with a Suffolk twist. Michael Bateman continues his series on the new face of British cuisine
Customers at Martha's Vineyard in Nayland, Suffolk, are a rum lot. "You ought to charge a bit more," they say. "Don't do yourself down."
Martha's Vineyard is a jewel of a restaurant in this beautiful, essentially Elizabethan village. It won acclaim the year it opened (The Good Food Guide county restaurant of the year, 1989); it has been praised by all the food critics, and last year the Independent's Emily Green declared it her restaurant of the year.
One customer wrote to The Good Food Guide to say that what Martha's Vineyard offered was cooking to make you sit up and take notice: "It is inspired, risky and dazzling when it works, which is most of the time."
And for cooking of high quality, the restaurant isn't expensive. Three courses with coffee cost pounds 20, two courses pounds l6.50. "We're never going to make a fortune," agrees co-owner Christopher Warren, cheerfully. But as his wife Larkin Rogers, the cook, points out: "If we put up the prices we would change its character."
Christopher is from these parts. By marrying Larkin, who is American, he has energised an area never famous for eating out (it was another American, Robert Carrier, who put Suffolk on the gastronomic map when he opened Hintlesham Hall). The pair have created a completely new style of cooking. "People ask me what my style of cooking is," says Larkin. "I tell them, American. They are astonished because to them that means burgers and hotdogs."
Larkin in fact belongs to the modern American school of cooking, inspired by the texts of MFK Fisher and the example of Alice Waters whose pioneering restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, San Francisco - now 25 years old - is the totem of this new religion. Larkin's own alma mater is Fearrington House in North Carolina, a restaurant run on an ethos rather than obvious commercial gain, using only what is fresh and good - local produce in season.
Not that Larkin doesn't stick her neck out. Her menu may include Brazilian fish stew or North Carolina Fish Muddle or Chesapeake Crabcakes; if the recipes aren't local, the ingredients certainly are. She does turkey breast stuffed with avocado and mozarella, very Mediterranean, but the turkeys are wonderful Norfolk Blacks from the Kelly's farm down the road. She cooks pork chop stuffed with Monterey Jack, but the pork is cut from Essex Saddlebacks.
Along with lamb (from Horned Norfolk sheep) and venison (which she serves sliced thinly and rare as carpaccio), the pork comes from down the road. It is supplied by Marney Meats, run by the Charrington family, who farm rare breeds on a Tudor property with an 80ft gate tower, tallest in England.
You would think that getting gold produce would be easy living in East Anglia's fertile farmland. But most of the land, says Larkin, has been surrendered to agribusiness where size and yield are the criteria over and above flavour, be it wheat, carrots, onions, potatoes, celery, apples, strawberries or cherries.
Cherries are a case in point. "Take the Polstead cherries," says Larkin. "This used to be a huge cherry- growing place. Now you can buy one kind of cherry only, big and fat and soft. But if you go up to Polstead at cherry-picking time you see lots of the old boys with road-stands selling bags of cherries from the old remaining trees in their gardens. You have to ferret out the names of the varieties. I found about a dozen, such as Knight's Early Black and Polstead Black. Polstead Black is a mean little cherry and it's had to struggle to live. But it's full of flavour, compared to the large fat, well-fed and watered modern cherry, treated for every disease, never had a hard day in its life."
Larkin's enthusiasm for local produce is rare among restaurateurs, but the couple's lifestyle allows them plenty of time for exploring, since they open only at the latter end of the week. Some of her great food finds have been at roadside stalls, local fruit and veg and salad stuff. She plunders the orchard opposite their home, not only for apples but for nettles from the undergrowth which she makes into rich soups. She also gathers fat hen, classified as a weed, which cooks like dense spinach.
Larkin is the daughter of the chief executive of an electricity company in North Carolina. She studied English literature and psychology at university, but soon found a greater fascination in her vacation jobs, working in kitchens and as a waitress.
She took a two-year course with the CIA (not the Central Intelligence Agency, but the Culinary Institute of America) and got a scholarship to work in Europe. In this case it was at Gidleigh Park in Devon, run by an American couple, Paul and Kay Henderson. They had just taken on Christopher Warren. "It was love at first sight," he says.
