‘A certain je ne sais quoi oh so very special’

Published in Spectator Scoff 2010

Jane Grigson once wrote that the history of cookery is in some way like the history of language. That so much English vocabulary is not of Old English origin shows how easily accretions have been assimilated. Similarly British cookery has absorbed influences from a wide variety of sources to the extent that it is very hard to say what is indigenous anymore – just look at the emergence of the distinctive British curry.

On the other hand, in terms of native produce, the countryside is unlikely ever to be dotted with olive groves or banana plantations, at least in this lifetime.

Genuinely British cuisine cannot aspire to authenticity without emphasising locally-grown produce which imparts an unmistakable terroir. Even Elizabeth David who, while broadening the horizons of British gastronomy after the War, tended to disparage British produce, admitted that a ‘country’s national food appears completely authentic only in that country’. A Spaghetti al Ragú eaten within sight of Bologna’s duomo will never taste the same as a Spagh-Bol even if the latter is consumed close to Spaghetti Junction.

In attempting to develop a genuinely British cuisine, chef’s struggle against a legacy where consumption was often seen in empirical, calorific terms, and not considered a topic for polite conversation. Perhaps this was a product of Britain’s early urbanisation and attendant distance from the land, or maybe the reason lies deeper in the country’s cultural inheritance.

Whites Bar and Kitchen in Steynham, Sussex, is one restaurant pioneering such an integration of cookery with terroir, placing an emphasis on locally-sourced ingredients and a premium on the kind of skills that were honed during head-chef Stuart Dove’s tenure under Gordon Ramsay.

If this is ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ it is not apparent, as an open plan integrates dining and cookery in a setting that combines the Tudor wood framing of the original tavern with sleek modern comfort and rich colouring. The presence in the bar area of a large flat-screen monitor revealing the goings-on of the kitchen might be considered too modish for some tastes, but it shows the pride which they take in their work; more entertaining than watching Chelsea, I say.

The reception we weary travellers received was genuinely hospitable in time-honoured country style, but before getting down to our labours a short pre-prandial stroll was called for in the bright spring sunshine. Only miles from the sea side, a salty breeze carried a soupçon of Gallic warmth.

Picturesque Steyning revealed a vegetable shop with produce of the most lustrous quality, a favourable augur for our forthcoming repast. Here my thespian comrade reminded me of the words of Uncle Monty from Withnail and I: ‘I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts – prostitutes for the bees. There is, you’ll agree, a certain je ne sais quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot’.

On our return, and in keeping with the theme of terroir, I decided to order a local wine, Chapel Down Bacchus 2007. What is generally the cursory tasting produced a startling effect: a thunderous bouquet transported me to a scene of Maypoles and the crack of leather on willow; perhaps the wine creates different effects elsewhere.

Whites’s menu charts the generally minimal food miles of each dish, and while some might quibble that this merely identifies the main ingredient, at least there is an effort that goes beyond the usual platitudes.

With maritime air currents still on the nose, I craved the fruit of the nearby shoreline. Perhaps it is a mistake to order a daily special, but the prospect of soft-shelled crab was all too enticing to start, while I couldn’t resist the notion of scallops as a main.

The crab arrived whole in a golden light batter accompanied by a bright winter salad of shredded carrot, cress and alas my food kryptonite: raw red onion. The fact that the crab had kindly moulted its shell obviated the need for any embarrassing cracking, and the flesh was suitably sweet. What got me really racy though was the dressing which I discovered was a slow reduction of ginger, soy, chilli, coriander and a little olive oil that provided a joyous marriage of multicultural elements with native ingredients.

For my main six plump scallops arrived like miniature jellies from childhood birthday parties, architecturally accompanied by sautéed potatoes and kale, of the lustrous quality that I had earlier seen, cooked to a tee in luxurious butter. I was beginning to agree with Uncle Monty’s pronouncements.

Instead of dessert, to finish I chose the locally-sourced cheeses, and was disappointed. Perhaps they just needed more time at room temperature but the cheddar was a bit soapy, and the local ‘brie’ was simply ersatz and would have them chortling across La Manche.

Overall, by employing culinary skills of a high order to produce dishes with the finest local ingredients, Whites put themselves at the cutting edge of British gastronomy. A transitory diner can feel a smug sense of satisfaction at the lack of food miles before embarking on the long trip home!

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