Beyond the ale

The reputation of pub food has been transformed in recent years. Michael Bateman is inspired by a new breed of publican
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Indy Lifestyle Online

THIS FISH pie would enhance the menu of any very high-class restaurant. Fresh white halibut, pink salmon, orange-tipped scallops and primrose mussels are arranged in layers, then steamed. This "cake" is cut to reveal the layers, then napped with a densely flavoured, creamy sauce. It is served with a pastry crescent. Each element contributes fine colour, texture and flavour.

THIS FISH pie would enhance the menu of any very high-class restaurant. Fresh white halibut, pink salmon, orange-tipped scallops and primrose mussels are arranged in layers, then steamed. This "cake" is cut to reveal the layers, then napped with a densely flavoured, creamy sauce. It is served with a pastry crescent. Each element contributes fine colour, texture and flavour.

It doesn't sound like pub grub. Yet that's what it is, as cooked at the Froize Inn, Chillesford, near Orford on the Suffolk coast. In this 16th- century building on the site of a former priory, publican and chef Alistair Shaw marries his love for real ale with a passion for cooking fish (lobster and crab from local fishermen, other fresh fish from nearby Lowestoft).

Alongside he serves a gourmet range of real ales: major East Anglian beers such as Adnam's and Greene King; local microbrews; and some ales made specially for them by Malden's to honour the local tradition of friary beers (updated in name, such as Naughty Novice, Nun Chaser, Nun Trembler and Nun's Revenge).

Alistair is one of a new breed of pub cooks, many of them first identified by Camra, the real ale organisation which challenged the monopoly of the big brewers 30 years ago. A decade ago, they asked Susan Nowak to compile a Camra guide to pubs that do good food, and this year sees a new edition of her Good Pub Food (Camra, £9.99), her fifth and best. With the August bank holiday looming, the guide, with its tasty 600 pubs, is well worth slipping into the glove compartment.

Susan puts Alistair's cooking among her own favourites, along with Alan Reid of the Wheatsheaf, Swinton, on the Scottish Borders. Pub grub? Alan won the first Taste of Scotland and Scottish Seafood Award last year with a Supreme of halibut with a crab, coriander and couscous crust and herb- scented leeks with red pepper coulis.

But that's the least of it. An entirely new pub clientele is emerging, with clearly eclectic tastes. These are reflected by the 40-odd recipes included in the guide. Predictably, many have local roots. Evesham Pie (beef with plums and plum wine) at the Crown and Trumpet, Broadway, Worcestershire; Huntingdon Fidget Pie (back bacon, apples and cider) at the Free Press, Cambridge; Somerset Pork Hotpot (with honey, mustard and cider) from the Bird in Hand, Saltford, Bristol; Pencarreg Blue Cheese Tartlets (with the local cheese, cream and Welsh butter) from the Drover's Arms, Howey, in Powys; Norfolk Treacle tart from the Greyhound, Brockdish, Diss.

But then the list veers towards exotica. Thai Pork Tenderloin, Sri Lankan Fish Curry, Californian Rabbit Casserole, Masala Chops, Mexican Burritos, not to mention the debt to the Mediterranean. There are even some pubs pursuing French country models, such as the Ship and Mitre in Liverpool with its Cotes de Porc a l'Ardennaise. And, Susan claims, it may be the cheapest good pub food in England. You can eat this dish with chips and peas for £2.75.

Pub food now accounts for the biggest share of the UK eating-out market, over and above both Indian and Chinese restaurants, she says. Not all is for the best, Susan notes, the cuckoo in the nest being the pub eating chains which serve identi-menus of microwaved factory frozen food.

But many people do not yet appreciate the improvement in overall standards. "Ten years ago a landlord would give you a rude stare if you asked for anything other than a bag of crisps. 'What do you think this is, a flaming restaurant?' " Now some pubs have gone to the other extreme, says Susan. She recently came across this gem on a pub menu. "Seared tuna chap - eroned by fresh seasonal salad." To make sure the tuna is protected from the impertinence of the diner?

Her first pub food guide, Susan now admits, was a few pickled eggs short of a banquet. "We listed 400 pubs and some of the entries were very short. Some of the menus were very short." The press was snooty. "Most food writers were frankly dismissive of pub food, even scathing." That's changed, too. But it's not only real ale pubs which offer good food. "We're seeing the rise of the gastro-pub. Talented young chefs are choosing to start a pub rather than a restaurant." In fact, the Michelin Guide, in a new departure, has begun to single out pubs with good food. They use the symbol of a fork and a foaming tankard. It can't be long before the Froize Inn comes to their notice with its talented publican/chef Alistair Shaw.

Froize Inn, Chillesford, Orford, Suffolk. Tel: 01394 450 282

Froize fish pie

Serves 4 to 6

For the filling:

1kg/about 2lb fillets of white fish, preferably a quarter each of halibut (or turbot or brill), cod, haddock and plaice225g/8oz salmon fillets175g/6oz peeled prawns (buy prawns in the shell for best flavour and peel them yourself)225g/8oz shelled mussels (frozen or in shell - you'll need 1kg/about 2lb)4 fresh scallops

For the Bechamel sauce:

500ml/18fl oz milk50g/2oz butter50g/2oz flour150ml/14 pint fish stock2 tablespoons double creamsalt and pepperpacket of puff or shortcrust pastry (or make your own)

Steam the mussels over 2.5cm (1in) of boiling water. Stop cooking immediately the shells open. Remove mussels from shells and put to one side. Strain and reserve liquor to add to fish stock.

Make a fish stock, simmering 500ml (18fl oz) of water, the head and bones of fish, sliced onion, mussel liquor, bay leaf and a glass of white wine for 20 minutes. Strain. Reduce if necessary, to make 150ml (14 pint) stock.

Roll out pastry into two or three circles, and cut each into half moons. Bake according to the instructions on packet or until golden brown.

Make the sauce in a heavy-bottomed pan. Melt the butter, adding the flour and mixing to a paste. Beat in warmed milk gradually, stirring well. Using a diffuser, simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, covering surface with a buttered circle of greaseproof paper or foil to prevent skin forming. Stir in fish stock reduction, heat through and check seasoning. Add cream to taste.

To steam the fish, lay a tea plate in the top half of a steamer (you can improvise with a metal colander over a large saucepan). Layer with white fish first, then prawns, mussels, scallops, topping with the salmon.

Wrap clingfilm tightly around the fish to keep it compact and retain the juices. Half fill base of steamer with boiling water, seasoned with fennel, dill or parsley. Put lid on steamer (or if using a colander cover with a large dinner plate, sealed with more clingfilm or foil) and cook for 15 minutes or until fish is done (test with skewer). Don't overcook or fish will turn woolly. Remove pan from heat, slightly lift lid and let the filling rest for a few minutes.

Carefully, to avoid spilling the juices, remove from the pan on to a serving plate, keeping pie filling in one piece. Cover with sauce. Place pastry crusts in pie at an angle. Decorate with sprig of dill or suitable herbs. To serve, carve into segments showing the layers.

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