They later worked together in a Colchester restaurant while they plotted their own place. Peter Langan, the restaurateur who created the trend- setting Langan's in London, lived nearby and regularly came in to share his wisdom and discuss their dreams. The essential thing was to focus on the catchment area, he told them. They could be dead ducks out in the country, he said. But Nayland, seven miles from Colchester, was OK, he agreed, and gave them his blessing. All the same, they have to watch themselves. A London menu gave them much merriment, for a New Wave chef was now serving scallops with tripe. "We couldn't do that here," says Christopher. "Our customers would think it too weird."
It's all very well being the darling of the food critics, but they set up a level of expectation - and there's a fine line to be drawn between those who think food at Martha's Vineyard is out of this world and those who don't. The day I arrived they'd been nursing a letter from a dissatisfied customer. "I wouldn't have expected mashed potato to be served at a restaurant like yours," the customer had written. They had been toying with many possible responses, not all of them kindly. "Mashed potato not good enough for a good restaurant," snorts Larkin. "It's good enough for France's top chef, Joel Robuchon. He serves it, even if he does call it puree de pommes de terre."
Below we give two of Larkin's recipes which have helped put Martha's Vineyard on the map. The first is for her crunchy crabcakes served with a pungent mayonnaise. For good measure, we also give her all-American recipe for cornbread.
340-450g/12-16oz dressed crabmeat, approximately 1 part brown to 2 parts white
2 spring onions, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped red pepper
1 tablespoon chopped green pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
30g/1oz cornbread crumbs (more if necessary; can substitute regular breadcrumbs if you don't want to make cornbread)
30g/1oz toasted spiced pecans, chopped
1 whole egg
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped lemon zest
Tabasco to taste
plain breadcrumbs for coating
Mix together all ingredients except plain breadcrumbs. Shape into cakes weighing approximately 60g/2oz each. Dredge in plain breadcrumbs and press into shape. Fry in peanut or sunflower oil until lightly browned on both sides. Serve with red pepper mayonnaise. Makes 4-5 portions.
100-200g/4-8ozs pecan nuts
tablespoon of unflavoured oil (peanut, sunflower)
a few drops of Tabasco
In a hot frying pan gently brown 100-200g/4-8ozs pecan nuts in a tablespoon of unflavoured oil (peanut, sunflour). Season with cayenne, chilli powder, salt, pepper and a few drops of Tabasco. Keep the prepared nuts stored in a jar.
70g/212oz plain flour
2 tablespoons bacon fat, butter, or shortening plus additional for greasing the tin
12 teaspoon salt
5 drops Tabasco
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
212 tablespoons baking powder
12 teaspoon.bicarbonate of soda
55ml/16fl oz buttermilk or soured, not sour, milk (see footnote below)
Mix together dry ingredients; beat eggs, milk, bacon fat and Tabasco together. Mix the dry ingredients into the liquid ingredients with a few quick strokes and pour into a greased, preheated pan (same as for Yorkshire pudding - let the fat in the pan get smoking hot) and place in a 375F/190C/Gas 5 oven for about 25-30 minutes, until set and browned on top. Allow to cool before cutting. Keep leftovers for stuffing for turkey or for breadcrumbs for crabcakes. Buttermilk: you can sour milk by adding one tablespoon of wine vinegar and one of cream of tartar.
RED PEPPER MAYONNAISE
1 whole egg
1 clove garlic
150ml/14 pint olive oil
150ml/14 pint peanut oil (approximately; substitute sunflower oil if necessary)
12 red pepper pepper, roasted and skinned
1 tablespoon tomato paste
salt, pepper, Tabasco
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Put the egg into the bowl of a food processor and whiz it around to liquidise it. Then add the peanut oil, drop by drop at first, to make the emulsion. When the emulsion has established itself, start adding the olive oil. Add the oils carefully and check the balance of flavour - too much olive oil will be too heavy (and also expensive).
Add the garlic clove towards the end of the oils to allow it to be pureed. Once the mixture is very thick and stiff, add the roasted red pepper and liquidise it. This will loosen the mayonnaise considerably, so it must be very stiff before the pepper is added.
Add the tomato paste, a little at a time, to achieve a mild orange-pink colour. Season with salt, pepper, Tabasco and a little lemon juice to sharpen flavour. Serve well-chilled. (Note: this recipe contains raw eggs.)
! Martha's Vineyard is at 18 High Street, Nayland, near Colchester CO6 4JF (01206 262888).Reuse content