His natural habitat

He's Britain's leading Francophile, so what's he doing swooning over a slab of pork pie? In his home in Berkshire, Sir Terence Conran tells Caroline Stacey how he plans to put the great back into British food
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You might think he had enough on his plate, but Sir Terence Conran, restaurateur, designer, retailer and paterfamilias, is relishing the prospect of pork pie, roast teal, rice pudding with baked damsons and a few other dishes from his new restaurant menu.

He can hardly be hungry, but his appetite for the finer detail - from the Cheddar-cheesemaker's choice of butter to the silver tankards for real ales - is unflagging.

A month before his new Paternoster Chop House opens, Conran restaurants' operations director Peter Prescott, the chef Peter Weeden, and Conran's fourth wife Vicki, congregate in the Conrans' 18th- century country house in Berkshire to cook the menu for the restaurateur's approval.

Why British? "Before the War, Paternoster Square [near St Paul's Cathedral] was filled with pubs and chop houses. We thought we should bring that back to the area. We decided how the kitchen would be, then selected a chef who believed in it."

Weeden, groomed for the job from within the predominantly Francophile Conran organisation, has a copy of Jane Grigson's English Food open beside the Aga. The mood is relaxed, industrious and appreciative.

After all, this is exactly the sort of food the Conrans grow and cook at home. "We had grouse last night," says Conran. On the table are trugs of leeks, cob nuts, russet apples and yellow courgettes from the kitchen garden. It's a household that can't help making everything artful.

Like the rest of the Conrans' habitat, the garden - tended by the same gardener for two decades - is beautifully designed and incredibly functional. Preposterously tall sunflowers, apple-tree arches, exquisite nacreous purply- green cabbages all have their place. Conran ambles proudly round the beds, picking up an unblemished windfall apple. "Being a War child I can't bear waste," he says. And nothing is. Surplus vegetables from the garden are sent to the London restaurants. "I think ingredients are becoming more and more important. Chefs should be directed by producers, growers and farmers," he explains. Back in the kitchen, a fire crackles with offcuts of wood from the furniture workshops behind the house.

Before stubbing out his trademark mogul's cigar, Conran outlines his view of gastronomy in Britain. "It's a very, very interesting moment. One strand is going to the 'sad old queen bitch' Michelin-star plate fiddles. The other is much more straightforward, gutsy, happy food." That's what he wants from his restaurants; places he's designed and feels comfortable in, serving the kind of food he wants to eat. Apron on and installed at the head of his dining-table, he'll see if the latest delivers.

Should the lemon that comes with smoked salmon be muslin-wrapped? "Think of your labour costs, lad," he cautions the chef. Potted shrimps from Dorset pass with flying colours. The pork pie - sliced so generously, "should we call it a slab?" - he declares, "actually very good indeed". Weeden's secret: "I add diced apple so it doesn't dry out." But is the slice of potted veal studded with squared-off carrots too arty? "It's just the acceptable side of twiddles, but is it too beautiful?" the big man wonders. "It's Kandinsky, if you know who he is." As the chef has an English degree, he probably does.

So far his only mistake has been to bring an alien lettuce with him. "Oak leaf, I hate them," Conran says. "I like plain green lettuce salad."`

"Without that frilly stuff that takes your make-up off when you eat it," adds Vicki.

Dishes come thick and fast from the Aga. A glorious onion tart; pea and ham soup that elicits an "aaaahh"; wild duck with braised chicory; skate with parsley sauce, thickened the traditional way, with bread. Steak and kidney pudding: "I like a good thin jus like that," Conran approves. "You're not allowed to call it jus, darling," chides Vicki. "I think you should serve it with gravy," he corrects. "That's right. It's excellent. We're passionate steak-and-kidney pudders." Finally, the rice pudding makes an appearance. "Oh yum," gasps Vicki. Her husband beams heartily in agreement.

"It's the greatest menu," enthuses Conran. Thanks to Fergus Henderson (of the offal restaurant, St John), the son of a lifelong friend, chitterlings with mash and pig's trotters with champ are making a triumphant return to restaurants. "We really do want to do British food as well as anyone in the world," the restaurateur says. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if French people came here for gastro weekends?"

Vicki washes up (the housekeeper's away) and returns to discuss whether to offer their home-made sloe gin at Paternoster. This may be business, but for the Conrans the Chop House really does seem touchingly personal.

Paternoster Chop House's marrowfat pea and ham soup

Serves 8-10

500g/1lb 2oz of dry marrowfat peas
1 onion
1 stick of celery
1 leek
2 cloves of garlic
1 smoked ham hock
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Water as required
100ml/3fl oz double cream
Teaspoon of English mustard powder

Soak the peas overnight changing the water once. Bring the ham to the boil in plain water, change the water and boil for four hours.

Once cool, pick the meat off the bones and trim off all the fat and gristle, reserving the stock and meat. Bring the peas to the boil in plain water. Chop the vegetables and sweat with the herbs in butter.

Once the peas have boiled skim off the foam and boil for 45 minutes. You can add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to soften the skins. Drain the peas, add to the vegetables and cover with two-thirds of the ham stock and enough water to cover. Cover with a cartouche (greaseproof paper lid), simmer for two to three hours.

For the mustard cream, whip the cream with the mustard and season to taste.

Warm the ham in the remaining stock and place in the bottom of a bowl, add the parsley, check seasoning and ladle over the ham.

Spoon one spoon of mustard cream on the top.

The Paternoster Chop House, Warwick Court, Paternoster Square, London EC4, tel: 020 7029 9400, opens tomorrow

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