Oh, I do like to cook beside the seaside

A class with master chef Mark Hix on the Dorset coast is more than just a foodie indulgence, discovers Andy Lynes

Sunday 22 February 2009 01:00

It’s 11 am on a bright and crisp midwinter’s day in Lyme Regis, and I’m the first to arrive at the Hix Oyster and Fish House for the monthly Kitchen Table cookery class. Restaurant manager Jonathan Jeffrey shows me downstairs to the kitchen where chef and owner Mark Hix and head chef Seldon Curry are busy with their mise en place; preparing the numerous ingredients that will make up the four-course lunch they’ll be demonstrating and serving today.

As the rest of the class arrives (there are six of us today; the maximum is eight), Jeffrey serves up a West Country welcome in the form of a mug or two of Julian Temperley’s renowned Somerset cider mulled with cinnamon, bay, cloves, lemon and sugar, and a tray of plump Portland Royal oysters from just along the coast in Portland Bill.

Although we’ve all travelled down especially, most people include the Monday class in a long weekend of foodie indulgence. There’s a chalet for hire next to the Oyster House itself, but I stayed in the delightfully quirky Hedgehog Corner B&B on the outskirts of Lyme Regis. It’s a convenient base for exploring Lyme itself and other foodie destinations such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage HQ in Uplyme and his restaurant and deli in Axminster.

We take our seats around the bar that overlooks the stove and work benches. Despite regular TV appearances, Hix isn’t just any old celebrity chef. His training in French cuisine with Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester followed by 17 years as executive head chef of London restaurants The Ivy and Le Caprice means we’re being given an opportunity to get up close and personal with a true master of his craft.

Hix begins by expertly slicing shallots for the devilled sauce that will accompany the starter of roast cauliflower with kidneys.

“When I was an apprentice in London, if I didn’t chop the shallots finely enough the chef would chuck them in the stockpot and I’d have to start again,” says Hix. There’s no chance of that happening today, however, as the perfectly diced allium go into a hot pan with some cayenne and cider vinegar. The air fills with appetising aromas. Hix finishes his sauce with proper homemade beef stock but tells us that we can use a stock cube. “Use flour at the beginning of the cooking process to thicken the sauce. Adding cornflour at the end makes it too wishy-washy,” he says.

While Hix shows us how to trim lambs’ kidneys (remove the sinews with a sharp knife but there’s no need to over-trim the fat as it will melt in the pan), Jeffrey pours Van Volxem 2006 Saar riesling from Germany into our glasses. As we all begin to relax and interact with each other, the event begins to feel more like an incredibly well-catered dinner party than a formal cookery class. “Everything for the dish so far – cooking the cauliflower, making the sauce and trimming the kidneys – could all be done the day before. It’s what we do in the restaurant,” Hix tells us. “People make the mistake of not thinking ahead. You want to be with your guests getting drunk, not stuck in the kitchen.”

Hix and Curry plate up the first course with practised ease and we get a glimpse of how a busy service at the restaurant might look. The food is delicious and I can’t wait to try making the devilled sauce at home, which also goes well with pork.

Hix and Curry complete the remaining three courses of shellfish stew, roast teal with haggis on toast, and rhubarb tart while the culinary insights, and the wine, keep flowing.

“You can get a good couple of meals out of a lobster by using the shell to make bisque.” (Another glass of riesling? Why not.)

“People think game is dry, but that’s probably because they’ve overcooked it; a small bird will take only about 15 minutes.” (A sip of pinot noir to accompany the teal? Good idea.)

“I’m surprised more people don’t use wild sea spinach. It grows in clumps on the beach or you can find it in car parks and by the side of the road. You can recognise it by its wide leaves.” (How about some Sauternes with your rhubarb tart? You twisted my arm.)

There’s just time for Hix to sign copies of his latest cookery book before he dashes off to catch the train to London for an awards ceremony where he’ll pick up a gong for Restaurateur of the Year. We are in no hurry to leave, and linger over coffee and cider brandy and enjoy a gossip with Jeffrey in the restaurant.

A walk on the Cobb seems like a good way to clear my head, but a few metres out I realise Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman must have had some sort of death wish to be standing on top of an unprotected wall that slopes down towards the sea. Or perhaps she just hadn’t had as much to drink.

I quickly turn on my heels certain that, in future, the harbour views from the Oyster House will be close enough for me.

Compact facts

Further information

Mark Hix’s Kitchen Table cookery classes cost £140 per person and are held monthly at Hix Oyster and Fish House, Cobb Road, Lyme Regis, Dorset (01297 446910; hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk). Hedgehog Corner B&B (01297 32036; hedgehogcorner.co.uk).

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