Things are getting tense in the kitchens of Northcote Manor. In the middle of a busy Sunday lunchtime service, double-Michelin-starred chef Philip Howard, of London's The Square restaurant, is neatly lining a metal mould with foil and clingfilm for his signature Brillart Savarin cheesecake.
The dessert should have been finished and chilling in the fridge hours ago, and Howard still has three other dishes to make, which he'll be serving alongside a selection from Northcote's head chef Nigel Haworth at dinner that night.
Howard's cheesecake is the last dish to be served at the hotel's week-long annual food and drink festival, an event Howard has been involved with since its inception in 2001. "For the first time in six years, things are looking a bit bleak," says Howard.
The festival has become something of a cheffing "hot house" and is quickly becoming a feature in the culinary year. So what attracts all sorts of celebrated chefs - Claude Bosi (Hibiscus, Ludlow), David Thompson (Nahm, London), Fergus Henderson (St John, London), Andoni Luis Aduriz (Mugaritz, Spain), Mark Hix (The Ivy, London) and Bruce Poole (Chez Bruce, London) - to Blackburn in January for no fee and to, in the words of Northcote's co-owner Craig Bancroft, "work their bollocks off for two days"?
Sharing ideas and showing off are probably two good reasons. Haworth got the idea for the festival after attending the famous Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn, Carmel, California; a four-day festival of gala dinners, wine tastings and cooking demonstrations. "I went in 1999 and worked with big-name American chefs such as Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. What intrigued me was the camaraderie between them all. I was impressed with how they did it and I wondered if I could do something similar. The chefs have a great party and they all feed off it and learn from each other."
It's a sentiment echoed by Howard. "Being in your own kitchen all the time can be very insular and introspective, so it's great to get out," he says. "Spending a few days up here, you get to see an awful lot - whether it's an ingredient I've forgotten about, or a combination of flavours. Mark Hix did baked razor clams with chorizo and wild garlic and I'd just forgotten what a striking shell they have. I can't wait to get some in at The Square."
The festival has grown in scope and ambition from five nights and three guest chefs in 2001 to this year's international line-up of six chefs over seven nights. Marketing manager Kaye Mathew has overseen the event since day one and has eaten every dish served in the event's six-year history - a total of 45 this year alone. "It's a fantastic opportunity for me because I don't go to London all that often," she says. "But it takes some stamina to get to the end of the week. By the Sunday I'm looking forward to a simple sandwich."
Although organised with something approaching military precision, the festival's format means that it's impossible to anticipate every detail. "Cooking anything for 90 people is going to cause a problem," explains Poole, "so it's slightly unnerving." And tracking down wines to go with everything from Thompson's fiery Thai food to the experimental cuisine of Andoni Luis Aduriz poses its own problems.
By 7.30pm, though, the hotel is buzzing with champagne-sipping guests, dressed to the nines and expecting culinary magic. The party continues into the small hours, as it has done every night of the festival. It's a rare opportunity for the punters to mix with the pros on a social level and for the chefs to talk shop. This year, there has been much excitement about Andoni Luis Aduriz's avant-garde food. "The soft poached egg technique (see recipe) is absolutely phenomenal," says Howard. "You can read a recipe or hear about it but some of the more baffling and clever techniques you need to see."
Northcote's festival brings together chefs who might not otherwise meet to a place they might not otherwise visit to cook for customers who might not otherwise eat such food. But what really makes the event special is the sense of joy generated by the simple act of cooking and sharing food with others. s
Bruce Poole's cod and crab barigoule
Serves 6 as a starter
500g/1lb loin of cod (thick fillet from the head end)
750ml/11/4 pints olive oil
170g/6oz white crab meat
For the artichoke barigoule
6 baby artichokes, cleaned
250ml/8fl oz olive oil
1 small carrot, finely diced
1 leek (white only), finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
1 bulb of fennel, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, very finely diced
Sprig of fresh thyme
1tsp coriander and fennel seed
1 bay leaf
pinch of saffron
1 large tomato, skinned, de-seeded and chopped
175ml/6fl oz dry white wine
Juice of a lemon
1dsp chopped parsley
For the rouille
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
2 raw egg yolks
2 anchovy fillets
1 minced garlic clove
1tsp tomato purée
1tsp Dijon mustard
1/2tsp harissa paste or Tabasco
A good pinch saffron
500ml olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a pan until it's roughly 70C then transfer it to a second cold pan with the cod in. (This is (omega) because if the fish comes into contact with the bottom of the hot pan it will overcook). Gently confit the fish for around an hour or until cooked.
For the barigoule, sweat the vegetables and garlic in some oil until soft. Add the thyme, coriander seed, fennel seed, bay, saffron and tomato and stir. Add the wine and reduce. Place the artichokes on top of the mix, pour over the oil and top up with water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes or until the artichokes are tender.
