Three top chefs raise their guns on the estate that supplies London's most traditional restaurant. Tamasin Day Lewis watches on
‘THE British landed gentry invented rook pie for the peasants, you know. You can’t fool me,” quips Richard Corrigan, as David Chambers, executive chef of Rules, the quintessentially English restaurant, regales us with tales of the squirrels and rooks he has sautéed on previous shoots. If Richard, Michelin-starred Irish chef of Lindsay House, had known that peacock would be on the menu that night, he might have toned down the class-warrior act a bit.
He’s not dressed for it anyway, in his rather patrician Donegal tweed jacket, the colour of pea pods with freckles of saffron, and a shocking golden lining. “I asked for Protestant orange and they gave me Catholic.”
We are in the back of a Land Rover on the Lartington Estate in the high Pennines, with Herbert Berger, the similarly constellated Austrian chef of the City restaurant, 1 Lombard Street. What more could a girl ask for than the great outdoors, and three fine chefs to cook her lunch?
Our first catch of the day is the vicious, pincered Pacifastacus leniusculus, or signal crayfish. A delicacy they may be, but as the gamekeeper, Philip Morgan, extracts them from the holding cage in the lake, they make the French Resistance look tame.
We arrive at a log cabin looking out on to the turfy waters of the River Tees. We are greeted by John Mayhew, our host. As owner of Rules restaurant in London, he supplies much of its game from the estate and from the nearby grouse moors. John is passionate enough about food to enjoy the company of chefs even when he is off duty.
Above us rears the bleakly treeless hillscape that is a heathery homeland to the grouse; behind us, the raw-edged beauty of the hills. Entering John’s log cabin is like stepping into fairyland. It is lit by gas lamps, and has an old wind-up gramophone.
At one end, there is a leaping fire on which is perched a cast-iron device like library steps, so that you can cook at all temperatures from the intense heat of the top step, to the warming embers of the bottom. Donna, Philip’s wife, is cooking the tiny garnets of beetroot, squeaky white heads of cabbage and yellow courgettes we have chosen from the kitchen garden.
The chefs all head for the massive brazier. The verbal assault and battery starts up again as they get down to cooking. Corrigan and Chambers have decided to bone the two legs of lamb in what has the makings of a gladiatorial competition. The knives are out. Chambers pipes up: “I’m tunnel-boning mine.”
Corrigan replies: “When did you last do butchery?” And turning to Herbert, John and me, he adds: “No, actually, he’s a master. Why are you doing it like that?”
Chambers: “Put your money where your big Irish gob is.”
Corrigan: “Now, Chambers, I’m going to show you a trick with a leg of lamb. You’ve digested too much Escoffier.”
Chambers: “You’ve made a right pig’s ear of that.”
Richard shows me how to remove the crayfish entrails without being attacked, then we cook a pot of them under a canopy of dill fronds, on to which he pours a monsoon of Champagne. Herbert sneaks off to doctor David’s lamb, and eventually we sit down to lunch, finishing with delicious little treacle puddings that Donna has cooked and warmed in billy cans.
The rain teems, but we are cocooned on the wooden stoop of the cabin, where I could happily spend days.
At 6pm, we head off to shoot duck. The pond is stocked with teal, mallard, wigeon and the 007 of dark-meated ducks, the golden eye. The birds take off, flying increasingly high and fast. As the light leaks out of the sky, John calls a halt, so that any injured birds the dogs haven’t yet found can be picked up and swiftly, humanely despatched.
Everything on the estate is run to give the game as wild and good a life as possible. There are no clouds of birds as seen on some of the big shoots, where stray shot can pepper and maim, and John will allow only those who eat game to shoot on his land.
“I like the idea of good husbandry, that the birds are well looked after before they’re eaten,” he explains. “That connection is the best one you can get as a way of life. The poults – pheasant and partridge – are brought in and kept under lamps for the first two weeks, then they are allowed out of their pop-holes to acclimatise before they are given their freedom.”
