Ever since John Campbell and Olly Rouse’s departures from Coworth Park in 2011, I have been wondering what they would do next. It just seemed such a shame that the immense amount of work building up the magic of Coworth Park suddenly evaporated, and it would be hard to re-create something similar elsewhere. They went quiet for quite a while, and so I was pleasantly surprised and excited when I learnt that they would do a 3-day event with Matt Gillan at The Pass at South Lodge Hotel just outside Horsham 21-23 June.
I knew very early on that I would not be able to make it to the first 2 days as I would be away from the UK for business, so that left me with no choice but to just shoot for Saturday 23 June. Not a bad thing anyway, as I did not have to worry about getting stuck on M25 during evening rush hours just to get to Horsham. I was pleased to go to South Lodge again also, having not been there for over 10 years (last time I stayed at South Lodge was a team-building event at my ex-employer in Horsham – at that time The Pass was not even there, and the hotel was a lot smaller).
There was a masterclass run by John Campbell mid-afternoon, and so I made sure I got to the hotel before then. Even with meticulous planning, M25 as usual worked its magic against me and I was nearly late – fortunately I built in some extra travelling time and that meant I arrived at South Lodge with about half an hour to spare.
Afternoon Masterclass with John Campbell
I took a front row seat at the afternoon masterclass, listening to John sharing his passion on cooking supplemented by his scientific knowledge and understanding in food chemistry, from cooking the different cuts of beef to the use of agar in delivering the flavours in food, as well as making fizzy grapes (imagine sparkling wine in solid fruit state). A lot of good tips and hints for cooking for friends at home – it’s not a matter of making something ultra-complicated a la Heston Blumenthal style, but to understand how all the different ingredients contribute to each dish based on flavours and ultimately timing is the crucial factor for all cooking. The “back to basics” cooking is almost music to my ears. I was already looking forward to dinner by this stage.
Pop Up at The Pass
To serve with the aperitif, we were offered some very delicious Jabugo ham – the flavour just burst in the mouth and I had to really control myself not to eat too much of it so that it would spoil my appetite for the evening. The ham came from black Iberian pigs that have been fed on a pure acorn diet for 2 years. We also had a taster of the new olive oil which went from tree to bottle within 2 hours. It was one of the fruitiest olive oils I’ve ever tasted.
The first dish was Eel served with beetroot, corn, radish and maple. The more sour/acidic taste of radish was balanced by the sweetness of the corn and maple. Even with the sharpness of the beetroot, the dish had a clean fresh flavour. It almost reminded me of the magic of the dishes at Coworth Park.
The second course was Pollack. The fish was beautifully cooked, and I loved the contrast of the crunchy cashew nuts accompanying this dish. The turnip and cucumber provided an interesting contrasting flavour, and accented with a bit of miso. However, none of the flavours dominated the dish. I could easily have had a second plate of this.
The pigeon dish was next – it was by far the most tender piece of pigeon I’ve ever had, and the flavour was wonderful. The plate was peppered with tiny chocolate flakes. What I thought was supposedly cherries on the plate turned out to be tomatoes – the sweetness was wonderful. The polenta was there to just soak up any remaining bits of the flavour from the plate.
The next course was buffalo cheek which was cooked so well that it literally melted in the mouth. The meat on its own was moist and has a mild flavour, but the dish was transformed when eating the meat together with lemon curd, wasabi meringue, artichoke, pearl barley and basil sauce – suddenly all the flavours came to life in the mouth.
The “cheese” course was Barkam blue cheese with truffle, mint, onion and potato. There are only very few cheeses that I like, and blue cheese is not one of them. Still, the combination of the ingredients is an interesting concept especially with the potato right in front of me. The dish was a twist to onion and cheese crisp (again, not something I’d have usually), and the after-taste certainly reminded me of that. I finished it though it’s not something I’d like to have again, but that’s purely based on personal taste rather than something fundamentally wrong with the dish.
I could not decide whether the sixth course was meant to be a palate cleanser or a proper dessert. Either way, the vibrant red colour on the dish was stunning – it was watermelon batons with moscatel vinegar strawberries, lime and clotted cream. The taste was simply refreshing in the mouth, and it’s a shame that it was not a hot summer evening as I could just see myself sitting outside eating this dish again and again.
The final course was elderflower with peach melba, green tea sponge, baby daikon leaves, raspberry, vanilla and a few broken pieces of langue de chat. The bitterness of the green tea was balanced by the sweetness of the peach; while the langue de chat biscuits added a bit of crunch to the otherwise soft texture of the dish. This dessert was also so light that I could have easily eaten a second plate of it without any problems.
To finish off the dinner, it was the usual plate of petit fours, though we were never told what they were?!
At the end of the meal, I did not feel that I’ve over-eaten – it was just a very pleasant sensation, feeling that I’ve eaten a light meal, and I don’t feel lethargic. It’s a shame that I was at the tail end of a bad cold; otherwise the enjoyment of the meal would be even greater. It would be difficult to choose one single favourite dish as each of them was good in its own right; the use of simple ingredients to create a symphony of flavours is the way to go – as John has said several times that chefs are custodians of nature’s larder and not magicians, and they should not change what nature has given us.
The best part of the meal for me was actually to speak to John Campbell and hear from him about his vision of cooking and the journey of re-discovering his passion and drive. Bizarrely enough, while I work in a completely different industry, my view in what I do is also “going back to basics” as many people are just too immersed in doing “fancy things” and losing sight in the bigger picture. So I can totally relate to what John is thinking and can share his excitement. If this meal is a preview of what is to come later on this year when he opens his new restaurant venture, it could easily be the most exciting restaurant opening in 2012, and I’m already looking forward to that!