David Kelman, head chef of Cotswolds country house Ellenborough Park, marks his TV appearance on The Great British Menu with a limited series of dining events (the next one’s on Wednesday 9 July). Smith sent managing editor Anthony Leyton along for a taste of what promises to be a unique gourmet getaway…
‘So the menu’s themed around the D-Day landings? That’s, er, novel.’ Reassuringly, it emerges that the menu planned for chef David Kelman’s showpiece dinner at Ellenborough Park isn’t the result of some nutty culinary militarism on his part, but rather dictated by the bigwigs on The Great British Menu – the TV show on which he appeared earlier this year. If you’ve not seen it, it’s a sort of chef-on-chef telly smackdown, in which professionals from kitchens across the country compete to create dishes that best represent the flavours of modern Britain (Nice ’n’ Spicy NikNaks excepted).This year, in commemoration of the Normandy landings 70 years ago, the show challenged the chefs to mark the anniversary through the medium of food, with the winning recipes served to WW2 veterans on 6 June. David – a former reservist from a three-generation military family, whose own cherished nan spent WW2 working in a Welsh munitions factory – couldn’t have been more qualified to take part.
Before we all get too excited, he didn’t win. But he trumped his fellow Welsh contenders, topped his heat and fought with honour in the final, creating a fabulous four-courser that ingeniously and sensitively paid homage to the British war effort and turned plenty of gastronomes’ eyes on the kitchens at Ellenborough Park.
On the cusp of the Cotswolds, just beyond the thatch-topped old village of Prestbury (‘the most haunted in Britain’, the taxi driver pronounces, although he’s a little short on details), Ellenborough is Cheltenham’s pet country-house hotel, luring London’s weekend-awayers, Cheltenhamite spa lovers and equestrophiles seeking prime positioning for the Gold Cup racecourse (the finish line can be seen from some rooms). Handsomely constructed in clotted-cream Cotswolds stone, and swaddled in 90 rabbit-hopped acres of National Trust parkland, the 16th-century main building was restored five years ago, acquiring a handful of new wings and annexes that now sit, quite comfortably thank you, alongside their Tudor sibling.
It’s also a damn fine spot to have dinner.
The local foodie press and scene have been whooping lyrical over Kelman’s cooking for a couple of years now – it’s about time he garnered some serious national attention. Thanks to the Great British Menu, he’s got it. So, when you get the chance to be one of 80 or so guests sampling the actual dishes he served up to the judges on the show (with wines to match), all in the wood-pannelled aristocratic loveliness of the triple-rosette Beaufort Dining Room, you jolly well take it.
Each of the courses offers a gastronomic snapshot of Britain at war from a different point in history, inspired not by the soldiers themselves, but by the supporting cast of framers, fishermen, entertainers and factory workers who also did their bit for Britain…
STARTER Run, Rarebit Run
Introduced by a gramophone rendition of Flanagan and Allen’s wartime favourite, Kelman’s petite rabbit pies are, for me, the highlight of the meal. Using farmed rabbit meat (more tender and mild than their wild cousins, David explains afterwards), and a soft and flaky suet pastry, the pies are flanked by a nest of delicately pickled veg and sat beside a slick of ale-spiked Caerphilly sauce that, with its refined umami punch, absolutely conjures the essence of rarebit (the judges felt it was ‘unnecessary’; the judges were wrong with bells on). For the TV show, Kelman served his rabbit pie in a miniature hutch – a mildly macabre joke with Fatal Attraction undertones, thankfully omitted from the Ellenborough event (the hutches housed the bread rolls instead).
FISH COURSE Deadly Catch
It may not be the most inviting name for a dish, but ‘Deadly Catch’ does give an appropriate nod to its inspiration – the work of the trawlermen who risked life and limb to keep seafood on the tables of Britain during WW2. Consisting of a seabass fillet, mussels and clams atop a rich and rewarding brown shrimp chowder, the dish is composed entirely of seafood from Conwy in North Wales, where parts of D-Day’s Mulberry Harbour were constructed – and also where Kelman’s from. A couple of cheffy flourishes give it all a bit of character – a crunchy potato ‘net’ and, offering a strange and sombre reminder of the dangers of the wartime sea, a gelatinous ball of agar agar-treated fish stock, coloured with squid ink and resembling a naval mine. It’s inventive, to say the least.
MAIN End of Rationing and the Return of Forgotten Foods
It’s generally with some trepidation, if not plain terror, that one tackles a plate purporting to contain ‘chicken and banana ballotine’, but this maverick affair – a celebration of the foodstuffs restored to the British larder by the repeal of rationing – somehow manages to make the demented combination work. The rolled chicken breast’s buttery banana core adds a welcome sweetness that doesn’t overpower the poultry and the addition of a quail’s egg bhaji, spiced potatoes, roast cherry tomatoes and – oh joy – crispy, onion-seeded chicken skin results in a bold, slightly madcap dish of remarkable exuberance. The whole caboodle is served with a shot glass of velvety chicken jus that is, frankly, a meat-packed wonder potion so good I’d happily drizzle it over a whole fruit salad.
DESSERT Lemon and Poppy
It’s a tough job to make a dessert poignant and melancholic (especially when there’s something as inherently chirpy as a brandy snap involved), but this tangy trio of lemon mouse, raspberry sponge and lemon and poppy shortbread is intended to symbolise the act of remembrance (a point underlined by the addition of a white chocolate Union Flag). Compared to the showboating drama of the other dishes, this has an elegance and modesty to both its appearance and flavour – entirely in keeping with the theme.
The notion of ‘meal as memorial’ is a decidely odd one, of course, and there will always be people who object to the idea of something as solemn as war being interpreted through a ‘frivolous’ medium such as cooking. However, as David Kelman demonstrates, inspiration can come from the darkest corners. By the end of the evening, Ellenborough’s diners have had a history lesson, attended a commemoration service and eaten at one of the best restaurants in Gloucestershire. Not bad for a night out.
David Kelman and Ellenborough Park are hosting their second Great British Menu dinner on Wednesday 9 July. To book dinner (and an overnight stay if you fancy it), get in touch with the Smith24 team on 0330 100 3180 (from the UK).
(And, if this has got you hankering after a gourmet stay, check out our new collection of the best hotel restaurants.)