Philip never shoots the birds he has reared and is passionate about conservation. “I’m putting in beetle banks to attract all types of wildlife, and to direct the game from one side of the estate to the other. As a result, we’ve got loads of goldfinches.”
“For every 1,000 birds we put down, we’re lucky to shoot 180,” John adds. “In effect, we’re giving back two-thirds of them, bar the ones the foxes kill.”
At Rules, educating palates is done under the gentle camouflage of story-telling. The customer can read about how the estate is run, and be steered towards the game, the top nine dishes on the menu.
“We understand game, and we tell the customers what we do up here, how we treat it properly,” John tells me. “We tell them this is what we’re good at, which is the way all restaurants should be.”
It seems extraordinary that anyone operating to such high standards should need to be both persuasive and defensive, but that, sadly, is the climate in which we live. It is bred and reared more on ignorance than on understanding how acutely stewardship and conservation are taken by the serious countryman.
Rules - This weeks recipes
Roast wild duck
Allow one duck per brace of people. I have always cooked wild duck simply, roasting it at a high temperature, letting it rest, and using the juices as the main ingredient for any sauce. Apricots, particularly the little, dried Hunza variety from Afghanistan, make a brilliant stuffing. Apples and celery also work well, as do sharper berries, such as red and blackcurrants, or a bitter midwinter Seville orange in the sauce (you can use bitter marmalade instead). All the chefs agreed with Herbert, who said: “You can be very modern and exciting but game is better cooked without too much fuss.”
Heat oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. For a rare bird, place the duck breast-side up on a layer of sliced onion in a roasting tin with its liver mashed with a lump of butter, and some parsley, marjoram, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Roast for 25 minutes, then check with a skewer (a larger duck might need a little longer). The juices should run pink but the bird should not feel resistant. Rest for a few minutes.
Richard Corrigan removes the duck legs from the carcass to confit with salt, sugar, thyme and Chinese five spice and star anise. He cooks the breast on the carcass by browning it in butter and corn oil in a pan for 1.5 minutes per breast, then roasting for 10-15 minutes in a hot oven. He serves it with Chinese leaves cooked in a pan with a little butter and ginger.
He also suggests caramelising some little bits of fresh pineapple in sugar and butter and serving them with the breast. “The gaminess of the duck is magical against the pineapple.”
Herbert serves his duck with an apple and celeriac ragout infused with marjoram, David with a gingered Bramley chutney.
Makes 20 portions
- 7oz/200g caster sugar
- 8 fl oz/200ml water
- 1oz/30gchopped ginger
- 1oz/30g five spice
- 8 pieces star anise
- 1 red chilli, chopped
- Zest of 2 oranges
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 2 lb 3oz/1kg Bramley apples, peeled, cored, diced
Boil the sugar and water until they form a caramel, then add all the spices, the chilli and zest. Throw in the apples and cook for 10 minutes, then cool.
Wild apricot and apple stuffing
Enough for 2 wild ducks
- 1 stalk of celery, strung and finely diced
- Good knob of butter
- 1 sharp eating apple, such as Cox’s, peeled, cored and diced
- 2oz/60g breadcrumbs
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- 4oz/110g Hunza apricots, soaked overnight in apple juice, then stoned
- Salt and pepper
Sauté the celery gently in the butter until almost soft, then throw in the apple and continue to cook for a few minutes.
Add the breadcrumbs, parsley and apricots, stir to amalgamate, season and take off the heat.
Stuff the birds’ cavities and roast.
Port, beetroot and blackcurrant sauce
Omit the beetroot if you want to keep things simpler, but it does add a beautiful, garnet-hued earthiness.
- 1 miniature bottle port
- Ladle of duck or game stock
- 1 heaped tbsp redcurrant jelly
- 2oz/60g black- or red-currants
- 2oz/60g beetroot, cooked, peeled and finely diced
- Salt and pepper
When the ducks are covered and resting, add the port to the juices in the pan and bring to the boil. Add the stock, and bubble merrily for a few minutes to reduce a little. Add the jelly, the black- or red-currants and beetroot, bring back to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Season.