Food: Old-school dinners

A three-course Lakeland lunch, circa 1962, lovingly recreated by Simon Hopkinson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For pounds 13.75 you can buy just over one-and-a-half dry martinis at the American Bar at the Savoy; slightly under half a tank of unleaded petrol for a family saloon; around four packets of fags, or four return- trips over the new Severn bridge. It will also buy you a four-course dinner half-way along the southern shore of lake Ullswater, Cumbria.

The Howtown Hotel, in Howtown, a 25-minute walk along the lakeside road from the legendary Sharrow Bay Hotel (this year celebrating its golden anniversary), is where the proprietor of the latter, Brian Sack, likes to eat roast loin of lamb on his night off. Until recently, he enjoyed doing this with his life-long partner and founder of Sharrow, the remarkable, very English chef Francis Coulson. Sadly, Francis died in February, a few hours into their 50th season, and he is sorely missed by everyone.

I stayed at Sharrow in May, in one of their loveliest rooms, tucked into a corner of the grounds of the proprietor's home - about three-quarters of a mile along the narrow road from the hotel. It is a brisk 20-minute walk, or an illegal three-and-a-half-minute drive if you have made full use of the excellent wine list. I did the former, with light heart and a gentle stagger.

Brian took me to dinner at the Howtown Hotel one Friday night. "We are going to eat Jacquie's roast loin of lamb," he said. "You will not eat better, though, you know, it is cooked well done - and with fat of such crisp succulence that sometimes I dream of it." I leapt at the invitation with relish and uncontainable greed.

I have always loved the English Lakes. My brother went to prep school in the most southerly region - or Westmoreland as it was then known. I was taken up there on his rare exeats - or "vizzies", as the school vernacular decreed - accompanying my parents to take him out for an overnight stay in nearby Silverdale, where the sweet shop stocked sherbet-filled, rice- paper flying saucers in different colours.

Lunch out in those halcyon days was almost always in a hotel. There would always be a bar: the lounge, snug or public. It would depend upon whether it was a posh sort of place, or simply a roadside stop. Mind you, it mattered not a jot to Dad. He would have found a bottle of Bass halfway along Kirkstone Pass, in the dark, and in snow.

The Howtown Hotel is everything that I recall from those childhood days: privately owned, a public bar for Dad, polished tables in the dining room, dinner at a set time with gong, not much choice on the menu, but there is egg mayonnaise as a first course. And, for pounds 13.75, we ate the egg mayonnaise, an asparagus soup made with a good, flavoursome stock, the wonderful roast loin of lamb (I kid you not, it was the finest piece of roast lamb I can remember eating since Mum left a shoulder in the Aga while we were jubilant in church), and a bread-and-butter pudding made with marmalade. The pud bore no relation to the trembly-set-custard-with-a-Sunblest-raft, Swiss- chef-school idea de nos jours. This was proper stuff, crunchy and with cream, cooked without fuss for that night's dinner, simply for residents who were hungry. I was actually quite glad to hear on our way out, when Brian introduced me to Jacquie Baldry, that she said, quite plainly, "You know, I don't like cooking really."

Along with that stupendously good lamb, the roast Saturday-night duck is pretty fine, too, as was some roast pork with proper apple sauce, exceptional crackling and good old-fashioned wet and dry stuffing - that is, a crust to the surface and damp beneath. A rhubarb and ginger tart was, to be honest, more of a pie, which suited me fine - its singular thick pastry crust was crumbly and soft, the underneath soggy with rhubarb juice. A delicious plum crumble came with a scoop of very white ice-cream. "I'm not sure about that particular brand," said Brian. "I'm a Cornish vanilla man myself."

I was not about to ask Jacquie Baldry for recipes. She would most probably have said, "Well ... you know ... it just goes into the oven until it's done." At any rate, here is my menu for a nice three-course Lakeland lunch, circa 1962. Have a nice warm gin and French to begin with, followed by several bottles of Bass or some Mouton Cadet. At least, that is what Dad would have chosen. Jeremy and I drank Pepsi; Mum had sherry and a glass of the MC.

