For someone with an overly healthy interest in food, there could be few things more exciting than being set loose in a professional kitchen. Last Thursday saw my debut in the kitchen, at the latest JoinUs4Supper evening at North Star Deli. If, however, you’d seen me on Wednesday night, I’d probably have looked more than a tad pensive, mildly nervous, and concentrating deeply. A little part of me was starting to think I’d bitten off more than I could chew by accepting the challenge to collaborate with Deanna, Ben and the North Star Deli team. That and the fact I was helping stuff a pig’s intestine with blood, desperately trying to ensure it didn’t drop and burst in an ignominious end to our efforts to make fresh black pudding. All this from a throwaway comment about having a go on a TV food quiz to a couple of fellow foodies…
After weeks of thoughts, discussions and debate, we were clear in what we wanted to do. At the heart of the meal was the intention to place Porcus pork in the limelight, with local cheese and veg as superb supporting actors. We wanted to find a flavour and feel which properly encompassed the character of our TV team.
On the Wednesday I picked up local ingredients from my base in Todmorden (despite having lived here for years, when I hear ‘local’ and ‘Todmorden’ a little bit of me can’t help think of the League of Gentleman, which was partly filmed here). I certainly felt like I’d been to visit Hilary Briss for a bit of the ‘special’ as I drove to Manchester with a large selection of Porcus rare breed freerange pork in the back of my car, ready for prepping.
Chef Ben wasn’t able to join us on the Thursday, as he had prior commitments, but he was determined to steer the pork preparation on the Wednesday evening before driving to Devon for a memorial service. This is a man who takes his meat seriously. So we pushed through the evening, prepping for the next night and making sure everything was in order. I discovered two things that night… mise en place really does save your ass, and good humour is an essential kitchen ingredient. Lots of bloody offal jokes abounded. I went home knackered but buzzing…
I had a pretty clear idea of my starter’s components all along, but the added pressure of serving it to dozens of diners at once weighed heavily on me, and prompted many changes and rethinks. It’s easy to dismiss those contestants on TV shows who seem to try too hard and throw everything they know at a plate, but now I better understand the temptation to do so. At the core was rhubarb and black pudding (incidentally the title of a Matthew Fort book on Paul Heathcote, disappointingly not pairing these two great northern ingredients, which I’ve always thought a missed opportunity). We’ve long been fans of black pudding at North/South Food, and as I was wanting to serve some of our signature ingredients, that and in-season Yorkshire forced rhubarb were a shoo-in. Just to add to my own self-imposed pressures, I’d decided to try and reflect our North/South brand colours on the plate, so everything had to work in terms of hue, flavour provenance and presentation.
When Ben mentioned he used to make black pudding from scratch at his last position, I started to think about having a go ourselves. Like almost everywhere in the UK, they used dried blood. I’d idly toyed with using fresh blood from the pig for the supper club, but after reading an article by Marc Frederic which highlighted how few producers in the UK now use this, I was more determined to revive this old farmhouse tradition. I’ll cover the whole process in gory detail in my next post, but let’s just say it was quite an eye-opener to make blood sausage. I tried to add a slightly lighter texture and a more aromatic character than traditional local black pud, using mace and fennel as key notes alongside the creamy cereal influence of Barearts‘ wonderful vintage Oat Stoat, and Mornflake milled oats from Cheshire. We were excited to place our young upstart pudding next to the established local champion on the plate, to provide the ultimate primer to inexperienced diners.
After I started slowly plating up the starters – then we worked as a team to quickly finish them off to perfection – I said a few words about the circumstances which had prompted the evening, and introduced our fellow foodies to the provenance of the menu. Then, without further ado, it was onto the eating.
The final lineup for the starter worked beautifully. A round of our Northern Stars black pudding, topped by a crisp shard of Porcus’s air-dried black ham sat next to a wedge of RS Ireland’s Real Lancashire black pudding on a bed of mustard-spiced parsnip purée. The black pudding was topped by two slices of the most perfectly pastel pink Yorkshire forced rhubarb, which I’d poached in a syrup made from homemade elderflower cordial mixed with muscovado sugar. Locally-grown watercress and smoked paprika-dusted parsnip ‘flowers’ garnished the plate, and the whole affair was finished with a reduction of the rhubarb poaching liquid. There was a vegetarian option too – using RS Ireland’s rather brilliant V Pud; a veggie black pudding made with beetroot which is surprisingly similar to the traditional carnivorous version – as I was keen to ensure all the guests on the night had a comparable taste experience.
