They say that the third time’s a charm. They are wrong. Who listens to they anyway? I have been patient and held back my third consecutive entry for the AA Gill food writing award until now, two days after the winner was announced. You will have established even at this early point that the winner did not share my name, and nor, evidently, do I share their talent for food writing. The stark truth is that at heart, or gut for that matter, I’m not a food writer and I never have been; and that’s fine because I never wanted to write about food. Without a hint of bitterness I will admit that my exposure to food writing is shockingly anorexic. I intermittently read pieces on food and what I see a lot of the time is a pretentious load of wet cobble: food is nearly always better off eaten rather than written about; it does all go down the same way and almost always comes out the other end within a fairly limited range of hue. Furthermore, it is a generally neglected truth that most food worth paying a critic to review (or as worth it as we’re led to believe), the stuff that everyone would love to afford to eat because it is so lovingly drooled over on the likes of MasterChef: The Professionals, is precisely the food that ends up available to approximately 2% of the population, or 3% if you include anyone with even less money than sense. And that makes it a very limited indulgence for a very limited few. Oh look, it turns out there is a lingering, shard-sharp bitter aftertaste, after all. If only I’d have written about that instead. Look on the bright side – you don’t have to pay anyone to read this.
I can’t remember if it even had a title. If it had then I’m sure it would have been something really clever and witty.
I wasn’t supposed to be there. Just remember that. It wasn’t what I had planned; but then I wasn’t paying, so there is such a thing as a free lunch. You could argue that the most interesting thing about Tring is that it rhymes with stuff (and yet it doesn’t). After that it is to be noted as home to a distracting mini-me Natural History Museum, there thanks to Rothschild cash and care. And after that Tring becomes another Berkhamsted, or another Wendover – and that is to say another highly desirable, rather pricey commuter bolthole on the way out to Oxfordshire. Tring is also a good way of not being in Aylesbury. Living in comfort in Tring isn’t cheap these days, and now they have a restaurant to keep up with the pace.
It appears we had seats booked for noon, which is really the very earliest time to start considering lunch and a glass of wine. Furthermore, this was to be an experience at the Chef’s table, which frankly meant absolutely nothing to me. For a moment I wondered if it might be the two of us sat in the Chef’s kitchen as they mopped up praise which would have felt obliged to provide. I’m 45 and I don’t what a Chef’s table is. What’s wrong with me? To give Chef’s table an opportunity to gather speed the earliest arrivals, such as we were (punctuality is a virtue, not a toy), get sent down to a cellar bar; a low-lit, highly-strung sort of a room, which on the busiest nights must just glisten with prats. Like me. We ordered drinks and waited until we were escorted up a couple of flights of stairs and I finally ‘got’ what a Chef’s table is. We perched on one side, at the end, and eyed up the competition. This was communal dining where the commune was only vaguely concrete, and the sense of an experience shared and enjoyed purely superficial. I decided to rank everyone from best to last in my head, just for the entertainment. I doubt anyone else bothered.
Even though it wasn’t much past half twelve I relented to the matched wine menu and graciously handed over any chance that I’d be driving home. A charming lady popped over to explain how to drink wine and what it tastes of, but out of politeness I didn’t tell her that I already knew. Fortunately, I have learnt over years of experimentation that it is wise to eat well with wine and there is nothing to not fill you up quite like ‘Westcombe cheddar cookie, IP8 & onion Salt cod beignet, “chorizo” emulsion’, which sounded a lot, but wasn’t. My Mum used to make fantastic cheese straws, and the cookie was kind of like that, but didn’t taste as nostalgic. The whole thing was inhaled in seconds, flavours dancing briefly like magical, doomed mayflies, before dying. Small, but nice. Like Ronnie Corbett. Perhaps sensing we would need a proper filling at some point out came the ‘‘Bakery 45’ sourdough with salty butter’. Someone once told me to be suspicious of restaurants that serve bread and butter as a matter of course, but in this case it was just the right thing; a sinking, deep chew with a hint of resistance and butter that tingled.
Then it started getting a bit (more) precious. With each course Chef would come out and pretty much recite from his own menu, insist we respond with a “Yes Chef!”, and then snarl something cool and tough, with a profanity thrown in. I took comfort that he must at the very least have been impressing himself. The ‘Cornish mackerel, Oscietra caviar, apple, kohlrabi & dill’ was suitably fragile, lots of flash but not much muscle. It was nicely sharp though, and it ticked one box because I’d normally sooner swallow Lego than eat mackerel. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was just how hard it was to get off the plate; beautiful to look at but tricky to get your teeth into. What I suppose was the main appeared as ‘Chicken, Caesar dressing, baby gem, 36-month aged Parmesan & sourdough’. Personally, I prefer a 38-month aged Parmesan but this cracker like construction was cheese heaven, served with a charred, dirty gem of a gem. The chicken tasted spot on but felt and looked somehow synthetic, through what I assume was some variant of poaching. I didn’t mention this to Chef because I didn’t want my face on a gridle.
She took one for the team and asked for the supplementary ‘Baron Bigod, waffle and truffle maple syrup’, the small mouthful of which I tried made me instantly regret not ordering one for myself, though it would have also probably hastened a small cardiac event. It was all smoke and sweet, like the softer side of a freshly watered Islay malt and may have been the crowning glory if not for the fact Chef hadn’t made the cheese himself. By now things were slowing down, but there was a morsel of room for the ‘Valhrona milk chocolate, miso, sesame, banana & yuzu’, which looked impeccably imaginative and hadn’t let the banana power out the rest. Pretty sweet treats rounded out the affair as I dashed off to top up the parking. When I got back we tried to catch Chef’s attention, but he was preoccupied. We lived. A good meal. But not cheap. And it turned out I did have to pay after all. At least someone got a free lunch.
G B Hewitt. 08.03.2022