Wednesday, 12 August 2015
The Whitebrook, Monmouthshire
Henry Ashby has been a forager for over 50 years, first in his native Yorkshire, later the Scilly Isles and more recently in Monmouthshire. In his own words, he's not a "survivalist" or a "bush crafter" or any such ridiculous macho caricature, he looks only for the very finest wild plants, herbs and funghi and sells them on to only the very finest local restaurants. More specifically, recently he has begun supplying exclusively to the Whitebrook, a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms in the Wye Valley, whose menus are a hymn to the local estuaries and ancient woodland and changing seasons.
Wild plants, like restaurants, broadly break down into three categories. Firstly there are the booby traps - deadly species like Ragwort or the Yellow Stain mushroom, outwardly innocuous, perhaps bearing a resemblance to a benign weed or edible funghi, but capable of inflicting severe gastrointestinal upset and even, in extreme cases, death. These are the Hard Rock Cafés or Aberdeen Angus' of the foraging world, to be avoided at all costs, duping unsuspecting foragers in the same way a Leicester Square restaurant will lure in naive tourists, serve them frozen onion rings and broiler ranch chicken and charge them a stomach-churning bill.
Then there are the species that are edible, just not particularly pleasant. Bear Grylls may collect them if he was stuck out in the wilds of the Wye Valley with only a penknife and water purification tablets, in the same way as you'd go to the KFC at Heston Services if you were desperately hungry and it was too late to find anything better, but you wouldn't go back for more without very good reason.
Finally, at the top of the chain, there are the very finest specimens, plants that only grow wild but are at least the equal of any cultivated species in terms of vibrancy of flavour; woodruff, our British vanilla, floral meadowsweet, citrusy wood sorrel. These are your Michelin-starred plants, and are all that Henry is interested in for his clients. And it is these exciting and unusual plants that elevate the tasting menu by chef Chris Harrod at the Whitebrook into something very special indeed.
Chickpea may not sound like the most obvious way to start a British foraged tasting menu but actually these are grown by a local veg supplier and are the first fresh chickpeas I've seen in this country. They came with chicken skin crackers topped with a carrot purée, full of colour and texture. Next to them, cute little cheese crackers topped with nettle purée and wild flowers.
I forgot to write down exactly what this first amuse was, but I think was cubes of bright purple potato on a soft roe of some kind, like a white tarama. Very nice it was, anyway.
The first proper course was local beets with powerful local blackberries and an artistic selection of foraged herbs and flowers. The beetroot & blackberry jus poured on top had the most amazing flavour, not to mention a dark, thick colour like fake blood.
A generous mound of fresh Cornish crab meat, sweet and luxurious, on a layer of bright green mallow "cream" and delicate pickled kohlrabi. Talking point of this dish though were "cucamelons", strange grape-sized vegetables that taste like a cross between cucumber and melon, also grown by the Whitebrook's vegetable people.
Of all the dishes, these dumplings with salt-baked turnip was perhaps the only one that veered somewhat close to disappointing. The Golden Cenarth cheese used was a bit too old and strong and battered the other flavours to a stinky pulp, and though I get the idea of using croutons for texture, they held a bit too much grease and were a bit difficult to enjoy. A noble failure, though - it was at least a dish with ambition.
Fortunately we didn't wobble for long. This beautiful slab of bright-white Cornish turbot is a textbook example of how to cook fish, moist and meaty and sat on top of a silky buttermilk sauce. An array of vivid green, salty estuary plants decorated it, and heritage carrots had so much flavour I think they may have been salt-baked. Or perhaps they were just really good carrots, seasoned perfectly.
Suckling pig came in three styles, a little cube of belly, a tender pink chop on the bone and a neat cylinder of - I think - slow-cooked jowl. It was coated in one of those lovely glossy reduced sauces that the very top restaurants can do so well, as well as - naturally - a smattering of edible plants.
A pre-dessert of blackcurrant and "pineapple weed" (growing rampant in the woods around the restaurant) was a pretty little coil of blackcurrant jelly and cream, sat on a bed of some kind of granita. Also studded into the granita were blackcurrants, each with a powerful concentrated flavour a million miles from the usual supermarket type.
Violet parfait came dressed with some dainty little meringue "twigs" and a blob of lemon thyme sorbet. More texture came in the form of teeny rose jellies and I also - again - admired the Whitebrook's confidence in dressing their dishes with fresh berries, stunningly raw and unadulterated.
Finally here's a cherry and hazelnut cake, with cherry stone ice cream and meadowsweet meringue. Like most of what came before, it was first and foremost an accomplished high-end restaurant dish that satisfied on every level, but the use of unusual foraged ingredients both enhanced the effect of the clever techniques and grounded the flavours in local geography and precise seasonality.
The Whitebrook is a perfect - perhaps unique - collaboration between a master forager with an expert's eye and palate, and a chef whose classical training is put to ideal use with this abundance of dazzling ingredients. Only once previously in the last few years - at the Black Swan in Oldstead - has that crucial final mile between ground and plate seemed so short; here in the Wye Valley you get that same sense of immediacy and vibrancy, that indefinable correctness of eating food (barring a fish or two from Cornwall) exactly in the place it was meant to be eaten.
And even without all that, even if Chris Harrod was flying his vegetables in daily from China and using moon rocks as seasoning, he would still, I'm sure, be able to produce an impressive selection of dishes. With the abundance of riches on his doorstep though, and the skills of Henry Ashby at his disposal, it makes about as good a case for getting on a train out of London for the weekend as anywhere else you'd care to think of. The Whitebrook could exist nowhere else, and eating here is an experience like no other in modern British food.
Photos by Helen. We were invited to the Whitebrook, but the lunch menu is an incredibly reasonable £47, and £35 with some excellent wines paired by GM Andrew, photos of which are here.