South Lodge's Tom Kemble is keeping pumpkin season alive long past Halloween, creating three separate dishes inspired by winter squash. Michael Raffael finds out more
When is a pumpkin a squash and vice versa? Answer: all pumpkins are squashes (cucurbits), but not the other way around. In the kitchen, heavyweight Halloween ‘spookies' don't incite much notice, but other winter varieties do. The home-grown Crown Prince, for instance, has a loyal following. It's thin-skinned, sweet, has texture and roasts well. Over the past five years, though, chefs have been plumping for zucca Delica.
It isn't just the exotic provenance (Mantua in Lombardy) that attracts chefs who are always on the look-out for a catchy, fashionable ingredient. The zucca Delica flesh is denser than other pumpkin varieties and the taste, ‘extra dolce' – extra sweet, is distinctive.
The variety has a back story too. Each zucca is individually labelled with a ‘stagionata' guarantee that the pumpkins have been aged. Half a century ago farmers harvested them at peak ripeness before leaving them outdoors to partially dry out. While they were sweating out a third of their weight, the sugar content was concentrating.
Today, drying takes place in heated warehouses. Wax seals on the cut stems prevent decay and, once aged, the pumpkins have several months' shelf life. The size varies, but most weigh in at around a kilo. The price fluctuates between £4 and £6, though this has started to drop. Peeling and seeding ups the cost too.
Mantua itself is famed for gnocchetti di zucca (see below). Pumpkin purée is the go-to vegetarian filling for ravioli and tortellini. Winter soups based on it are a North Italian staple, ranging from rustic to creamy ‘vellutata' (with or without lentils, chickpeas, potatoes and Fontina cheese). Torta di zucca, both sweet and savoury, has dozen of variants.
At the Pass at South Lodge hotel in Horsham, West Sussex, Tom Kemble serves an updated velouté as the first course of his tasting menu.
Delica pumpkin velouté, pumpkin seed praline, pine oil, bay leaf chantilly
Makes 1 litre, 14 tasting menu portions [half the batch size for the 28-seat restaurant]
Make the velouté base and transfer to two siphons
Make the pumpkin seed praline, crush and reserve in a dry environment
Prepare the chantilly
Heat the velouté to 62°C in a bain-marie
Assemble and serve.
Tom Kemble operates three six-course tasting menus (lunch, vegetarian and dinner) at £50 and £70, and an eight-course menu at £90. Based on one Delica pumpkin (approximately £3) the velouté will cost approximately 50p. The menus have been developed to yield a 70% gross margin.
For the velouté
1 Delica pumpkin (750g-1kg)
20g unsalted butter
70g white onion
500ml light chicken stock
150ml whipping cream
Halve or quarter the pumpkin (1) and scoop out the seeds (2). Carve off the skin (3). Slice the flesh thinly, about the thickness of a 50p piece (4).
Melt the butter over a low heat in a medium-sized pan. Add the thinly sliced white onion and a small pinch of salt (5). Cover the pan with film or a transparent lid. (6) Sweat over a low heat (3-4 on induction).
Add the sliced pumpkin to the onion (7). Season lightly again. Cover as before and leave to steam until softening. Add the chicken stock and finish cooking, about 10 minutes more.
Put the pumpkin, liquid and cream in a Vitaprep or similar. Liquidise the soup base, check the seasoning and pass through a fine sieve (8). The yield will be about a litre.
Pour the soup base (it will be a little thinner than a classic velouté) into a whipping siphon. Load two gas chargers.
The soup must be served hot. It should be held at 62°C-65°C in a bain-marie during service.
For the pumpkin seed praline
Makes 28 portions
120g caster or granulated sugar
2tsp smoked paprika
60g pumpkin seeds
Put the sugar in a small- to medium-sized pan (9). Moisten with water. Heat to a light amber caramel. When it starts to change colour, stir in the paprika (10) and then the pumpkin seeds (11). Stir until they've toasted (12) and empty onto a silpat mat (13).
Cool until you can touch them, then pat them flat. Leave to harden (14).
Break in pieces and pound them a few chunks at a time. (15) The aim is to mix powdery and crunchy bits.
For the bay leaf chantilly
300ml whipping cream
2-3 bay leaves, depending on their strength
2-3 sprigs sage
Heat the whipping cream to simmering point. Add the bay leaves and sage. Infuse for 15 minutes, chill and remove the herbs. Transfer to a bowl and whisk until firm (16).
35g (70ml foamed) pumpkin soup, approx
1-2tsp pumpkin praline
Teaspoon-sized quenelle of bay leaf chantilly
Note: for his tasting menu, Kemble serves the velouté in small Japanese bowls similar to those used for chawanmushi custard.
Siphon the velouté into the bowl. It will have thickened and become creamy (17). Pipe a ‘cordon' of pine oil (18) on top and dust with paprika. Sprinkle the praline on next (19) and finish with the chantilly (20).
