Great British Menu 2023: Northern Ireland recap

by Howard Middleton17 March 2023

It was a week full of drama in the Great British Menu kitchen as four chefs from Northern Ireland competed for a place in finals week. Howard Middleton fills us in on the latest heat.

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.

I thought I’d had a bad week. Two cancelled trains and one delayed… and that was just Wednesday. Of course, I could go on to tell you about a detour through a muddy field and an unexpected (and rather inelegant) encounter with a stile, but you’d probably prefer me to tell you about a very ‘bumpy’ week in the GBM kitchen. Thanks for asking though.

‘The lowest scores I’ve ever seen,’ lamented Gemma Austin after starters. Returning to the competition for a third time, the chef patron of A Peculiar Tea in Belfast soon decided this would be her last attempt. Also from Belfast, Matt Jordan from Shu somehow managed to keep a smile on his fresh face, whilst understatedly admitting it was ‘not the best start’. He did better with his fish course but left after it, still smiling, vowing to return to ‘set the record straight’.

John Hollywood from County Armagh proved to be a master storyteller but only managed to translate his gift onto the plate with pre-dessert and pudding. Tied with fellow newcomer Kerry Roper, head chef at Stix and Stones in Belfast, a charming pre-dessert swung it in Kerry’s favour, so that she and Gemma are left facing the judgement of Tom Kerridge, Nisha Katona, Ed Gamble and yet another award-winning illustrator, Oliver Jeffers.

For canapés, Kerry serves a beef tartare and chive tartlet with bone marrow emulsion and coal oil, whilst Gemma celebrates Northern Irish snack company Tayto in her cheese and onion gougère with potato crisp. ‘Delicious,’ says Tom of Gemma’s, but in the end he settles on Kerry’s, ‘so it’s not a clean sweep’, blissfully unaware that this little gesture of fairness will later prove to have major repercussions.

It's fair to say that this year’s chefs have struggled with the brief for a vegan starter. Kerry’s Gruffalo-inspired crumbly chestnut flour tart scored a three from veteran Aktar Islam, partly for being so late to the pass, but also because, in the words of Andi Oliver, ‘the dish didn’t quite come together’. Now ditching the pesky pastry completely, Kerry opts for Jerusalem artichoke ‘in different ways’ – roasted, pickled, pureed and made into crisps, served with black garlic puree, lovage emulsion and a sunflower seed and linseed cracker. Ed bemoans the lack of ‘a standout flavour’ and Tom says it’s ‘all over the place’. Nisha agrees it’s clearly not ‘banquet-worthy’ but they all like the crisps.

Based on the animated film Wolfwalkers, Gemma’s starter is a tartlet of mushroom puree, Bramley apple chutney, confited mushrooms, smoked salsa verde, barbecued hen-of-the-woods and truffle, served with a nutty dukkah. Tom thinks his promised trip to the woods has wandered off course. ‘It’s like taking lots of different flavours from all over the world and sticking them on a woodland floor,’ he complains. Oliver agrees, ‘it looks foresty, but… how it tastes and how it looks are mismatched’.

‘Na Daoine Sidhe’ is Gemma’s fancy take on fish, chips and curry sauce. Inspired by tales of fairy folklore, we’re told that selkies are seal-like creatures who take human form on land, presumably so they can join the queue at a chip shop. Once served, all enjoy chunky portions of hake, pan fried in curry butter, alongside a duck fat hash brown, pickled kohlrabi, verjus grapes, sea vegetables, crispy capers, batter scraps and champagne and vermouth sauce. ‘Beautifully done,’ says Nisha, although Tom says his fish is ‘a bit overcooked’ and Oliver thinks the presentation is a little ‘clunky and cumbersome’.

Kerry’s fish course, ‘The Fog Catcher’ is a chalk stream trout fillet, cooked in brown butter and served with potato puree, smoked haddock espuma, crispy trout skin and a mussel and buttermilk sauce. ‘Delicious,’ says Tom of his shellfish-free pickled cucumber sauce and all agree with Nisha that the dish is ‘gorgeous’.

Hoping to regain her pastry reputation, Kerry serves ‘Madame Cholet’s Pie’- a shortcrust stunner filled with ‘the everyday things folks leave behind’ including braised beef cheeks and cubes of beef tongue. Layered with thin slices of celeriac and a generous scattering of parsley, its golden-brown lid is decorated with the letter W, as another nod to the Wombles, and it’s served with creamy champ, roasted hispi cabbage and beef jus. As Ed cuts into the pie, it’s obvious the filling is still a little ‘watery’ but everyone loves the flavours. Less enamoured with the accompaniments, Tom sums up by saying, ‘everything about this is good – it just needs a bit more’.

Taking five ingredients mentioned in Seamus Heaney’s translation of five of Aesop’s fables, Gemma’s main course includes another (albeit much smaller) pie, this time filled with Jerusalem artichoke, caramelised onion, chestnut and blue cheese. It sits alongside tender pan-fried venison, artichoke puree, pickled blackberry, apple fondant, barbecued cavolo nero, Jerusalem artichoke crisps and venison sauce. Ed and Nisha think the little pies need packing with more filling and decide they prefer Kerry’s ‘leaky pie’. Tom says Gemma’s dish ‘has definitely got potential’.

Great minds think alike and both Gemma and Kerry serve their pre-desserts in little gift boxes. Kerry’s is a little apple crumble and brown butter cake from ‘Paddington’s Prison Patisserie’, whilst Gemma’s is a white chocolate heart filled with mango crémeux and pineapple salsa inspired by the book Guess How Much I Love You. All agree the chefs have really excelled with canapés and pre-desserts but, this time, it’s Kerry’s turn to triumph.

‘The Green Crayon’ is Kerry’s dessert homage to the work of Oliver Jeffers, never expecting that he’d be one of the people eating it. A crayon-shaped shell of green-coloured tempered white chocolate is filled with mascarpone and white chocolate cheesecake and a core of candied almonds, bay and blackcurrant puree. Wrapped in an edible label, its colourful simplicity wows the judges. ‘It’s amazing!’ declares Tom, and Oliver says he’s ‘beyond flattered’.

Gemma’s ‘The BFG’s BFG’ imagines the friendly giant tucking in to a Black Forest gateau. Cherry compote, caramelised almonds, almond joconde and feuilletine are crammed into a cherry shaped container of mascarpone and amaretto cream, then finished with a cherry-red glaze. A frobscottle champagne cocktail accompanies. Tom and Oliver think the cherry flavour is a little too strong, but all love the spectacular presentation and Tom says, ‘we’ve finished today on super highs’.

It's not over. Andi announces that for the first time on GBM, not only are the chefs tied, but after taking canapés and pre-desserts into account… they’re still tied. Given the casting vote, Andi decides in Gemma’s favour. ‘We hope we’ll see you again, Kerry,’ says Andi. Kerry half nods, then there’s just a hint of panic on her face as she considers the prospect of returning. After a week like that, who could blame her?

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