My son Joe shocked us all at breakfast the other morning by asking us what kilts, bagpipes, porridge, whisky, tartan and haggis have in common, and then announcing that none of them originated in Scotland. Apparently, kilts came from Ireland, bagpipes from central Asia, porridge from Scandinavia, whisky from China, tartan from England and haggis from ancient Greece – indeed Aristophanes wrote about an exploding haggis in The Clouds, 420 years BC. At least Joe didn't totally wreck our illusions by adding Irn Bru and Kirsty Wark to the list. That would have been too much to take.
As it was, it took me a while to come to terms with the news about haggis. I'm a big fan of haggis, even in the form in which it was dished up when I lived in a student hall of residence in Scotland; dumped unceremoniously onto the plate from an ice-cream scoop by a bad-tempered cook with a ginger beard and a scarred nose, the legacy, we were told, of a bottle fight in a pub. Morag, she was called.
Anyway, whether haggis originated in Scotland or not, I was delighted to find it being reinvented in the kitchens of a Herefordshire pub last week. One of the starters at The Butchers Arms in Woolhope was haggis fritters with beetroot relish, which might not sound like something likely to seduce your taste buds, yet sent mine into raptures. Morag and Aristophanes, not a pair I ever expected to unite in the same sentence, would have been astonished.
We went to The Butchers Arms because it is run by Stephen Bull, who is not as famous as Gordon and Marco and Heston, but in his less limelight-hogging way has been just as influential on modern British cooking. He ran another Herefordshire pub called the Lough Pool Inn for some years, and we kept meaning to go but never did. The Butchers Arms is a new venture, and one that deserves the attention of every national newspaper restaurant critic, if they can just force their way west of Sloane Square.
For the record, Jane's starter was oxtail terrine with pear chutney, which she followed with roast breast of Chepstow duck with elderberry jelly and vinegar lentils. My main course was eight-hour slow-roast lamb shoulder with chickpea puree. Never have two more satisfied diners farted their way home. And let me mention the puddings: geranium panna cotta for Jane, and quince tarte tatin with vanilla ice-cream for me. Even by the ever-rising standards of pub food in rural Herefordshire, it was sublime. Moreover, the starters are all £5.50, the puds £5.25, and the mains around £12.50. Bull did not get where he is today by attaching unreasonable prices to his marvellous cooking.
But how did he get to where he is today? Afterwards, we managed to grab a cosy fireside chat with him, and he told us his inspiring tale, that he worked in the advertising business, with Peter Mayle, until the fateful day in 1973 that, on a visit to northern Italy, he tasted risotto Milanese with white truffle grated over it. That was his Damascene moment. He came back to Britain and taught himself to cook by reading Julia Child's seminal book Mastering The Art of French Cooking, in vogue again thanks to the film Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep. Meanwhile he got a job as a waiter, working for mad Peter Langan.
Eventually, he set up his own restaurant in London, called simply Stephen Bull. Jane and I went there once before we were married, and while I couldn't in all honesty recall to him what we ate, at least we've been together ever since. He left London for Herefordshire nine years ago and plainly loves it out here, as we all do, although he has a splendid fund of nightmare-customer stories.
Once, at the Lough Pool Inn, a diner in a party of 10 found a tiny lettuce-coloured caterpillar, about the size of a little fingernail, on her salad. They all promptly got up and left – without paying. "And the thing is that I'm scrupulous about washing my salad leaves," he said, still indignant after all these years. "At least it hadn't been sitting in a chlorine bath to kill everything, which is what some places do. The caterpillar just got through the net."
Which reminds me of the time a fellow student found a severed mouse's head in Morag's treacle pudding and custard, but that's another story.Reuse content