The slow food movement has been on the blog’s radar for a little while now, so when I was given a chance to attend a launch for the Wales & West Chef Alliance Lunch at the Michelin starred Crown at Whitebrook, it was almost an opportunity too good to miss.
The Slow Food movement originated in the northern Italian town of Bra, by food activist Carlo Petrini in 1986. Now a global, not for profit organisation boasting over 100,000 members, slow food has devolved into regional variants to have a more focused local agendas. Slow Food UK has several projects to raise awareness and educate:
- Slow Food Baby
- Slow Food Kids
- Slow Food on Campus
- The UK Ark of Taste; Forgotten Foods
- Slow Food UK Chef Alliance
- Slow Food Wisdom
As is probably becoming painfully obvious to anybody involved in the catering industry, the majority of youngsters entering hospitality are unequipped for the job at hand. This is down to several reasons, but the main one which separates the UK from mainland Europe, is culture. Food on the continent is embedded so deeply in their culture they just won’t accept sub-standard, and meal times are a family occasion. Whereas in the UK, the evening meal is almost viewed as an inconvenience of modern life. Despite the recent resurgence of baking, the relentless onslaught of cooking programmes & the domestication of the professional chef; there is still a massive disconnection between the media and the family environment. Gone are the days where mothers would pass recipes on to daughters, now people are more likely to search the internet than ask a parent.
The Slow Food UK movement wants to reverse that trend and aims to do it on several fronts, making it more accessible, whatever your interest.
Last Monday I was invited to The Crown at Whitebrook for a ‘convivial chefs’ lunch’ in partnership with Highland Park Whisky, to launch the newly formed Slow Food UK Chef Alliance in Wales and The West Country. There were some seriously influential people present to reinforce the ideas and concept: Charles Campion (Restaurant critic & food writer); Richard Davies (Michelin starred Manor House); James Sommerin (Michelin starred The Crown at Whitebrook); Bryan Webb (Michelin starred Tyddyn Llan); along with endorsements & contributions from: Michel Roux Jnr; Marcus Wareing; Rowley Leigh and Chef Alliance spokesman Richard Corrigan.
The team at The Crown had worked well into the small hours to provide an exquisite 5 course lunch with matching wines & created a refreshing pre meal drink with Highland Park whisky. Now to be brutally honest I’ve never really got on with whisky, mainly because of bad experiences, but talking to the gentleman from Slow Food UK’s partner (I’m really sorry but I’ve forgotten his name), he explained how to make it more accessible. The Ginger ale whisky cocktail did just that, it was excellent & a viable alternative for summer quaffing to the usual mojito.
There was a pre meal introduction from Slow Food UK’s CEO Catherine Gazzoli, introducing & explaining the aims & why we had all been chosen to attend. One of the main aims, which were echoed by influential food critic & writer, Charles Campion, was to have more Welsh & West Country produce into the Ark of Taste. The idea of the Ark of Taste is promote the use of forgotten quality artisan produce & in conjunction with the Chefs Alliance with the mantra of use it or lose it. The Chefs Alliance has been created by Slow Food for chefs in recognition of those that share the vision that all food should taste great & be environmentally sustainable; with producers paid a fair wage.
The Lunch, as you’d expect from James Sommerin & his team at The Crown at Whitebrook, was excellent. There was the usual ‘on trend’ foraged ingredients in the starter; a nod to St. George in the main course using the namesakes mushrooms; a touch of liquid nitrogen trickery involved in the dessert.
The pre-starter of Pheasant egg with Wye valley asparagus was a pleasant way to start and you can imagine it being a menu staple for the coming summer months. It was a symphony of simplicity and lovely contrasting textures, which exuded confidence from a chef that knows how far to push ingredients to get the best from them.
The starter of mackerel with white chocolate, beetroot & horseradish wasn’t the car crash it sounds. Although the white chocolate was barely noticeable, there was an underlying creaminess which could easily have been mistaken for the oiliness coming from the mackerel. The beetroot, mackerel & horseradish combination is a relative safe one, and on a fixed no choice menu for a function, you couldn’t blame The Crown kitchen for doing so. The flavours were fresh and clean, whilst displaying elements of technical ability with some hydrocolloids.
A main course of new season lamb with garlic, leek & St. George mushrooms was again an example of restraint. Lots of complementing flavours with the addition of crispy sweetbreads & spring cabbage, brought a lots of elements together which could so easily have been ruined with over exuberance from lesser chefs.
After a timely break where the conversation at our table covered such topics as:
- Are waterbaths de-skilling the industry?
- Do environmental health officers have to report something to justify their existence?
- How to taste whisky, for the novice.
The pre-dessert of rhubarb, vanilla & lemon arrived. When it was initially placed in front of me I had mixed emotions; the simplicity, yet lacking the style of previous courses, but then the front of house staff finished the dish. They poured in what was a chilled rhubarb consommé, it added yet another dimension, elevating it from average to excellent.
Final plate to arrive was the dessert of strawberries, white chocolate & lime. Visually stunning, with the large ball of a delicate white chocolate mousse coated in a strawberry puree, then dipped in liquid nitrogen. There were relative local strawberries in various forms- puréed, dried & frozen. Admittedly the wild alpine strawberries did come from France, but really, if there is any kind of gripe about this dish I’d dismiss it out of hand. Texture came in the form of aerated dark chocolate, just to add some crispness & bite.
Sadly lunch was over too soon, but it made me think about how the catering & food industry works. Small artisan producers deserve to be helped in the current climate; the attitude of the public needs to change, from the fast food culture we currently have to something more akin to the continental model. Despite the plethora of cookery & food programmes on television their engagement value with the masses is low, there needs to be a new train of thought. Potentially the Slow Food movement could be it, so if you want to give the gastronaut in your life a present, how about an annual subscription to Slow Food UK. Go on you know you want to, I have.
Sign up to Slow Food UK here