Food: Use it or lose it

Cookery writer of the Year Simon Hopkinson makes an impassioned plea on behalf of some fine local restaurants
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have eaten some really good food recently. It was of a quality I thought might have been on the decline. It revolves around the talents of three English cooks plus a family of oyster catchers - well, oyster gatherers. What they have in common - and they have it in spades - is the desire to serve good cooking without fuss, with pride and with charm.

Nowhere is there a designed surface or a cleverly built chair. Nor is there a telephone booking system. You may not be able to get a perfect Martini, but you can pick up a bottle of white Chateau Rayas for ready money. At the same establishment,the proprietor/cook may prefer to wear sloppy cords rather than put on a ridiculous pair of loud checks, but his napkins are linen, expensive and beautifully folded. Another is almost a tea room, yet serves up a piece of skate so precisely cooked it would shame many smarter metropolitan joints.

These rare pockets of excellence were recently enjoyed under the most genial of circumstances, over Easter, on the flatlands of Suffolk and Norfolk. But one is just a brisk two minutes' walk from my front door, in the marginally more undulating borders of Shepherd's Bush and Brook Green. So let us start here, with the Havelock Tavern in Masbro Road, London W14.

What a very lucky fellow I am, to live so close to such an estimable establishment as the Havelock, a stroll away, without the requirement of taxi or public transport to get you there, and no need to dress up. I often walk around the corner for a solitary lunch. I almost feel I could be in my favourite quartier in Paris, ambling along the small streets of Le Marais to eat oysters at Bofinger.

I have yet to eat oysters in Masbro Road, but I recently enjoyed skate cheeks (or skate knobs, as they are sometimes called). The first time I had them there, they were served with a pungent pot of garlic butter. A second outing saw them with a superlative tartare. On both occasions they were clad in the lightest of batters, holding in their remarkable succulence. There wasn't anything else on the plate, simply a wedge of lemon and a paper napkin to catch any grease (there was none). Finger food of the highest order.

I ate a pretty salad that day, too, which was a delight. It was thoughtfully composed of gem lettuce leaves of the tiniest dimensions, a benchmark Roquefort dressing, Oxo-cube-sized crisp croutons, and leaves of tarragon, mint and basil, torn and flung over everywhere. This crisp and fresh assemblage would have gone very well with the generous slab of grilled rib eye steak that was served up to me at one of their outside tables in the back yard.

My glistening, crusted beef arrived with a pile of the best chips: irregular and crisp to the last, even after half an hour of happy and sunny chomping. There was also a pot of aioli that I swear had been made with the pungent and beautiful olive oil that hails from Maussane les Alpilles near the village of Les Baux de Provence. Put aside those gentler Italian first- pressings for a moment, as this pungent oil is the stuff that would taste of an olive's bottom if it had one. The chefs here are Jonny Haughton and Jo Wilkinson and I am thrilled to be their neighbour and to enjoy such fine cooking, simply on a whim and a walk.

En route to the East Anglian Easterfest, I knew I would want lunch. It is, I think, one of the great pleasures of setting off on a trip, to lunch on the way, don't you? But I only just made it in time to Dicken's, in the Essex village of Wethersfield, a few miles from the absurdly pretty Finchingfield. I rolled up at about a quarter to two, panicking when I saw chef walking away from the restaurant. "Still OK for lunch?" I yelled through the car window. "Oh, yes!" replied John Dicken (I presumed) with a genial smile. Oh the relief!

It is deeply saddening when you walk into a genuinely good country restaurant and note there are only two other people enjoying lunch. It makes me very angry to think that everyone is shouting about how wonderful it is that Great Britain is so food-oriented, we know so much more, the choice of produce has never been better, London is the capital of gastronomy ... blah, blah, blah. So why are they not eating lunch in Wethersfield?

You cannot simply blame it on the breathalyser; a taxi will always take you to good food if, of course, that is what you want to eat. The capital's restaurants are packed out at lunchtime, so why are not those in the heart of Essex. Where are you, Essex man? You are probably having a bowl of help-yourself salad in a Harvester, or tucking into a Big Mac, when, instead, you could be eating a carefully made bowl of fish soup, a perfect omelette Arnold Bennett, a lemon syrup sponge and custard, all sweetly served to you in a pleasant dining room - and all for around pounds l6.