Simple asparagus soup, serves 4

50g butter

2 small leeks, trimmed, thinly sliced and thoroughly washed

750ml light chicken stock

350g sprue asparagus, trimmed of any woody bits, chopped and washed, reserving 12 or so tips, for garnishing the soup

1 medium-sized potato, peeled and chopped

salt and white pepper

150ml single cream

1 tbsp snipped chives

Sweat the leeks in the butter until soft but uncoloured. Add the chicken stock, bring up to a simmer and cook gently for 30 minutes, covered. Add the chopped asparagus and the potato, and return to a simmer once more. Cook, uncovered this time, simmering slowly, for no more than 20 minutes. Briefly boil the reserved asparagus tips for about two minutes in a small pan of salted water. Drain and refresh in a bowl of iced water and dry on a clean tea-towel.

Ladle the soup while still hot into a liquidiser and blend until very smooth. Push through a fine sieve into a clean pan. Add the cream and stir in. Briefly reheat with the cooked tips. Check for seasoning. Ladle into hot bowls and sprinkle with chives.

A good way to roast a duck, serves 4

I wonder if, like me, you have sometimes had one of those unfortunate ducks in your oven that just will not crisp. However much you primp it with a sharp knife, pour boiling water over it, dry it overnight (or with hairdryers), as I like to do to the festive goose, the eagerly awaited duck skin resembles blotting paper rather than sandpaper.

There used to be a certain Mrs Hogg somewhere in north Lancashire (Goosenargh or Gressingham way, I think) who, according to Brian Sack, cooked the finest duck anywhere. Brian told me she would put the duck into the oven at 4.30 in the afternoon, to be served up to hungry guests at 8pm. As far as he recalled, the birds were slowly roasted on specially tilted racks - allowing the fat to drip out into trays underneath. Brian also mentioned, in passing, that the resourceful Mrs Hogg would then make soap from the fat - although I am sure she would have roasted the odd potato in it before moulding Puddleduck drippings into bars of Lancashire Imperial Leather.

At any rate, I tried out this method on returning home from the Lakes, so here is how it went, the Saturday of the last bank holiday weekend, for my friend Hussein and me, for lunch:

Pre-heated oven to 170C. At about 10am, duck already at room temperature and lightly rubbed with salt inside and out. Put middle rack of oven on steep slant, ie, from top right slot across to bottom left. Placed duck directly onto oven rack, parson's nose in dive position. Arranged large roasting tin underneath, particularly to catch drips from nose. Roasted duck for three hours, turning the temperature down somewhat towards the end. Removed fat occasionally from tray. Excited to note meaty drippings congealed on the base of the tin in lumps, perfect for making gravy with a little veg water, sherry and the merest dusting of flour for thickening. A slug of mushroom ketchup may be necessary; even a tentative drip of gravy browning. Of course, too much browning will always end up with the whole lot having to be thrown out of the window ...

It was noticeable that the skin began to rumple and puff itself to a definite crispness fairly early on. An hour later, one could clearly see the subcutaneous layer of fat through the skin, melting and bubbling on its way out of the duck, into the fat bath below. Once the duck was carved, there was that tell-tale good sign: a generous gap between soft and tender meat and dry and parchment-like skin.

"Grilled duck breast" or "magret" may now be the chef's darling, but it bears no relation to "le caneton roti a l'Anglaise". Serve with your favourite stuffing (go on, open a packet of Paxo) and home-made apple sauce - some standards must be seen to be upheld.

Bread and butter pudding with marmalade, serves 4-6

I used a packet brioche loaf for this pudding, reeking of ersatz vanilla and with a sell-by date of almost one month! What do they do to make a loaf last for a month? Whatever they did to it, it made the most delicious pud, but you can use traditional bread, rolls, tea-cakes, Mother's Pride, stale baguette or what you will; it's only bread and butter pudding, after all. I made mine in a tin dish measuring 28cm x 19cm, and 3cm deep, so as not to end up with too much custard underneath.

sliced bread (about 200g-225g)

75g softened butter

about 4 heaped tbsp marmalade

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

1 heaped tbsp caster sugar

275ml full cream milk

125ml double cream

pinch salt

a little extra caster sugar for sprinkling

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Lightly butter the tin with a little of the butter. Use the rest to spread generously over one side of each slice of bread. Thickly spread with marmalade and lay, slightly overlapping, into the tin. Beat together the eggs and yolks with the sugar (add a little vanilla essence if you are not using my funny brioche), then thoroughly mix in the milk and cream. Carefully pour over the bread and leave to soak for 20 minutes. Sprinkle over the extra caster sugar. Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until puffed up and lightly gilded. Serve warm with cold pouring cream or a slice of yellow Cornish vanilla ice-cream

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