Great British Menu 2021: Northern Ireland recap

Great British Menu 2021: Northern Ireland recap

by Howard Middleton 01 May 2021

Some of the best chefs in Northern Ireland tested their culinary mettle in the Great British Menu kitchen this week. Howard Middleton recaps what went on.

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Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Good news – if a chef from Northern Ireland makes it through to the banquet, nobody’s stopping for chips on the way home. Their portions are generous to say the least.

Other things we learned this week – these chefs don’t like to be rushed and they’re happy to lend each other a helping hand. A slightly laid back, cooperative approach to the competition clearly infuriated the heat’s veteran, Daniel Clifford. To be fair, it doesn’t take much to raise his hackles. Described by Andi Oliver as ‘the British bulldog of fine dining’ he sniffed out any opportunity to bark or bite.

In one of the tightest heats ever, Wednesday’s elimination came down to canapés and Thursday’s was decided on pre-desserts, leaving newcomers Phelim O’Hagan from Browns Bonds Hill in Londonderry and Gemma Austin from Alexander’s, Holywood clinging on to compete for the judges.

Just missing out on a trip to the judging chamber was another new face, Andy Scollick from The Boat House in Bangor. Andy’s main course was inspired by one served as the final meal on the Titanic, but the ship made its ominous presence felt across several menus. Returning chef Paul Cunningham from Brunel’s, County Down also saw his hopes run aground, despite an impressive fish course that re-enacted the SS Great Britain’s fateful stranding in Dundrum Bay.

Celebrated designer, Thomas Heatherwick (of London bus and Olympic cauldron fame) would have loved Paul’s ship. He joins regulars Oliver, Rachel and Matthew in the judging chamber in time for canapés.

Phelim’s canapé ‘Nature’s Aphrodisiac’ is a Carlingford oyster, topped with diced fennel salami and watermelon and served in a Viagra box. Celebrating aviator, Lilian Bland, Gemma welcomes truffle espuma, Irish bacon and Kilcreen cheddar on board a potato skin. The judges agree that Gemma’s is ‘very satisfying’ and offers ‘proper comfort’ but Thomas admits that Phelim’s is the one he’ll remember.

Gemma’s starter ‘Support Your Local’ is inspired by a recent innovation to prevent beer wastage in pubs. Diners are unlikely to waste away either, despite Gemma’s assurance that she’s now serving a smaller portion. She plates boxty – a traditional potato cake, topped with a poached egg and truffle hollandaise alongside a ham hock fritter with piccalilli. Matthew calls it ‘a dish of delights’ but all agree with Rachel’s assessment - ‘There’s a lot on the plate to get through’.

Phelim starts with a dish ominously (but familiarly) inspired by one served as the final meal on the Titanic. Scallop mousse, shaped like a tiny liner, floats in crystal clear oxtail consommé alongside roasted scallops and celeriac. He tops with a cracker of beef and scallop tartare and pickled cucumber. Thomas praises its bento-box-style brilliance and Matthew agrees ‘it’s a really clever piece of cooking’.

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On to Gemma’s fish dish… and… oh, well, great minds think alike because it’s also inspired by one served as the final meal on the Titanic. She plates leeks – crispy and braised, with celeriac and parmentier potatoes, baby carrots and roasted salsify, before adding two purees – celeriac and carrot, two powders – leek and dulse, cider sauce and celeriac crisps. And that’s just the veg! Swapping her salt-baked sea bass for a whole roast halibut, she still adds tempura oysters for good measure. Rachel enjoys the oyster, Oliver likes the veg… the ‘overcooked’ fish gets a further roasting from the judges.

For his fish course, Phelim honours astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who co-discovered the first pulsar in 1967. He calls his dish ‘Crab Pulsar’ which, though a genuine phenomenon, turns out to be probably not one of Dame Jocelyn’s discoveries. However, pointing this out could make me look pickier than a critical crustacean, so I probably won’t. Onto astral platters, Phelim serves his timbale of dressed white crab, dots with Bloody Mary gel and brown crab emulsion, and adds chunks of vodka-cured salmon and crispy salmon skin. Rachel thinks ‘it’s lacking a bit of sophistication’ and Thomas says the artless food is ‘getting in the way’ of a beautiful plate.

‘A Light in the Dark’ is Gemma’s main – the heat’s second tribute to William Clanny’s safety lamp for miners. On a smear of black pudding puree go pan-fried lamb loin, deep-fried lamb rillettes, roasted salsify, beetroot, crispy kale and lamb fat potato. Linking back to her theme, she serves a copper pan of lamb sauce over hot coals and lights a rosemary butter candle. Rachel concludes that ‘you can’t fault the cooking’ but it’s ‘lacking excitement’.

Phelim’s main course is another repeat performance, sharing the theme (and name) of Andy’s earlier ‘Uisce Beatha’– both celebrations of Irish whiskey. In a supremely classy take on steak and chips, he serves barbecued, whiskey-aged côte de boeuf with pommes pont neuf, dusted with malt vinegar powder. Oxtail pithivier, caramelised onion puree, grilled hispi cabbage and hip flasks of whiskey sauce complete the dish. Rachel says she’s ‘enjoying everything on the plate’ but Thomas questions if the dish could be just as successful without the côte de boeuf. Matthew cheekily agrees – ‘I’d take off the côte de boeuf… and have it cold tomorrow’.

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For pre-dessert, the judges get Gemma’s chocolate and Irish cream popping lollipop and Phelim’s ‘Milk of Magnesia’ – milk and honey parfait crumble with a bottle of milky cocktail to aid digestion. Oliver judges Phelim’s to be ‘too big’ and Rachel admits ‘neither really excited me’.

Confident that dessert is her forte, Gemma is celebrating the work of astronomer, Alice Everett. ‘Out of this World’ secured a perfect score from Daniel Clifford who described it as… ‘out of this world’. Unfortunately, Gemma looks like she’s caught up in her own Star Wars remake as a battle scar of chocolate drips down her face and two precious planets fall to the floor.

Phelim gallantly steps in and offers to go first with his dessert, ‘Splitting the Atom’. He pipes an atomic swirl of raspberry puree, onto which he adds more raspberries – pickled and freeze-dried. Crisp meringue spheres are crammed with beads of berry caviar, more fresh berries and balls of tonka bean fudge and served with raspberry and blueberry sorbets. The judges generally love the ‘theatre’ of splitting an atom but aren’t blown away by its contents.

Back to Gemma, who fills her white chocolate spheres with mango cream and pineapple salsa, adding dark chocolate planets, meringue space rocks and bright dots of mango sauce. Matthew praises its ‘excitement and surprise’ and although Oliver thinks it has potential, he feels it needs more work.

Sadly, any further development will have to be done off camera as it’s Philem who’s victorious. Gemma will return to do what she loves the most – piling up plates of delicious food. ‘I’m just a feeder,’ she admits. And, at the end of a fulfilling (and filling) week in the GBM kitchen, nobody needs chips on the way home.