Remove the artichokes. Strain the liquor into a bowl and reserve the vegetables. Make a dressing by whisking 150ml (5fl oz) of the liquor with the lemon and parsley.
For the rouille. Blitz all the ingredients apart from the oil. Whisk in the oil slowly as if you were making mayonnaise.
To serve, place half an artichoke on the plate and spoon over some vegetables. Place an 80g (3oz) piece, the cod on top. Mix a spoon of the rouille with the crab and place a teaspoon on top of the cod. Add some dressing and serve.
David Thompson's lobster with sugar cane
1 lobster (about 1.5 kg/3lb)
5 chopped coriander roots
A pinch of salt
5 garlic cloves
4 red shallots
A small piece each of peeled galangal and ginger
10 white peppercorns
2 stars anise
1tbsp oil, ideally perfumed
3tbsp cane sugar
6cm peeled and slivered sugar cane
10 pieces sliced peeled galangal
3tbsp fish sauce
Around 4 cups chicken stock - to cover
A pandanus leaf, knotted
A small dried orange peel
2 red shallots, finely sliced
Ground white pepper
Drown the lobster. Decapitate. Butt the tail and remove the vein carefully. Straighten the tail with a skewer. Trim off the excess stick. Take off the large claw. Clean the heads, remove the filters and then crush in a pestle and mortar with the small legs.
Make the paste from the coriander root, salt, garlic, red shallots, galangal, ginger, peppercorns and stars anise.
Heat the oil then fry the paste. Add the crushed heads and some of the lobster paste and fry. Add the cane sugar. When it has begun to caramelise, pour in the fish sauce. Add the stock and boil. Skim it and simmer with the sugar cane, galangal bay leaf, pandanus and orange for about 30 minutes. Strain and retain the sugar cane and pandanus.
Cover the lobster with the stock and sugar cane and braise for an hour. Strain the sauce, keeping the sugar cane, simmer to reduce. It should taste salty and sweet. Season. Pour over the still warm lobster and serve sprinkled with the shallots, white pepper and coriander.
Fergus Henderson's roast bone marrow and parsley salad
12 pieces of middle veal marrowbone, 8cm/3in long
A healthy bunch of flat parsley, picked from its stems
2 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
A modest handful of capers (extra-fine if possible)
For the dressing
Juice of a lemon
A glug of extra-virgin olive oil
A pinch of sea salt and pepper
A good supply of toast
Coarse sea salt
Put the bone-marrow in an ovenproof frying pan and place in a hot oven and roast for about 20 minutes until the marrow is loose and giving but not melted away.
Meanwhile, chop your parsley, mix it with the shallots and capers, and at the last moment add the dressing ingredients. It should not be totally seasoned before leaving the kitchen this - especially if you use coarse sea salt, gives texture and uplift. My approach is to scrape the marrow from the bone on to the toast and season with sea salt. Add a pinch of parsley salad on top of this and eat.
Philip Howard's game pie
For the filling
50g/2oz chicken livers, finely chopped
1 partridge, 1 pigeon, 1 grouse
200g/7oz venison loin, diced
20 button onions, peeled
2 rashers bacon, finely diced
250ml/8fl oz finest local ale
300ml/10oz stock (game if possible)
1dsp red currant jelly
1tsp flour, plus extra to coat the meat
For the shortcrust pastry
450g/141/2oz plain flour
Make the pastry by combining the dry ingredients and rubbing in the butter. Add the water and egg and knead into a dough. Wrap and chill for an hour. Remove the breast meat from the birds and roughly dice. Season the meat, flour it and sauté until golden, about 2 minutes. Drain and (omega) reserve. Take the fat and sweat the onions until golden. Add the bacon and cook for 2 minutes. Add the ale, boil and place in an oven heated to 180C/350F/Gas4. Cook until ale has evaporated. Add half the stock and repeat the reducing process. Reserve. Fry the livers with a pinch of salt in half the butter for 2 minutes and add to the onions. Melt the remaining butter, add the teaspoon of flour and cook for 2 minutes. Gradually add the stock and cook until thickened to a rich coating consistency. Now combine the meat, the onion mix, the roux and the redcurrant jelly to give a rich, unctuous pie filling. Check the seasoning.
To make the pies, roll out the pastry and place in a pie dish or dishes. Fill with the game. Brush with yolk and bake in an oven at 180C/350F/Gas4 until golden.
Claude Bosi's foie gras ice cream
Makes approximately 2 litres
750g/11/2pints single cream
250ml/8fl oz milk
8 egg yolks
1kg raw foie gras, de-veined
Mix the cream and milk together and bring to the boil. Whisk the sugar into the egg yolks. Whisk the milk and cream into the egg mixture. Heat gently stirring all the time. Allow to cool. In a blender, combine the foie gras and the custard mixture then churn in an ice cream maker.