Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Wild Garlic

Earlier this year, an IT engineer called Mat Follas won the UK television competition MasterChef. It is a gruelling contest in which amateur cooks battle it out in a long, drawn-out process overseen by presenters John Torode and Gregg Wallace.

Follas stood out because he was different. He liked robust flavours, foraged produce and unusual combinations. His food was original. It had style.

Mr Grigg is passionate about food and an avid MasterChef fan. Last week he would have done Mat Follas proud with a delicate starter of foraged puffball and local scallops with creme fraiche and fresh coriander. So he was hooked on the programme from the start. We both cook, having created dishes for paying members of the public for a short while. But I became more interested in the programme when I learned that Mat, a Kiwi, lived in the Dorset village where Mr Grigg and I had our first home. So in our house, we were willing him to win. And, after the final, when Terry Wogan described him the next day as Ming the Merciless, I turned off the radio outraged, feeling I had been personally slighted.

Since then, there have been 'will-he, won't-he' stories in the local press and nationals over Mat's ambitions to run his own restaurant. We were then reliably informed that yes indeed he was, and it was coming to a town near us. We saw The Wild Garlic taking shape every time we drove past.

'I hope he doesn't ponce the food up,' said one friend. 'Dorset people like big portions and hate paying extra for vegetables.'

When he opened the restaurant, other snippets filtered back to us.

'Well, you need to eat something before you go,' said someone we know.

'The female maitre de is shocking,' said another. 'I don't know who she thinks she is.'

A leading local restaurateur sniffed that the 'Hi guys' greeting he and three friends in their late 60s, two of whom were eminent academics, received was hardly appropriate.

So we had feelings of trepidation before we went. There is currently around a two-month waiting list for a table in the evening, although lunches are more easily booked. It is great for Mat and the area that The Wild Garlic is so busy. But it means there is a huge amount of expectation already on the tastebuds of the clientele before they even walk in through the front door. Seldom has any other amateur cook, who has never before run his own restaurant, been under so much pressure to perform. Mat Follas criticism is in danger of becoming a new blood sport in these parts.

We have now been twice - once for dinner and once for lunch. And did we like it? Well, yes thank you. Very much so. Some food combinations worked better than others, the ubiquitous goats' cheese starter wasn't very adventurous, the full length-mirror next to the lavatory in the ladies was a bit of a shock and I was a little taken aback by the welcome of the aforementioned maitre de.

But those were my only minus points. It was an experience we would not have missed.

The decor is rustic minimalist, with big chunky wooden tables and incongruous retro chairs. There is no salt and pepper on the table, which indicates a confident chef (and delighted me, because I just hate it when Mr Grigg automatically puts salt and pepper on his food before tasting it).

The menu is very short and changes according to the season and most of the produce is locally sourced. Starters cost around £7, mains about £12 to £19 (the water buffalo has just gone up by a pound) and puddings around the £5 mark. Two of my starters were sweet chilli squid, accompanied by the most wonderful salad leaves and edible flowers, and smoked venison with beetroot and berry sauce. My main courses were lamb loin with mange tout, salad, pea puree and salsa verde and a faggot tart with hedgehog mushroom sauce. The lamb, in particular, was really tasty and pink, just as I like it.

My two puddings were fresh berry mess and lavender mousse. Delicious.

Mat makes a point of coming out and chatting to the customers after he has finished cooking. This is a good habit for him to have already got into, and very much appreciated.

There is a great selection of wine, from about £15 a bottle, so we could afford to raise a glass and toast to the restaurant's continued success.

After each of my visits, I was full up. So too was Mr Grigg, whose stomach is considerably larger than mine.

So here's to another trip to The Wild Garlic - if we can book a table that is.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

A tribute to Harry Patch

As dear old Harry Patch is laid to rest, I am being encouraged to get on with editing the memoirs of my grandfather (above) another Somerset veteran of World War I.

William Percy Withers was born near Wells in 1894. I was nine years old when he died in 1970. I was too young to understand the horrors he had seen all those years ago, nor did I much care. He was by then just Grampa, an old man with a walking stick. A retired tenant farmer, wedded to the land and his large family.

Like Harry Patch, Grampa was an ordinary man. But he had a gift. He was always scribbling away writing poetry, some of it funny, some of it sad. After he died, my aunt had the wonderful idea of publishing some of his work, giving each of the grandchildren a bound copy of his book.

The copyright remains with my sister, Alison, who attended Harry's funeral today. I am sure, though, she will not mind me sharing this with the world, in memory of Harry Patch and all his old comrades. A generation gone but not forgotten.

The Contemptibles

They were just ordinary chaps,
Away back in 'fourteen,
Not saints nor sinners; yet perhaps,
Just somewhere in between.

From every kind of home they came,
From slum, from cottage, hall,
But were, in one respect, the same,
For they were heroes, all.

But had somebody told them so,
They'd treat it as a jest,
"Blimey! That's just rot, you know,
We only did our best."

"Contemptible" - the Kaiser's word -
They hailed it with acclaim,
Then, with a humour quite absurd,
They took it for their name.

Their orders were "You must retreat";
The way was long and hard,
But they, despite their aching feet,
Contested every yard.

At last, from Ypres to the sea,
They held the foe at bay,
Determined that the enemy
Should never pass that way.

Quite soon some other chaps appeared,
To hasten to their aid;
These were the first who volunteered,
Ill-trained, but unafraid.

Outgunned, outnumbered hopelessly,
All hope indeed seemed gone,
They still hurled back the enemy,
And grimly soldiered on.

And now was Britain, through their fight,
Enabled time to gain,
To organise again her might,
To enrol, to arm, to train.

The outcome now of their great deeds
is plain for all to see;
Their heroism sowed the seeds
That bloomed to victory.

A watered ribbon, silver rose,
A crude star made of bronze -
An emblem proud indeed to those
Who wear the Star of Mons.

Men yet unborn will hail their fame,
Though the last one has gone;
On history's page a glorious name -
And time goes marching on.

Grampa fought with the North Somerset Yeomanry where he saw service in the Somme and lost many dear friends and comrades. When the war ended, Percy took up a farm tenancy in Barton St David, Somerset, before moving to farm at Donyatt, near Ilminster, in 1920.