Hugo's high spots

01 January 2000
Hugo's high spots

The 80 members of the Columbian Pro-Am Golf Club thought they were heading off to a local restaurant when they gathered in the reception area of the Cheltenham Park Hotel, Cheltenham.

What greeted them instead on a warm July evening was a Scottish pipe band which marched out from behind the trees that surround the hotel. Head chef Bill Prout needed to follow this surprise with a meal to impress these, mostly male, senior businessmen hoping for a relaxed evening.

I particularly liked his theme for the Chicago prawns which were dressed with Cajun spices and plated, ready for when guests sat down. The prawn crackers were inspired by 1920s Chicago laundry houses which were run by Chinese workers - according to Prout, the workers not only washed clothes, but served prohibition whisky and rice crackers.

The spit-roasted hog was his response to requests for a barbecue, and having made the spit, the hotel has included it on its barbecue menu.

The turkey complements the pork well, and quite a few of the guests had some of both meats. The pig - a hollow rod already inserted to enable the transfer - was roasted for four hours in the hotel's oven and then moved to the spit.

Although it may seem there were a lot of salads on the menu, Prout was conscious of catering for Americans who like plenty of choice and colour. It also gave him an opportunity to incorporate the club's logo - three interlocking Cs - using red cabbage, carrot and cherry tomatoes in the salads and pastillage plaques in the dessert.

Given the informal nature of the event, general manager Robin Winter opted for a selection of US-bottled beers and was confident about serving the hotel's house wine - white and red Caves De Masse.

Prout's only criticism of the evening was his gâteaux, which he thought should have been more traditionally American - banoffi or pecan pie perhaps.

Every ingredient used in the Savoy's menu for the Food from Britain lunch to launch the hotel's British food festival, 19 September-9 October, was sourced in this country, apart from the Chabert Marbuzet - an interesting choice. Although 1986 is known as a tough and often tannic year, this wine is supposed to be drinking well now and the toasted vanilla of new oak was, I suspect, an admirable partner for venison main course.

British sourcing has, according to Tom O'Connell, food and beverage manager at the Savoy, become easier and more exciting as producers rise to the challenge of quality and consistency.

He is urging more wholesalers to represent a number of smaller, speciality producers: "For an operation as large as ours we cannot deal with the hundreds of suppliers who approach us."

Food from Britain (FFB) is looking into this and is keen to hear from other hotels and restaurants wanting to source home-grown produce.

I thought the eel was a superb way to start the meal. This fish can be greatly underrated, yet is often surprisingly well received when people can be persuaded to try it. In this instance it was served with a traditional creamed horseradish and more modern, peppery rocket salad offered the kind of simplicity and clean plate that would certainly have had me looking for more!

I had my doubts about the cock-a-leekie with scallops, fearing this was dressing up for the sake of it, but I tried the recipe at home - it is in Anton Edelmann's Creative Cooking cook book, and it is a delight.

The main course seemed to contain many flavours, but it is a normal Savoy interpretation of a main course. I liked the focus on autumnal flavours and suspect for the 60 covers it worked well.

Old Kent cherries threw me a bit. Were these an old variety recently rediscovered that I had not come across? O'Connell admitted a sprinkling of artistic licence here, which was a pity - I thought I was on to something.

Wonderful to see Welsh Rarebit at the end of this meal, and interesting to keep it to a specified cheese. Unfortunately some of this found its way back to the kitchen, but I believe more because of the length and scope of the lunch than anything else.

O'Connell did feel the lunch menu could have been shorter. However, FFB was understandably keen to show off as many speciality foods as possible and I think the lunch found a good balance.

I was intrigued by the Denbies Noble Harvest since I am dubious about English wine in general. The vineyard sent me a sample last week and I found myself agreeing with the comments apparently made during the lunch: "this can't have been made in Surrey".

A star of a dinner

The classic French intricacy of Raymond Blanc and Marco Pierre White's more gutsy approach makes Bath Spa Hotel's Automobile Association Dinner fascinating.

What a wonderfully brave wine list. Trimbach's wines have always impressed me and finishing with a Vourvray is something too seldom done - it is a wonderful wine and can work so well with dessert.

Some of the aperitifs were served on teaspoons, one of those gimmicks that actually works. The assiette was a consommé served in a demitasse and on reflection head chef Jonathan Fraser wonders if it wouldn't have been more sensibly served with the aperitifs.

Blanc followed his assiette with a trio of tartar of salmon, scallops in artichokes and a hot crab parcel of seaweed. (This is the dish Blanc will be demonstrating in this month's Masterclass.)

Although pre-plated, being a complex ensemble of the ingredients it involved a lot of work, but I suspect was an exciting comparison with what was to follow.

White blazed in with his turbot, setting his hair on fire in the process. This course was full of theatre, with the turbot being cooked on the bone at the last minute but, according to Fraser, was well worth the wait: "a real 1990s dish, the girolles were meltingly sweet, cooked in goose fat along with the garlic. The jus was a mousseux with gangs of flavour." A fine match, I suspect for the rich burgundy.

Blanc then reappeared with half a squab served with baby carrots, turnips, mange tout glazed with a herbed cream. The helpings were apparently quite small and could, perhaps, have been given more weight with some pastry.

It is such a difficult task to bring off a main course in a meal like this which continues to exceed expectations. Anyway, I would have happily settled down to enjoy the food, and savour the Corton Renardes 1987, a year that was only average in Bordeaux but good in Burgundy.

The tarte took two people six hours to make. For 50 tartes, 200 apples and two bottles of Grand Marnier were used. They were baked for 40 minutes in baker's ovens with heat control over virtually every square centimetre of the ovens.

The chocolates, according to Fraser, looked average, "yet made from Valrhona your teeth simply bit into a piece of heaven, the complex flavours whisking you off on a salacious journey".

"There was healthy competition between the visiting brigades, he adds, "but these events are worth doing because they teach us all new things, confirm ideas and opinions and introduce a heightened sense of theatre to everything." I wish I had been able to attend.

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