Great British Menu 2022: Northern Ireland recap

by Howard Middleton 25 March 2022

Howard Middleton lets us know how the Northern Irish contingent got on in the final regional heat of Great British Menu 2022.

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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. He now demonstrates his creative approach to gluten-free baking at numerous food festivals and shows and by teaching baking classes around the country, including at corporate events, commercial promotions and private parties. Howard continues to entertain audiences as a public speaker, compere and broadcaster.

Tom Aikens was a no show. For eight weeks, Andi Oliver teased the chefs about which veteran chef could be theirs – ‘Angela Hartnett? Tom Aikens? Richard Corrigan?’. One by one, they appeared… except for Tom. The red-headed chef proved to be a red herring. Instead, after assisting Lisa Goodwin-Allen in week two, it was Niall Keating who made his first fully-fledged flight as a veteran. Behind closed doors, he confessed his excitement to Andi. In the heat of the kitchen, he played it inscrutably cool.

‘You don’t give much away, do you?’ observed Chris McClurg, chef de cuisine at Paul Ainsworth’s No 6 in Padstow. Fortunately for Chris, Niall was more effusive with his marks, which gave him a promising lead over his nearest rival, Gemma Austin, chef patron of new Belfast restaurant A Peculiar Tea.

At the other end of the scoreboard, cheerful Marty McAdam, chef patron of The Paget Lane in Enniskillen took his ‘Keating beating’ amicably. Stephen Hope, chef patron of Dawsons Restaurant in Castledawson, held on to cook his full menu, but sadly not for the judging chamber, where Tom Kerridge, Nisha Katona and Ed Gamble are joined by radio broadcaster and actor, Dev Griffin.

Tucking into canapés, there’s an Italian beer croustade of raw Orkney scallop, finger lime and caviar from Chris. Tom gets turbot tartare. Gemma’s canapé is crispy chicken skin with chicken liver mousse, black grapes and pickled beech mushrooms. Tom favours his turbot, but the others choose chicken. ‘I’d chase someone round a party to get another one of those,’ says Dev.

Gemma also appears to have created another crowd-pleaser with her hamper-packed, picnic-themed starter of toasties filled with Durrus Óg cheese, pulled oxtail and pickled fennel, spiced Scotch eggs, oxtail dipping sauce, fennel aioli, crispy pommes soufflés and a fennel and lemon Bellini cocktail. Nisha says the aioli is ‘phenomenal’ and Tom wants a thermos of the oxtail sauce. However, he soon adopts the ‘rain cloud at a picnic’ role when he calls for a reality check, questioning the practicality of serving this to a hundred people and keeping it warm. Ed tells him not to worry. ‘We’re the judges – we’ll get served first’.

Cleverly using a variety of ingredients with royal warrants, Chris’s ‘Royal Variety Performance’ starter consists of a fricassee of trompettes, winter chanterelles and maitake, with truffle butter, discs of pickled kohlrabi, creamy polenta and fried cloud mushrooms. It’s served (beautifully on bespoke tableware) with a pot of smoky onion tea and a cheese and onion soda scone. Divided over the pronunciation of ‘scon’ or ‘scoan’, the judges are united in appreciation of its ‘punchy’ flavour. ‘Almost offensively good’ declares Tom. ‘Exactly the sort of thing that wouldn’t go down well at the Royal Variety’ adds Ed, perhaps reflecting on his own performance there.

‘A Mackerel for Ted Hastings’ is Gemma’s colourful tribute to ‘Line of Duty’. Smoked mackerel rillette is wrapped in vibrant strips of pickled courgette and cucumber and garnished generously with trout caviar. It’s served with cucumber velouté and more mackerel – this time cured in a ponzu, mirin and soy sauce brine, then torched and topped with nduja and soda bread crumb. Hot on its flavour, but the judges are lukewarm about the dish’s temperature. Tom says it’s ‘a little cold, a little stark’ and Ed concludes it ‘feels more like a Scandinavian detective show than a British one’.

Time for a little light relief, which comes in the form of Chris’s ‘Catchphrase’-inspired dish. Describing it as ‘fish and chips, but very refined’, he serves brined and butter-baked turbot, Pommes Anna potatoes, chip shop scraps and Camel Valley velouté sauce with ‘tartare-esque elements’. It scored ten from Niall Keating and Andi called it ‘technical perfection on a plate’. Dev and Ed are thrilled by the gameshow presentation and Nisha decides this version of British classic is ‘some of the best I’ve ever had’. Tom says that, even without the props, ‘it’s exceptional’.

‘What’s Another Year?’ is Chris’s Eurovision-style medley, fusing flavours from different cuisines. Essentially it’s three plates – one a rib eye of retired dairy cow with clamped carrots, ponzu-dressed beetroot and red wine gravy, the second a tartare with beef tendon cracker and the third a taco of Marmite-glazed short rib, with black beans, pasilla chilli mayo and pico de gallo. ‘Oh my God! The taco… amazing!’ says Tom, but he has to agree with Ed that it feels like ‘three different riffs on one piece of meat’.

Celebrating the historic Apollo 11 mission, ‘Moo Landing’ is Gemma’s take on a steak, with pan-fried rib eye with carrot top pesto, spring onion espuma, carrot topped with shredded beef, bone marrow crust and pickled carrot, and bordelaise sauce on the side. Ed loves the accompanying little tartlet of dukkah-topped daube of beef, but Nisha decides that, ‘in terms of execution, I don’t think it’s quite where the last dish was, unfortunately’ and Dev feels it’s sadly ‘not out of this world’.

Both chefs serve pre-desserts with an apple flavour, as Chris creates a toffee apple and Ballyblue cheese tartlet and Gemma offers a white chocolate apple filled with strawberry jelly and coconut mousse. In the week, too long in the blast chiller left Gemma’s apples rock solid and… it’s happened again. Dev, who’s evidently not a blue cheese fan, goes it alone and opts for Gemma’s. The other judges applaud his independence. ‘Good for you’ says Ed, ‘now get out!’

Scoring full marks from Niall, Chris’s ‘Derry Girls’ trifle was judged to be so good that Andi said, ‘I want to live in it’. On a base of warm chocolate fondant sits crisp nougatine, plump Oloroso-soaked raisins, sherry jelly, roasted vanilla ice cream and subtle drops of arabica coffee oil. Dev soon decides to join Andi in residence and Tom says it’s ‘lush’. Ed exclaims he’s ‘getting goosebumps’ and Nisha describes it as ‘new frontiers… in dessert creation’.

Chris’s dessert sounds impossible to beat… but Gemma does it with a magical homage to ‘Sesame Tree’, Northern Ireland’s version of ‘Sesame Street’. Tasting the white chocolate mushrooms of tahini mousse, cherry cream and cherry brandy jelly, with chocolate soil and pistachio sponge, Tom declares it ‘everything a pudding should be’ and Gemma gains tens from all.

Sadly, it’s not enough to swing the competition in her favour and Chris takes the final place in next week’s finals. To Gemma’s credit, it proved to be a closer competition than expected, although the result was not entirely unpredictable. A promotional shot for next week’s finals clearly shows Chris in the kitchen, albeit the back of him. Someone at the BBC has some explaining to do. Tom Aikens’ agent may think so too.