It was a close-run thing last week in Swansea at the brand-new 31-bedroom Grand hotel. When plans for the second Chef Eats Out lunch of 2004 were finalised earlier in the year, general manager Paul Evans and consultant chef Dermott Slade were working towards an early June opening. But you know hotel (and restaurant) openings: they just don't happen on time. It's not the done thing.
Well, hats off to Slade and his team of new recruits in the kitchen: sous chef Martin Davis, senior chef de partie Lindsey Vellocote, and chef de partie Simeon Powell. The hotel opened a mere week before the event - organised by Caterer in association with Hybu Cig Cymru/Meat Promotion Wales - and the kitchen, according to Slade, was "still fighting the builders". But as far as the 30 guests who sat down for a seven-course lunch to celebrate Welsh produce were concerned, there weren't any discernable hitches, not even a single "cach" uttered from the kitchen.
Slade, the current Welsh National Chef of the Year and a Swansea boy by birth - he previously headed up the kitchen at Swansea hotel Morgan's, and before that ran his own restaurant, Dermott's, on the city's high street - was brought in by hotel owner Con Maloney to consult on menus, sort out the kitchens and recruit staff.
For this occasion he wanted to showcase the best Welsh produce and what he calls the "Welsh influence". "I don't think there is such a thing as Welsh cuisine," he explained, "but I want to bring the best produce that Wales has to offer to the table and use it with other styles of cooking."
That influence was evident in a myriad of little details throughout the menu. The amuse-bouche of cauliflower and Stilton cappuccino ("full of flavour" said Simon Newcombe, chef-proprietor of the Chandlery in Newport) included pieces of lamb sausage flavoured with the South Wales beer, Felin Foel; cockles came from Penclawdd; samphire from the coast was incorporated into a pepper salad; and nothing less than Brecon gin went into the gin and tonic sorbet.
The starter of roasted scallop with Penclawdd cockles was typical of a vibrant, modern approach. For the dish, Slade took 5.5kg of parsley (enough for about 35 covers), blanched it, then stirred it into a scallop stock with cream. That sackload of parsley was necessary to give a good, fresh flavour, and the blanching helped to take the bitter edge off. The result was a strong, green sauce, in which sat the cockles and the scallop. This was all accompanied by samphire (blanched and marinated in Welsh mead) combined with pepper to give a Welsh-influenced, but Mediterranean-style, pepper salad.
The next dish was, Slade admitted, directly inspired by a recent trip to Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, in Bray, Berkshire, which left the Welsh chef somewhat overwhelmed. "I went away feeling useless, asking myself, ‘What have I done all my life?' It was the best meal I have ever had," he explained.
Confidence restored, Slade decided to pay homage to Blumenthal's famous grain mustard ice-cream and red cabbage gazpacho. He took the idea home, where - 4kg of mustard and many late nights in his kitchen later - he honed his own version, after working out that you had to get the vinegar out of the mustard to stop it splitting the crŠme anglaise.
Slade's gazpacho (made with cabbage and beetroot) was poured over a quenelle of grain mustard ice-cream resting on a bed of bresaola of Welsh beef.
A bit more experimentation came with a pre-dessert of liquorice and citrus, born out of Slade's childhood obsession with Black Jacks. He softens down the one-penny sweets and combines them into an ice-cream, which is then served with a lemon and lime frozen cream. As guest Gareth Johns, chef-proprietor of the Wynnstay hotel in Machynlleth, Powys, noted, the liquorice in the ice-cream - "not too overpowering" - was well balanced by the smooth-textured but sharp cream hidden underneath.
Elsewhere, a pea and mint risotto coated in tempura batter and lightly fried was a substitute for potato - "I didn't want everyone to go home feeling stuffed" - and accompanied the universal favourite among the guests on the day: roast fillet of succulent Welsh lamb.
"The lamb was beautiful," said Johns. "We are very lucky to have the best lamb in the world - and you can tell that to any New Zealander." All credit to Slade and his team for getting the lamb out. They were wrestling with an over-enthusiastic new extraction system drawing cold air over the pass, but whatever they did to get round it was successful - no one in the restaurant noticed anything amiss.
Slade's food was well complemented by wines chosen by Patrick Pigny, from Great Western Wine, who also kept guests entertained with descriptions of wines and their origins (the Languedoc in France is, according to Pigny, the home of rugby union - and, yes, he did leave the Grand alive).
Pigny's choices were particularly good at showing how some New World wines are providing ample complexity for food matching. A Ferngrove Riesling from the cool (by Aussie standards) Franklin River region of Western Australia, for example, was crisp and aromatic, but without too much of the zing associated with the grape's more boisterous examples.
Swansea has always lived in the shadow of arch rival Cardiff, but after this particular lunch and a tour of the hotel's rooms everyone agreed that, with this kind of investment, this once-rough part of town could well be brightening up.
- Cauliflower and Stilton cappuccino served with a Felin Foel sausage
- Roasted scallop, Penclawdd cockles with fresh parsley
- Bresaola of Welsh beef with mustard, cabbage and beetroot gazpacho
- Iced Brecon gin and tonic
- Roasted fillet of Welsh lamb served with a pea and mint risotto
- Citrus with liquorice
- Frozen Welsh honey parfait with local winberries
Scallops with Penclawdd cockles and fresh parsley
For the sauce
50ml double cream
40ml full-fat milk
20ml fish glace
90g flat-leaf parsley, stalks off, blanched and refreshed
30g cold butter, diced
Salt and pepper
For the salad
60ml Welsh mead
110g mixed sweet peppers, deseeded, skinned and cut in thick juliennes
30ml balsamic gastric
170g Welsh cockles, shelled
1tbs white wine vinegar
Ground white pepper
4 diver-caught king scallops
A little groundnut oil
To make the sauce, boil cream, milk and glace together, add parsley and cold butter. Blend well. Pass. Pass again and season (do not pass through muslin, as it loses its body). Set aside.
For the salad, pick through the samphire for the nice, juicy strands. Blanch in salt water. Refresh. Dry and marinate in the Welsh mead overnight. Add the pepper flesh and balsamic gastric. Add the pepper mix to the samphire mix. Season and set aside.
Flash-fry the cockles in a little oil, deglaze with a splash of white wine vinegar and season with ground white pepper. Heat a little oil in a pan. Cook the seasoned scallops for a few moments on each side. Rest. Plate by setting scallop on top of cockles. Top with the samphire salad. Pour on parsley sauce and serve.
The sponsor Hybu Cig Cymru/Meat Promotion Wales is delighted to have been associated with Chef Eats Out at the Swansea Grand, which presented the ideal opportunity for the Welsh Chef of the Year to serve up the finest Welsh lamb and Welsh beef to some of the country's leading chefs.
As the representative body for the Welsh red meat industry, we welcome the continued endorsement by chefs of Welsh lamb and Welsh beef and their support in helping to keep quality meat in its rightful place at the centre of the menu.