The whole plate was as pretty as a picture, and the earthiness of the black pudding was foiled by the sweet mustardy parsnip, tang of the rhubarb and saltiness of the air-dried ham. Our black pud worked well against the parsnip, and had enough difference of character to quite happily sit alongside the Lancashire number; even the more squeamish diners enjoyed both equally. As for the air-dried ham, it’s not on sale yet from Porcus, but everyone who tried it clamoured for it to be made available to purchase immediately, so hopefully this’ll prompt it to be on the market soon.
In hindsight, I had a good deal on the night as the starter marked the end of my time in the kitchen, and I was able to enjoy the rest of the meal, interrupted only by the chance to do the rounds and take photos. Being sat next to a superbly knowledgable winemaker with a selection of bottles from his personal cellar also made the evening fly by! As the second course approached, SJ stood up and entertained the diners with her story of how she went from high-flying designer in London to pig-farming in a 16th century farmhouse in the Pennines, via a few unexpected turns. Her antics perfectly set the scene for the the star of the show… her free range pork.
The main was designed to showcase three very different treatments for that wonderful rare breed Tamworth pork reared by SJ and the rest of the Porcus team. A piece of cut, pressed pork belly; a rich faggot, and a duo of the rolled loin and tenderloin; accompanied by a slice of crisp puffed crackling. We were keen to demonstrate the art of using different parts of the animal: choice cuts such as the tenderloin; cheaper traditional cuts like the belly and shoulder; and offal such as blood, heart, liver and caul fat.
I was really pleased to be able to keep it local and feature another Todmorden producer with the vegetarian option. We were using the award-wining Pexommier cheese from Pextenement, long a favourite of mine, baked in a filo parcel with onion relish. Both veggie and porcine plates were served alongside turned beetroot and carrot; a proud fondant potato topped with caramelised spiced apple; red cabbage and a cider jus. Definitely more feast than a delicate serving, this brought a gloriously confident, hearty mid-winter course to the table. Lots of big flavours and contrasting textures were held in balance by excellent cooking and the sheer quality of the ingredients, with many people stating it was hands-down the best pork they’d ever eaten.
Dessert injected a splash of sunshine to the otherwise seasonal meal: a pineapple tart tatin… the fruit rich and caramelised, and cored with the shape of a (north) star. This secret reference was hidden by a portion of heavenly ginger ice cream and a coconut tuille wafer, and a pineapple and mint salsa accompaniment. Fresh, sweet and yet almost smokey pineapple – alongside cloud-like pastry and bright ginger – this boldly playful dessert cut perfectly through the more robust flavours of the main course, and lifted the palate. The combination went down a storm, as Deanna’s desserts always tend to. We rounded off the evening with cheese for all, distributing delightful crackers with ripe Pexommier to the tables so everyone could try this organic coulommier which gained a silver medal at the 2011 British Cheese Awards.
I’ve got to admit, it’s hard to write up an event you were a part of… I’m biased and obviously thought it went brilliantly Thankfully the guests seemed to agree too; we received fabulous feedback from many people and considering we took a few risks and challenged some people’s perceptions with the slightly more icky offal-related elements and swapping sweet and savoury elements around, we were incredibly pleased.
Massive thanks to the whole North Star Deli team… but with special mention to Deanna Thomas for her co-ordination and calmness; chef Ben for his unflappable nature, experienced lead, and great humour; and chef Adrian for helping us so well on the day. At least as importantly, thanks to all the producers who helped us showcase their products. Several diners have already expressed their desire to visit the Porcus farmstead in Todmorden, to see the happy pigs in their moorland home, and to sample some beers in Barearts’ gallery and craft beer bar.
It was a thrill and a privilege to help direct and participate in the supper club, and I’m really pleased to have been able to feature many of the ingredients and produce which we’ve featured here on North/South Food, especially from close to where SJ and I live. I hugely enjoyed the whole experience, and think everyone who came along to sample a taste of the Northern Stars menu went away happy. Stellar result!