I imagine evenings are busier at Dicken's, and it may be difficult to secure a table of a Friday or Saturday evening, or for Sunday lunch with granny, but I'm telling you now, if you all don't consistently support a truly excellent place such as this, it will soon be the Harvester or nothing.

Onward to Campsea Ashe, Suffolk. I have known of Stewart Bassett for 25 years, but did not get to meet him until Easter last year. This is the man with the cords, the linen and the rare white Rhone. He opened a restaurant called Bassett's in nearby Halesworth in the early to mid- 1970s, and although I had always enjoyed reading about him in The Good Food Guide, and was interested to note that we had both opened our restaurants around about the same time (mine was in a shed in west Wales), I never managed to eat at the Halesworth place.

I had enjoyed only the one night's stay at The Old Rectory (where Stewart has been now for 15 years) but this time needed to do it twice - and "need" is the appropriate word here, because I really love Stewart's cooking, together with his unusually interesting wines. He makes - among other things - the finest roast potatoes I have ever eaten. They are cut up small and, after having simply boiled them within an inch of collapse, he drains them really well, flings them into hot dripping and forgets about them. My, are they good. They were served up alongside some simply cooked, buttery leeks cut into big chunks, the perfect vegetables to accompany a roast and stuffed saddle of lamb with a proper gravy.

Expert roasting has become a rarity. More often than not, the only cut of lamb that is "roasted" is the boned, neatly trimmed, fatless and sinew- less, boring, vapid loin of lamb. This is not roasted at all, it is seared in olive oil or clarified butter and given six and three-quarter minutes in a very hot oven, then left to rest for 10 minutes to go all nice and pink. It is then sliced into immaculate roundlets and anointed with "jus". It's crap, this stuff, I hate it.

Similarly, a roast guinea fowl fashioned in this tawdry way would be a travesty compared with Stewart Bassett's interpretation. The Old Rectory guinea fowl sports crinkled, copper-coloured skin, its meat is chewy and dense, and the fragrantly seasoned gravy is based upon the scrapings of many blackened roasting tins.

I managed a lunch out from Campsea Ash (primarily because the Old Rectory doesn't do lunches) to Orford, seven miles away on the coast and famous for its Ness. I have been there on several happy occasions to eat the Pinney family's delicious local oysters at their famous Butley Oysterage. But it is more than simply a restaurant, as it has a thriving smokery attached, which fumes all manner of fishes: salmon (wild and farmed), trout and eels, herrings, mackerel, and the finest cod's roe I have yet to find.

Whenever I visit the Oysterage, I stock up on this superb roe (which freezes beautifully) and find myself coming away with eel and a few mackerel, too. But it is the orange-pink and dark red roes that make up the bulk of my purchases. It is served in the restaurant in thick slices, accompanied by hot buttered toast. The texture of this roe is oily, creamy and with just that touch of bitterness that makes it so appealing. A squeeze of lemon juice, a grind of pepper, and here is a plate of food that makes my face light up with pleasure. But, to the oysters.

Although the Orford bivalves are of the Pacific (or "rock") variety, which will never compare in subtlety, flavour and texture to the "native" flat or plate oyster, these are easily the finest of that genus. Fleshy and gorgeous in their deep crinkled shells, once extracted, these wobbling muscles fill the senses with the whiff of ocean spume and the tang of salty rock pools. The texture in the mouth, as with all oysters, can be enjoyed for a matter of seconds only, but when it's as good as an Orford Pinney oyster, it is as orgasmic a sensation as the one you hope will always last longer than a matter of seconds.

A personal note here: I always like my oysters uncut. That is, without being severed by the shucker and turned over, as is the English way. I have never understood this practice, as, apart from precious juices escaping, surely they always look so much nicer when left undisturbed, frilled with black edgings, natural and neat in their pearly home for the last time.