Winter pumpkin varieties to watch out for
Crown Prince Orange-fleshed UK variety, weighing upwards of 500g
Kabocha Orange-fleshed variety. Kabocha is the generic Japanese term for squash, also sold as Hokkaido squash or Uchiki Kuri. Up to 2kg
Potimarron Orange-fleshed French pumpkin, high in dry matter with a chestnut-like taste, 1kg-2kg
Delica Orange-fleshed, imported from North Italy, aged and extra sweet, 700g and above
Gnocchetti di zucca mantovana
Make a dough with 300g roasted Delica purée, 300g riced potato, 100g flour, 100g Parmigiano Reggiano, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Form into small gnocchi (about 5g each) in the usual way. Boil in salted water till the gnocchetti float to the surface. Drain and coat with melted sage butter. Sprinkle shards of Castelmagno – semi-hard blue cheese – over them.
This features on the Pass vegetarian menu. Kemble serves it with a mushroom consommé, consisting of shiitake and button mushrooms. The dish is finished with crispy shallots, 36-month-aged Parmesan and raw cep.
Quarter and seed a delica pumpkin. Brush with oil and season with kosher salt. Put in a gastronorm tray with sage and bay leaf and cover with tin foil. Roast at 180°C until soft, about 40 minutes.
Blend the pumpkin to a rough purée. Season with approximately 100g of grated Parmesan. Add a splash of Chardonnay vinegar and a fruity olive oil (arbequina, for example). Place the mix into a piping bag.
Make a classic pasta dough with Burford brown eggs and 00-grade pasta flour. Roll out sheets of dough as thinly as possible (less than 1mm thick).
Pipe the pumpkin mix into the sheets, fold and pinch to form your agnolotti.
Using a serrated pasta cutter, portion the pasta onto a tray dusted with semolina flour to prevent any sticking.
For each portion, boil the agnolotti in salted water for two to three minutes, then place into a frying pan with some foaming butter and add a sprig of sage. Add some pasta water to create an emulsion, coating the pasta.
Kemble has been at South Lodge hotel and spa, near Horsham, West Sussex, for little more than a year. His new head chef job, he admits, had been welcome, but demanding, not least because he was waiting for keyhole surgery on his spine.
Savvy and self-critical, he concedes: "I felt under a lot of pressure, having very little time to train a team to cook my dishes and bed in. I lost two chefs in the first two weeks."
He arrived with the trappings of a future star. At London auction house Bonham's he won a Michelin star within 10 months. The reviewers praised him and TV beckoned, but the day-to-day experience was less glitzy.
The reality was he was working in a basement with two other chefs, sending up plates on a dumb waiter. "It was like working blind. You don't know what the customer is experiencing. You don't see what's ending up on the table."
At South Lodge his name is above the door of the 28-seat Tom Kemble at the Pass. Now he has a dedicated kitchen, abutting banqueting and Camellia, the hotel's sister restaurant, and customer tables are visible from the pass. He has a larger brigade and the proper gear: "Sauce making and stock making are a lot easier here. We've got a dough roller, so laminating pastry is a lot easier and we achieve a better result."
He describes them as if they were new toys. They aren't; his culinary passport bears stamps from Fäviken in Sweden, the now-closed Hedone in Chiswick, and, under Chris Staines at Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London. It was natural, he felt, that his past experience should influence him rather than pigeon-hole him: "My cooking is produce-led, rather than technique."
His approach, though, is far more eclectic, but centred around classical craft skills.
"I definitely think of my profession as a craft rather than an art," he says. "But every so often you eat something and it goes up to another level. One of those moments was my lunch at L'Ambroisie in Paris. Bernard Pacaud's chocolate sabayon tart blew my mind. The lightness of sabayon, how it managed to hold itself up, the depth of the chocolate, the incredibly intense Tahitian-vanilla ice-cream. This was craft elevated to new heights.
"When I visited Japan, my first taste of real omakase [a tasting menu] from a Shokunin [a Japanese artisan/master craftsman] at a Sushi Ya in Ginza was a meditative experience."
The comment echoes Kemble's past before he turned chef. He studied art history at Nottingham University and thought that he might one day become a photographer. That background was double-edged: "It gave me more time to grow as a person, but I lacked the structure of formal training."
When he took his first professional job after college, he was painfully slow by comparison with other chefs of his age. He bridged the gap by taking on every peeling, chopping, boning task he could until he caught up. The South Lodge chef has also had the challenge of a learning curve: "When I came here, I thought it would be easy to adjust, but it wasn't like Bonham's.
"Being so close to the customer has its benefits in the way you can cook with immediacy. The food arrives at the table exactly how I would like it to.
"However, being so close means that you need to also create atmosphere in the dining room. We try and serve and speak to every customer, which can be tricky in a busy service as I am tied to the pass. All the chefs are confident in explaining dishes, but you need experience to read each guest and to try and understand their needs."
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