britain we fall out. But he's brilliant at bouncing ideas around. I respect what he says. Most of the time. But sometimes I say, get stuffed." That's no way to speak to, er, a fellow director?

Phil Vickery considers this. "I think he sometimes finds me tiresome. But I haven't got any time for stodgy British puddings. Sussex Pond Pudding, have you ever had it?" Expression of disbelief that anyone could seriously enjoy this solid mass of steamed suet pastry, enclosing half a pound of sugar, half a pound of butter and a lemon.

But chef Phil and boss Kit are in total harmony about one thing: quality of produce and seasonality. "I love serving clotted cream with the new season's strawberries; the first of the year's asparagus. I have never bought Californian strawberries or asparagus from Guatemala."

Phil is 36 and comes from Kent. He went to Folkestone Catering College but, on leaving, chose not to follow the restaurant trail blazed by the French-born brothers Albert and Michel Roux. "I have never worked in France or in a French restaurant. I am an English cook working in England." (This, anyway would be music to Kit Chapman's ears).

He worked for a Great Brit, Ian McAndrew (becoming inspired by this chef's love and knowledge of game cookery), and then at Peter Herbert's grand country house hotel, Gravetye Manor in Sussex, which has extensive gardens created by the Victorian garden magazine publisher, William Robinson. These include a kitchen garden, so he could cook with the freshest vegetables, fruit, salads and herbs.

When he arrived at Taunton he was astonished to find a one-and-a-half acre walled garden, just three miles from the town, run as a hobby by local GP Robin Odgers. Phil encourages him to grow more and more unusual produce, blackberries the size of apricots (lovely with steamed leg of rabbit), yellow cherry tomatoes (great with that black pasta), purple Brussels sprouts, Salad Red and Salad Blue potatoes. Though not exactly in the spirit of Traditional British Cuisine, the blue and red (actually the flesh is more pink than red) shades add startling interest to a cold salad.

Phil is tussling with an onion garnish at the moment. He had a couple of onions left over and he wondered if he could improve upon the sticky onion confit favoured by some modern chefs. What if be caramelised slices in the oven? He cut them in rings, laid them on a baking sheet, sprinkled with sugar, olive oil, pepper and salt and baked them in a medium oven at 170C/325F/Gas 3 for an hour. When they cooled they were delicious and sweet. He decided he could put them in a salad.

For goodness sake, don't tell Kit Chapman. And keep mum about his experiments with Heinz tomato ketchup and Chinese oyster sauce in marinades and dressings. One of Phil Vickery's favourite relishes is a jar of Sharwood's yellow- bean paste, let down (chef-speak for diluted) with three dessertspoons of olive oil, with the addition of two dessertspoons of sauteed chopped shallots, and a few shards of uncooked spring onions.

He has an individual approach to creating recipes. He looks to use a cooking technique for each ingredient which best suits it, making an assembly for the final dish. So, different elements may be first separately fried or poached, sauteed, steamed or roasted. For example, in one of his signature dishes he combines bubble and squeak (fried), with scallops (roasted), tomatoes (braised) and leaves of lovage (deep-fried). "Lovage is ten times more intense in flavour cooked this way."

Phil Vickery says he has never felt the urge to follow traditional thinking in the kitchen. "I prefer to think things out for myself. I used to ask my head chef, `Why do you do it this way' and he'd say, `That's the way we always do it'." And sometimes in no uncertain way. One chef he worked for subjected him to sustained bullying, eventually booting him in the stomach. Watching a television documentary on violence in the kitchen last October, Phil Vickery wasn't entirely surprised to see this very same fellow exposed and shamed.

"If I learnt anything from the experience," he says, "it was that I'd never treat my chefs like that. Though it's quite embarrassing now when my staff tell me how nice I am."

So far, it might sound as if Kit Chapman's claim to offering Revived British Cuisine might be somewhat hollow; but no, no, it's not really. You have your seasonality, you have your determinedly English chef, you have your local produce, and anyway, what does Kit Chapman really mean by English traditional cooking? One unique aspect, says Chapman, quoting the historical food authority, Elizabeth David, is preserving; smoking, salting, pickling, candying and potting. We are alone in the magnificence of our potted delicacies such as shrimp and tongue. Kit Chapman came across a 16th-century recipe for potted duck which upstages, he says, any French confit de canard.

So it is a spirit of harmony that we publish Phil Vickery's potted duck with spiced pears, a regular feature on the menu at The Castle. The meats used can be varied. Instead of duck leg, Phil Vickery sometimes uses two large mallard breasts, or four saddles of wild rabbit, or eight to 10 pigeon breasts, or 250g (1/2lb) skinned, boned belly of pork. Occasionally he uses spiced pork of his own making. He rubs a 2lb piece of belly of pork with 2 tablespoons of chilli powder, black peppers, allspice, mace, and leaves it overnight. Then he roasts it, wrapped in foil, with a cupful of water in an oven dish, for 11/2 hours in a slow oven, 170C/325F/ Gas 3. He chills it, and cuts it into coarse cubes. Sometimes he serves it, as it is, as a cold meat, with his yellow bean relish (above).

POTTED DUCK WITH SPICED PEARS

Serves 8-10

4 duck legs

75g/3oz sea salt

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

500g/1lb tinned duck or goose fat

2 large chicken breasts, skinned

300g/10oz pork back fat

6 small shallots

3 cloves garlic

1 smoked duck breast, skinned and cut into 2.5cm/1 inch dice

1 teaspoon ground mace

salt

freshly ground black pepper

For the spiced pears: 250g/8oz sugar

3 teaspoons mixed spice

2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds

600ml/1pt water

grated zest and juice of 2 lemons

4 ripe Williams or Red Bartlett pears, peeled and cored

To make the spiced pears, place the sugar, spices, water, lemon zest and juice in a pan, simmer for five minutes, then cool. Add the pears, bring to the boil, and simmer for two to six minutes until done. Cool in the syrup, preferably overnight. To serve, cut lengthways into four.

Place the duck legs in a non-metal bowl, mix with the salt and thyme, cover with cling-film and chill for 24 hours, turning occasionally. Next day, rinse, pat dry with kitchen paper, and pack into a small casserole dish. Melt the duck or goose fat and pour over the duck legs. Cover and cook in a preheated oven at 140C/275F/Gas 1 for three to four hours or until a skewer can be pushed through the thigh. Cool and chill overnight.

Mince the chicken breasts, back fat, shallots and garlic finely in a mincer or food processor. Mix in a bowl, then add the smoked breast. Remove the duck legs from the fat and wash under warm water. Pull off all the meat from the legs, taking care not to break the thin bone on the drumstick, then cut away and discard the skin. Cut into large chunks and add to the mixture. Season with salt, pepper and mace.

Pack into a small, buttered casserole dish or terrine and cover with two layers of foil. Seal well. Place the dish in a bain-marie (a roasting tray filled halfway up the dish with hot water) and cook in a preheated oven at 150C/300F/Gas 2 for about two and a quarter hours. To test whether the potted duck is cooked, remove from the oven, take off the foil and pierce with a skewer. The juice should run clear. Take out of the bain- marie, and place a tight-fitting plate or saucer on top. Put a small weight on the plate, cool, chill overnight.

To serve, remove foil, and place the mould in a bowl of warm water to loosen the fat. Turn out onto a chopping board and cut into wedges. Serve with spiced pears, salad leaves dressed with walnut oil, and crusty brown toast.

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