Great British Menu 2021: Wales heat recap

Great British Menu 2021: Wales heat recap

by Howard Middleton 17 April 2021

The chefs representing Wales and all its culinary might take to the Great British Menu kitchen – Howard Middleton shares his insight into the action.

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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.

‘Something smells good’ says Andi Oliver, breezing into the kitchen at the start of the week. Which begs the question – what does the Great British Menu kitchen smell like?

This week, lurking under the aroma of fine food, there was undoubtedly the manly scent of brooding testosterone, a faint whiff of beard oil and the choking stench of smoke. Yes, the pyromaniac predilections of dragons were out in force as Wales’ chefs entered the competition. Newcomer, Nathan Davies from SY23 in Aberystwyth brought along his own multi-level barbecue, which he skilfully employed in several dishes. Returning chef, Hywel Griffith from the Beach House Restaurant on the Gower aimed to blast away the competition with a mini-blast furnace. Sadly, two chefs left before he’d even fired it up.

Now, if you must be eliminated after the fish course, how would you like to go? Told that it was very close? Encouraged to try again next year? This week’s veteran chef, Tommy Banks thanked newcomer Chris Cleghorn for his contribution. Ouch! It was a painful put down for the Cardiff-born chef who runs the Michelin-starred Olive Tree in Bath. Head chef at the Nutbourne Restaurant in London, Anglesey’s Ali Borer looked like he had his tattooed sleeves rolled up for action but neither Ali nor Chris really recovered from Tommy’s tepid tally of their starters.

Joining regulars Oliver, Rachel and Matthew in the judging chamber is Cambridge engineering professor Dr Hugh Hunt, who’s soon entertaining and educating by shaking jars of muesli and dropping slices of buttered toast from a height.

As the food proper is finally served, Hywel offers lobster and laverbread for his canapé, whilst Nathan favours leeks. Matthew says Nathan’s ‘elevates the humble leek to a place above humility’. Rachel judges Hywel’s to be ‘subdued, Hugh calls it ‘bland’.

Hywel’s modestly described ‘blue cheese salad’ is literally out of this world, taking inspiration from Isaac Roberts’ pioneering photograph of the great nebula of Andromeda. Sponge-like fragments of blue cheese mousse are orbited by hazelnuts and muscat grapes and bright flashes of colour come from pickled candy beetroot, radicchio and red endive leaves. He adds texture with puffed rice, beetroot crisps and ruby mustard frills and serves with a maple dressing. Oliver loves the contrast in flavours and textures, but Matthew feels it suffers from a ‘dominant’ dressing.

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Nathan’s starter is a woodland themed nut fest that honours the botanist, Mary Sutherland; the first woman to receive a degree in forestry. Nathan tops chicken parfait with fire-roasted pine nuts, hazelnuts and flecks of crispy chicken skin, before he sprays wood sorrel with pine vinegar and drizzles his candied hazelnuts with birch sap syrup. Unfortunately, Rachel feels the syrup makes the dish taste like dessert. Oliver scowls at a surfeit of nuts.

For his fish course, Hywel has taken Tommy and Andi’s advice and ditched his poached salmon in favour of langoustines, which he sits on discs of ponzu and apple jelly and serves with a wasabi mayonnaise, compressed cucumber, pickled shimeji mushrooms and crunchy kataifi. His sauce of cucumber, apple and white soy is dispensed from a drinking fountain, in recognition of physician, Martha Hughes Cannon. Oliver asks, ‘What’s not to like?’ and Matthew calls it ‘a definite banquet contender’.

Paying tribute to meteorologist Sir David Brunt, Nathan serves ‘Storm in a Teacup and Sunny on the Side’ for his fish course. Teacups of cockles, mussels and miso-buttered sea herbs are topped up with a mirin and cockle broth. Perhaps appropriately, unpredictable fish supplies mean his magnificent flame-grilled turbot has to be swapped for brill. However, it’s still served whole on the side, brushed with salty soy and peppered with nori, puffed rice and crispy fish skin. Rachel thinks the fish is under-seasoned. Hugh defends the dish and says he likes it. Matthew tellingly asks, ‘But do you love it?’

Founder of the first mail-order business, the fabulously named, Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones is the inspiration for Nathan’s main course. He serves beer cooked shallots with wild garlic stems and adds tender chunks of lamb loin and glazed lamb rib, a squeeze of black garlic ketchup and a sprinkling of fried rice. Admittedly nicking an idea or two from his rival, Nathan makes a last-minute addition of lamb fat potatoes and leeks. The judges generally agree it’s all delicious, but Rachel is ‘underwhelmed’ by the potato and she’s still in search of a personal salt pot.

Hywel’s main course begins with a ring of lamb fat potato, cubes of swede fondant, blackened leek puree and buttered baby leeks, but it’s his lamb that takes centre stage. The juicy joint is given one minute in a specially constructed mini blast furnace, in honour of its inventor, David Thomas. A generous spoonful of cockle and laverbread sauce transforms the dish into what Hywel calls ‘Welsh surf and turf’. Oliver loves the lamb and Rachel is finally satisfied with her potato. Matthew says it’s ‘like a Welsh choir singing on the plate’.

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Pre-desserts are up next – both with a touch of the ice cream van. Hywel presents a lemon and lime lolly encased in white chocolate and Nathan serves his blackberry cone in a mic stand. Karaoke is supposedly mandatory but Andi’s efforts to liven up the judging chamber seem to be in vain. Rachel has swapped her salty search and is now struggling to source Nathan’s blackberries. However, she finds satisfaction in Hywel’s lolly – ‘Now that’s a pre-dessert!’ she beams.

Nathan’s dessert ventures back to the photograph that inspired Hywel’s starter, the great nebula of Andromeda. Free from eggs and dairy, it promises to be a mission that’s not without risk. Tofu and white chocolate mousse is joined by raspberry four ways – fresh berries, syrup, sorbet and ketchup. Pickled elderflowers, aerated chocolate and popping candy are topped with a white chocolate disc illustrating the starry phenomenon. Despite scoring top marks from Tommy Banks, the judges aren’t impressed. Rachel complains her elderflowers are too pickled and Oliver says, ‘I just don’t like this at all’.

Hywel carefully constructs his dessert to look like an early flying machine created by Welsh designer, William Frost. He fills a ring of joconde sponge and chocolate mousse with caramelised pineapple, spoons a rocher of vanilla ice cream on top and balances a wafer on top to mimic the wings. Oliver judges it ‘a perfect pudding’ and Matthew cries out for a second helping.

Despite this week’s smoky atmosphere, there are surprisingly no tears as Hywel is announced as winner. He and Nathan exit for ‘a well-deserved rest’ and I’m left to ponder – what does the judging chamber smell like? The scent of fragrant judges? The linger of leeks? I suspect that sometime during the next few days there’ll be the added aroma of carpet cleaner. Hugh’s left a nasty butter stain on the shagpile.