Mark Hix doesn't just talk about wild food; he lives it. Michael Raffael caught up with the Catey Chef Award winner to find out how his enthusiasm for foraging and fishing feeds into his dishes
In a white cabin overlooking Lyme Bay Mark Hix is taking the day off. His sourdough spelt bread proves by the kitchen sink - overproves to be precise. A couple of phone calls tell him no one is panicking at his restaurants - Hix Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis, Hix in London's Soho and Hix Oyster and Chop House near London's Smithfield meat market. He really does have the day off and he's going foraging and fishing.
It's an open secret that some chefs pay lip service to wild food for the sake of PR. Nothing wrong with that. At 47 Hix is old enough to know the score (he was a head chef at 22), but his enthusiasm for raw materials goes beneath the skin. Like many of his peers, he loves fishing.
"I held the record for a line-caught bass with the local angling club: 8lb 3oz," he explains. He also knows that small clusters of succulent pennywort grow along the bank beside his garden, and that there's a spinney beside the Exeter-Dorchester A35 carpeted with oxalis (wood sorrel).
Brought up near Weymouth in Dorset, Hix has always loved the coast between Portland Bill and the mouth of the Axe. In early summer sea kale pokes its curly tops out of the pebbles along Chesil Beach. Sea beet (wild spinach) and scented rock samphire take root in the sandy soil. Marsh samphire, rarer than in Suffolk, grows in estuaries. Purslane forms carpets above the high tide mark.
"For my London restaurant I hire a professional forager," he says. "Here, I send the boys out and they bring back what they need."
The difference is less about quality, more about price. Foraged sea beet can fetch £10 per kilo. Time apart, it costs nothing in Lyme Regis. The price he says doesn't really come into it, because it's only used in small quantities. He was paying £80 per kilo for scarlet elf cup fungi last autumn. By comparison, sea vegetables are a snip.
On Charmouth beach, he attacks clusters of sea beet growing by a clinker row-boat. "I pick the small leaves at the top," he says. "They're more tender and the clumps will go on producing leaves."
His attitude to rock samphire is tempered by their smell: "It reminds me of petrol. In the past it was always pickled and that's what we always do with it. We just salt them and put them in a sweetish pickle like you'd make for cucumber."
Since leaving the Ivy and severing ties with Caprice Holdings, Hix spends less time at the stove. His style, though, has an unmistakeable stamp. Dishes on his menu are less about cuisine, more about cooking. It's the theme that runs through his award winning book, British Regional Food. His dishes rely less heavily on elaborate mise en place. The bone-in signature of his chop house extends to Hix Oyster and Fish House where sole, plaice and John Dory reach his customers intact, so to speak. Waiters will fillet them to order if asked, not as a matter of course.
Before the Lyme Regis property came on the market in 2008, Hix had been negotiating to buy the Riverside Café and Post Office in West Bay near Bridport in Dorset. Fifty years old, it's a restaurant he grew up with and admired for putting the freshness of the fish first. Its owner Arthur Watson realised early on that sustainability was an issue.
Hix echoes his concerns. He welcomes the ban on trawling within six miles of the coast. He orders from a local fisherman (in London he has to rely on wholesalers), reducing food miles in the process. High-sounding aspirations about environmental prudence or sustainability are incidental. What matters more to him is sourcing local produce because it leads to fresher, better food.
When he sails his 1971 Chris-Craft boat into Lyme Bay, it isn't for show. Some of the time he'll spend fishing, the rest checking his lobster pots. There aren't many lobsters but there are plenty of common and spider crabs. Anything less than 750g he throws back into the sea.
"We don't want to cheat the customers," he explains. On Hix's menu a whole crab (£16), served as a portion, can weigh up to 2lb. The spider shells are stuffed with their meat and breadcrumbs, and baked.
With a fishing rod in his hand, Hix is a happy man. But he isn't about to swap the excitement of the capital for the good life. "What I like is the mix of London and Lyme Regis. In any case I don't have the money to retire," he adds. Even when he's reeling in a mackerel, he doesn't switch off completely. He describes a waterfront café that he's considering buying for a kind of British tapas bar.
Returning to his cabin with a bucketful of mackerel and a refrigerated box of crabs, he's up for some cooking, not the kind requiring whites and a starched toque: "We'll wing it. It'll be like Ready Steady Cook."
In fact, disguising his pedigree is impossible. His restaurant changes its menu twice daily. Any of the dishes he prepares would delight customers there. A lot of professionals say they love ‘simplicity' before describing something that calls for a brigade of commis chefs, dozens of ingredients and frenzied last-minute assembly. A knife, a pan and a pot to boil a crab is all Hix needs.
Preparing sea vegetables takes little time and no special knowledge. They are naturally brackish. To survive they need to have more texture than cultivated plants. Sea beet, for instance, won't break down like pousse épinard, baby spinach. Marsh samphire, when it's older can become stringy. Purslane - ideal for salads - needs blanching first.
"One of the reasons I cook the way I do," he confesses, "is that I never did pastry. Have you noticed? Pastry chefs cook without tasting."
Within the time it takes to drop a crab into cold water, bring it to the boil, drain and shell it, Hix has made four recipes from his mid-summer outing. It's the work of a consummate professional, but with the understanding of a local lad, totally at home with the ingredients he's using.
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