Great British Menu 2015: Northern Ireland heat final

Great British Menu 2015: Northern Ireland heat final

by Food Urchin 5 September 2015

Food blogger Danny, aka Food Urchin, rounds up the Northern Ireland final, where Ben Arnold and Chris McGowan compete head to head to impress the judges.

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Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin. When Danny is not busy digging holes to pit-roast lamb or hanging marrows in tights to make rum or foraging for snails in his garden to throw into paella, he is often left in charge of a pair of cheeky twins; with sometimes disastrous results in the kitchen. A former nominee for Best Food Writer at The YBFs Danny has decided that one day, he might just write a book about food.

Oh boy, was this week a tough one for our three intrepid chefs from Northern Ireland or what. Hard taskmaster Phil Howard certainly put Chris McGowan, Danni Barry and Ben Arnold through their paces, I can tell you that.

Yep, the scoring was fairly low this week, aside from a triumphant 9 for Ben’s trifle, which saw him overtake Danni right at the very end. Which was a shame because her main dish of Pork Wellington with mead sauce and mead braised pig cheeks ticked all the boxes for me. Unfortunately, her risk-taking strategy often led her down the wrong path and, in this case, out of the door.

So for the final heat, we were left with the little and large combination of Chris and Ben, who both needed to up their game for the judges. From the beginning of last night’s episode, it was obvious that the stakes were high. Richard Corrigan’s right-hand man even went so far to say that if he didn’t start achieving 9’s and 10’s, then he wouldn’t be able to go home. That’s right, if Prue, Oliver and Matt didn’t like his food, well, he would be made homeless. Simple as that. Plus with guest judge, food writer and WI advocate Felicity Cloake on the scene, the ante was well and truly upped – for Felicity is the recipe tester’s tester’s… tester, and therefore knows her stuff.

As the saying goes 'cooking does not get tougher than this.'

Wait, that’s the wrong show.

Great British Menu 2015: Northern Ireland heat final
Ben's trifle saw him overtake Danni and secure a place in the heat final.
Chris' high tea starter of rabbit done many ways divided the crowd.

Moving on, the boys did kick off the first round in style. Ben was up first with his ‘Behind Every Working Man’, a take on a traditional Ploughman’s. Consisting of rabbit rillette, apricot chutney, quail scotch egg, blue cheese sauce and Irish wheaten bread, served in tin lunchboxes – it all looked rather good. Except that the bread was too leaden for some and Matt found his sauce 'deeply unpleasant.' If only Ben had listened to his Mum. He had called her for advice on his loaf and she repeatedly commanded down the line that he should bake at a higher temperature. But he didn’t listen to his Mummy did he.

Chris’ starter ‘Shall I be Mother?’ was equally divisive, as some felt a high tea, namely rabbit sausage roll, rabbit livers on toast and rabbit loin with celeriac and pickled girolles, all washed down with a spiced rabbit broth, was too much to begin with at a banquet. There was also the question of soggy bottoms with regards to his sausage roll, but Prue defended it, saying that she quite likes a soggy bottom. So do I Prue. So do I.

A previously disastrous fish course for Ben loomed next (remember those tortuous ten minutes under Phil’s steely glare?), but this time around Ben pulled it out of the bag. No, he didn’t use one of those Birds Eye fish in a bag affairs. He created an excellent symphony of poached lobster, smoked cod, brill and razor clams, thank you very much. All under the guise of ‘Mrs Skillens Fish Soup’. It was more than a bit of a turnaround for Ben and in the words of Felicity, it was 'Very WI.'

Ben was glad to get a second chance with his 'very WI' fish course.
Chris wasn't so fortunate with his dish, 'Imelda's Fish in Milk'.

The second fish dish ‘Imelda’s Fish in Milk’, as delivered by Chris, didn’t fare so well. The prospect of turbot and langoustine with buttermilk gnocchi and Jerusalem artichoke, with potted herbs for guests to snip into their bowls, didn’t quite cut it with the judges. 'This gnocchi is too gloopy,' withered Oliver. 'What are you supposed to do with it all?' queried Matt. 'There is too much effort going on,' muttered Prue. Too much effort? Strewth. What do you want Prue? Baked beans? Out of a can?

Luckily for Chris, after a little tête-à-tête with Felicity in the kitchen, who reminded them both that the WI ladies were very, very, very harsh critics, he bounced back with a glorious pie for his mains: the pun-tastic ‘Pie-oneers and Pickles’.

'I love the drama!' whooped Oliver, who also loved the combination of ox tongue and cheek, encased in a fine pastry, and the others were quick to agree. Ben tried to take him down a notch or two by questioning the size of his cauliflower florets for his piccalilli. But Chris just looked back at him, stoically, knowing that he was back in the game.

And after the theatricality of Chris’ dish, Ben’s efforts for mains did suddenly look drab and ordinary. ‘Lamb Revolution’ used three cuts of lamb, to suit all budgets, but in the eyes of Mr Fort, it all looked rather amateur. So it seemed like a damp squib was headed our way. But then the judges began to eat and suddenly, by golly gosh, this was actually a very good plate of food. Felicity, who has tested around 753 shepherd's pie recipes, had to concede that this was the best shepherd's pie she has ever tasted.

The pun-tastic ‘Pie-oneers and Pickles’, Chris' pie main
Ben's lamb main didn't look as impressive, but was still the best shepherd's pie Felicity has tasted

For the final pudding run then, things were rather neck and neck. For his dessert ‘WI Apple Day’, Chris had to do a runner to a cooler place to assemble his complex dessert of blown sugar apples and doughnuts with apple curd custard and Armagh roll. I got the impression that he would rather have done a runner to the pub. His mind was definitely distracted as he nearly forgot his nuts. But it all came together and the judges were very happy with his efforts.

The feel-good factor continued onwards and upwards as Ben delivered an even better version of his killer trifle, named ‘Summer Fayre of the County Trifle’. With layers of raspberry jam, Swiss roll, summer fruit compote, summer cup jelly, crème pâtissière, cucumber cream and sprinkles of honeycomb, eyes visibly widened when it was brought to the table. Everyone coo-ed at the balance of flavours and textures and not to mention its marvellous wobble. A cracker, in other words.

As such, when the time came around for the final verdict, everything hung in the balance. There were two dishes that were delivered a resounding 10 from the judges; one belonging to Chris, one belonging to Ben, and the tension was so high, you could hear their knees knocking together.

It was Ben who just nailed it. And again, we were treated to another chef calling his Mum with the news. This time around though, Ben’s Mum sounded distinctly unimpressed.

'Well, go on,' she said, impatient that he was dragging it out. And when he told her, she still didn’t believe him. 'Would I wind you up Mother?' he said.

I got the sense that he sometimes does, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if she turned around and said 'Yes you do, and you don’t listen to me when I am telling you how to bake that effing bread.'

Chris' 'WI Apple Day' dessert with complex blown sugar apples