There is fresh fish to be had at the Oysterage, too, but here you have to be choosy. I enjoyed scraping spindly cartilage clean from an immaculate wing of judiciously cooked skate, its delicious lubrication the time-honoured classic of brown butter and capers. Is there, I wonder, a finer dressing for a poached wing of skate? No, I'm here to tell you, there is not. Go for something such as this way with skate if you want to eat fresh fish here; the parsley sauce on a piece of (nice looking) cod on the next door table looked - how shall we say - a little heavy?

This year will be, I think, the fifth year we have all eaten Easter Sunday lunch at the yellow Yetman's house in Holt, Norfolk. It has always been the greatest pleasure to do this. Peter and Alison Yetman own and run, almost single-handedly, this pretty place on the edge of the town, on the Norwich road. Alison is the cook and Peter serves the food and uncorks the wine (from an enterprising and wallet-friendly collection). You don't see much of Alison, she is a proper cook and does just that, beautifully, in her tiny, mildly chaotic kitchen out back, with minimal but, I would guess, treasured help.

Not only a talented cook, Alison is passionate, determined and well read (good cookery books are stacked up in a corner of the kitchen). Flavours are bold but do not shriek; most of the ingredients are carefully culled from local people and treated with respect; recipes are at once exciting and familiar, some of them complicated and others as simple as can be.

A plain white plate covered with baked cherry tomatoes came with fresh mozzarella and a scattering of herbs (the simple). My first course of terrine of jellied rabbit (the complicated) was garnished with slices of ripe pear and a few leaves of rocket and other foliage - no salad hedges here - perfectly dressed and a joy to eat and behold. But then all the dishes look right at these tables.

Some of you might think I have been over-effusive here, and may mutter to yourselves that it is clear he knows these people, from the way he is rabbiting on. Well, yes, I do know the Yetmans. We talk about cooking and restaurants whenever we meet. I prattle on to Peter over wine and he prattles back. Alison recently pointed out to me that there was a truly wonderful chocolate ice-cream recipe in a Marcella Hazan cookery book (Marcella's Kitchen, Macmillan, 1987). I have since made it and it is really good. That is how cooks natter. And, thanks to Alison, you will be privileged and party to this chocolate- ice recipe when it appears on these pages in a few weeks' time.

Now, look, this has not been a restaurant review - well, I suppose it has been really, but that was not the reason for going to these places. Moreover, I had no intention of writing about them until I had returned home. I intended to eat at four of the five, simply because I like them very much indeed. I have always enjoyed discovering good places to eat (it was my job once upon a time), but it continues to be a difficult voyage.

Apart from my local, which does stupendously good business as far as I can see (go at lunchtime if you wish for a calmer outing), it seems it lies with you, the readers, The Public, to frequent the four country places that I have enthused about so energetically. I know I mentioned - nay, urged - this earlier, but it is of vital importance. Remember, it was Easter when I was there. And to emphasise this, Yetman's, for instance, turns away loads of punters for their Easter Sunday lunch, yet can they fill their primrose-yellow dining rooms of a Wednesday night in November? Why were there not others like myself tucking into the fluffiest and most savoury omelette Arnold Bennett on a Wednesday lunchtime in leafy Essex - and yes, I assume that not many of you townies think of the Essex countryside, as leafy; it's not all Billericay and Basildon, you know.

The Oysterage at Orford seems to be busier than most in leaner times, and is one of Stewart Bassett's favourite places (he says nine oysters is the perfect number, but I could not resist 12 once I had got there). So why not do as I did and stay there, eat his delicious roasts, drink a bottle of great wine, stagger upstairs and think of oysters for lunch the next day. A jollier outing I cannot imagine

Havelock Tavern, 57 Masbro Road, London W14 0LS (0171-603 5374); Dicken's, The Green, Weathersfield, Essex CM7 4BS (01371 850723); The Old Rectory, Campsea Ashe, Suffolk IP13 0PU (01728 746524); Butley Orford Oysterage, Orford,

Suffolk IP12 2LJ (01394 450277); Yetman's, 37 Norwich Road, Holt, Norfolk NR25 6SA (01263 713320)

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