September 5, 2009 § Leave a comment
It was our wedding anniversary yesterday and Tim and I visited the Church Green in Lymm for dinner last night to celebrate. This is chef Aiden Byrne’s latest venture and though it opened back in March I think it’s still the new place to go round here. Aiden Byrne is familiar to our family as one of the chef’s on TV programme Great British Menu. This year he represented the North West but was trounced (rightly) by stalwart Nigel Haworth. I remember Aiden Byrne’s TV persona as that of an overawed Scouser fresh out of catering college. His food on the programme was meticulously prepared with flashes of inspiration. I made his chilled broad bean soup with goat curd recipe for a family celebration dinner in June. Cold soups are practical and can be distinctly underwhelming but this one really was a thing of beauty with its herb and flower garnish and the balance of tastes and textures was spot on. I recall his overall Great British Menu was unbalanced and that he was a self-confessed novice pastry chef so puddings were not his forte.
My only other preparation for this visit was reading Matthew Norman’s damning Guardian Online review from March 2009 a couple of weeks after the place opened. The article strapline goes “Michelin poncery in a village pub leaves Matthew Norman with a nasty taste in his mouth”. Oh dear – overall rating only 4 out of 10.
The Church Green is indeed a converted village pub right in the middle of desirable Cheshire commuter village Lymm. We arrived, parked up on the battered tarmac apron which sadly obscures most of the front façade of the building and took a look.
There’s no denying that this place looks like a pub, despite the flash conservatory tacked on the side. The impression was reinforced when we walked inside as part of the original bar is still intact complete with dodgy carpet and painted flock wallpaper on the ceiling. We’d dressed up a little for the occasion so it was slightly odd to find a group of hikers in red cagoules propping up the bar. They’d clearly popped in for a drink after the day’s exertions. No matter – I really hate dress codes in hotels and restaurants and have in fact been thrown out of the Ritz in London twice for being incorrectly attired and won’t go near the place now.
The two glasses of champagne we ordered as an aperitif took an age to arrive – service is a little nervous and less than slick but this gave us plenty of time to take in the ambience and décor. The impression is that not that much has been spent on doing the place up. They don’t bother with white linen – the small polished wood tables give a bistro feel (but without bistro prices). The other impression was that the restaurant was nowhere near full which really on a Friday night no longer in school holidays it should have been. Maybe it’s the price issue again.
We were shortly ushered to our table and our first courses arrived. I’d ordered borlotti bean soup with smoked duck foie gras. This was a shallow bowl of pale puréed creamy soup topped with a generous slice of duck liver, fresh out of the pan. This turned out to be, without exaggeration, one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. The duck liver was perfectly cooked, a light crust on the outside, meltingly soft within and the hint of smoke flavour was just perceptible in the background. The soup was full flavoured and velvety smooth.
My main course was lamb three ways – the chef’s favourite cut of rack, plus a neat cube of pressed slow-cooked shoulder and a sticky braised lamb’s tongue. Main courses came with only minimal vegetables and no potatoes so at the waitress’s suggestion we ordered a portion of French beans and some thick cut chips to share. I resent having to order side dishes and would much prefer the chef to have considered and presented a complete dish with a balance of tastes and textures. I particularly dislike the habit of presenting a half moon side-dish of supposed “seasonal vegetables” which usually comprised boiled broccoli, carrot and a bit of overcooked cauliflower. They don’t fall into that trap here but it is nevertheless a bit gastro-pub to have to share a big portion of chips. They were really good chips – crispy on the outside and fluffy within – so I’m not complaining too much. My lamb was delicious and skilfully and inventively cooked -I applaud the use of different parts of the animal, the cheaper cuts as well as the best ones. The meat and accompanying reduction were all so intensely flavoured that I was overwhelmed by an impression of brown stickiness and, unusually for me, couldn’t finish my plate.
We chose New Zealand Pinot Noir to accompany our meal. The wine list is short and rather idiosyncratic and contains a number of glaring gaps. Wine knowledge is clearly not Aiden’s thing and there were I think no half bottles available and a very limited selection of wines by the glass which is disappointing.
I was unable to manage pudding but tried a little of Tim’s tiramisu. Pudding choice was underwhelming – nothing to really tempt the tastebuds and the tiramisu that arrived was not at all dainty – a great lumpen thing served inappropriately in a knickerbocker glory glass. Looking at the Church Green’s website this morning I see they are advertising for an experienced pastry chef – it shows!
My overall impression mirrors the Great British Menu experience – flashes of inspiration (Byrne is clearly a wizard when it comes to beans whether broad or borlotti! ) but his cooking lacks balance – when it comes to brown stickiness you can have too much of a good thing – and he needs to employ a decent pastry chef soon.
The Church Green,
Higher Lane ,
Telephone: 01925 752 068
September 2, 2009 § Leave a comment
I came across an interesting article in this quarter’s Living Earth magazine. Living Earth is the magazine of The Soil Association’s of which, I should declare at the outset, I am a fully paid up member. I am also a fairly regular listener of the Archers, the long running story of farming folk on Radio 4. So the name Graham Harvey caught my eye as he has been Agricultural Story Editor to the programme for a number of years now, as countless post-broadcast trails have taught me.
The article, titled Fields of Carbon, is a summary of the arguments Harvey puts forward in his recently published book, “The Carbon Fields: how our countryside can save Britain”.
The steps in Harvey’s intriguing argument go like this:
- The world’s soils are the largest terrestrial reserves of carbon.
- A fair proportion of damaging greenhouse gases come from soil carbon released by modern industrial farming practices – ie the move to rearing animals on grain rather than pasture.
- We can, without too much difficulty, reverse this trend by returning animals to grazing which will put excess carbon back into the soil
It’s a seductive argument isn’t it as it means that, providing it is sustainably reared using traditional farming methods, it’s OK to eat meat after all. So, how is the trick achieved?
Harvey goes on to explain that the world’s food supply is based on annual plants, in fact the top 3 food crops of wheat, rice and maize account for a massive 50% of land under cultivation. Annual plants require massive amounts of oil energy to produce a crop both in terms of cultivation machinery and in terms of chemical fertilisers. So it makes no sense to feed expensive (in every sense) grains to animals. Harvey goes on to contend that perennial plants, such as are found in species-rich grasslands could, if carefully managed, produce most of our animal feed with far fewer chemical inputs.
Harvey goes on to add a second strand to his argument, explaining that the soil is, in terms of the organic matter it contains, a massive carbon sink. We already think of forests as an important means of trapping carbon, but in fact 82% of carbon in the “terrestrial biosphere” (now there’s a phrase to drop in conversation) is not in forests at all but is in the soil.
As you might expect, intensive cultivation tends to deplete organic matter in the soil releasing carbon into the atmosphere, whereas happily, under grass, soils rebuild their stocks of organic matter. We are not talking small numbers here: Harvey quotes the staggering statistic that, according to a Royal Society estimate, carbon capture by the world’s farmlands given better management could total as much as 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year which is more than the annual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Harvey concludes his article with the tantalising idea that a different form of agriculture with more emphasis on grassland production wouldn’t merely help with the problem of global warming but could solve it.
It is good to read an optimistic article on solving the world’s problems for once. Is it too simple to be a realistic solution and do his numbers stack up? I don’t know but I’d like to find out more. The good news is that eating organic meat (organic standards require cattle to have at least 60% of their daily feed as forage) is a sustainable choice which tastes good as well.