Great British Menu 2023: Scotland recap

Four of Scotland's finest chefs went head to head in the Great British Menu kitchen this week – Howard Middleton recounts all the details.

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.

Things have gone missing from the BBC lately. We’re told a lot of it is for Comic Relief – a Strictly paddle, Pat Butcher’s earrings – the worthy but wily accumulation of fundraising telly treasures. Coincidental perhaps, but this was the week that Great British Menu fell prey too. Exhibit one was Kevin Dalgleish’s main course. The head chef of Amuse in Aberdeen presented his ‘bottomless’ beef pie, which prompted Andi Oliver to question if a pie really needed a bottom and this week’s veteran Tom Aikens to emphatically decide that it did. Along with a mislaid circle of puff, Kevin’s place in the competition disappeared too.

Mindful of last year’s infamous tantrum, award-winning chef Adam Handling returned to the competition determined not to lose either his cool or his temper, but fellow competitor Tunde ‘Abi’ Abifarin soon tested his resolve. ‘That’s one of the things that really grinds my gears big time,’ seethed Adam, as the head chef at Farin Road in Edinburgh failed to remove the intestinal tract from his lobster dish. It was too much for Tom Aikens too, and Abi was first to go.

Composure restored, Adam is left to face another newcomer – Tannadice-born Mark McCabe, head chef and owner of The Ethicurean in Somerset. Marks says he feels like a bit of an underdog but promises to cook his little socks off. So, socks intact (for now) the pair cook again for Tom Kerridge, Nisha Katona and Ed Gamble and relative calmness descends upon the judging chamber as mild-mannered superhero artist, Frank Quitely joins them.

The chefs kick off with a couple of crispy canapés. Adam’s pea and caviar tart goes down well but the judges unanimously favour Mark’s cured char and tomato croustade. ‘Lush!’ declares Tom approvingly.

A brief spell behind bars for Dennis the Menace leads Mark to create a ‘savoury prison porridge’ of pearled spelt, pearl barley koji and mushroom garum, topped with medlar jelly-glazed maitake mushrooms, beer-pickled chanterelles and black truffle. It’s served with koji tuiles, sandwiched together with mushroom puree and toasted pumpkin seeds. ‘Absolutely delicious,’ says Frank, but all agree it’s a hefty portion for a starter.

Adam’s starter, ‘The Mouse that Saved the Lion’ is inspired by the Aesop fable, or, more specifically an animated version of it narrated by Billy Connolly. Tiny tomatoes and hazelnuts adorn his roasted red pepper set custard, which is accompanied by red pepper puree and a spoonful of savoury basil sorbet. Flavoured with tomato skin and smoked paprika, a lacy tuile is carefully balanced on top, then decorated with Adam’s trademark edible flowers. Not entirely sure how the dish’s Mediterranean flavour links to the brief, the judges decide the mice must have been Italian and the lion from Provence. ‘One of the best basil sorbets I’ve ever had,’ exclaims Nisha, and Tom agrees it’s ‘outstanding’. However, Ed’s not a fan of the sorbet and Nisha critically concludes that it’s ‘a fine dining dish, on a prop, that incidentally links it to brief’.

Reflecting the desolate beauty of Scottish animation, Spindrift, Mark serves a pared back fish course of barbecued Arctic char, turnip puree and ribbons, sea vegetables, Exmoor caviar, acidic little beads of pickled rock samphire gel and a smoked whey sauce. The judges are blown away by the atmospheric flavours and perfect cookery. ‘For me, this is the first dish where the food itself has actually met the brief,’ says Frank.

The animated film, Brave prompts Adam to produce a salmon dish with wild and woody flavours. On Tuesday it also prompted him to model ginger curls and insist that Tom Aikens call him ‘princess’. Tom played along long enough to tell the princess to lose the wig and focus on the food. And what beautiful food it is. Barbecued salmon belly is lightly spritzed with fermented garlic oil and plated with cured salmon tail, bilberries, celeriac puree, homemade cheese and garlic caper and whey sauce. ‘Very, very, very good cooking,’ says Tom. Nisha prefers Mark’s dish, but Ed argues Adam’s is ‘way more banquety’.

Both chefs are doing mains based on Wind in the Willows. Up first is Adam’s picnic-style extravaganza that involves a nine-page prep list – reportedly the biggest one ever on the show. Into the hamper goes chicken stuffed with haggis, beef cheek tart, ox tongue sauce, spicy aubergine puree, broccoli stem salad, roasted blue cheese broccoli, deep fried gherkins and gherkin ketchup. Frank and Nisha are slightly disappointed by the ‘oily’ gherkins and Tom wants ‘more chicken’ and ‘more focus’ but everyone finds something to like.

Mark’s ‘Badger’s Sett’ is a comforting platter of barbecued rack of hogget with sauerkraut, caramelised celeriac, smoked yogurt and black garlic puree, served with pickled elderberry sauce. Lamb fat candles burn down to an unctuous dip for little brioche rolls stuffed with lamb shoulder stew. ‘That is a great idea,’ declares Nisha of the tasty candle fat and all agree there’s a wow factor to the whole dish.

Adam’s pre-dessert is a tangy palate cleanser of lemon panna cotta, lemon sorbet, jasmine-pickled apple and white wine foam. Tom’s eyes almost water but he insists he loves it. Frank says it’s ‘so refreshing’. Mark goes a little further up the sweet scale with his rye biscuit sandwich of lemon verbena mousse, damson jam and candied hazelnuts. ‘Good, but nowhere near as clean,’ is Tom’s verdict and all agree they prefer the astringency of Adam’s.

Keeping up his assault on the judges’ tastebuds, Adam now serves ‘Food Fight’ – a Beano-inspired mini party table of long pepper set custard, brown butter cake, strawberry jelly, black verjus gel, sweet crisps, pop rocks, coffee syrup and meadowsweet cream, all strewn with meticulous abandon. ‘Oh my God, I love this,’ exclaims Ed, declaring it ‘an absolute home run’. ‘Joyfully chaotic,’ is Nisha’s view, whilst Tom says it’s ‘a magical little piece of cookery’.

Last up is Mark’s Tinkerbell-themed dessert of green almond cake, woodruff custard, smoked strawberry, caramelised yogurt and sugar butterfly wings. On Wednesday, Mark had to leave off the unsuccessful wings… and sadly, they’re missing again. As is the magic. ‘It’s like a dense Scotch pancake,’ says Nisha. Ed and Frank think it tastes ‘delicious’ but Ed concludes ‘it’s a bit of a flat end’ to the day.

Adam’s day, however, is anything but flat, as he is declared Scotland’s champion and returns again to finals week. As for Mark, well Nisha says he has ‘such a gift’. And he deserves so much more than a new pair of socks.

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