Tuesday, 18 March 2014

What the Masterchefs did Next...

The first meal of our East Anglian holiday extravaganza also fell on our second wedding anniversary, so the pressure was on to make it a good 'un. In the dim and distant past - during the first throes of passion in our burgeoning relationship - this probably would have included a collection of romantic cliches; bloody steaks; fancy seafood; sharing platters that you could attempt to feed each other across the table; and booze; lots and lots of booze. 

Being older, wiser and far more interested in an afternoon nap than an afternoon romp, our primary concerns for this lunch were choosing an approximate mid-way point close to the A12, so we could get to our cottage by the Suffolk coast by the late afternoon. 

Luckily the Hole in the Wall ticked all the right boxes; situated in little Willbraham, a charming little chocolate box village just outside Cambridge part-owned and run by Alex Rushmer, Masterchef 2010 finalist.

Alex, for those who can cast their minds that far back, was the affable chap whose predilection for offal and other daring dishes saw him just come up short of the final hurdle. 

Here, with uni friend Ben Maude, they offer the full pub/eating experience, from a quick pint by the open log fire right through to the seven course tasting menu, with drinks pairings, that’s offered in the evenings.

After walking in to the cosy front bar, complete with blazing log fire, we were lead through to the 
dining room at the back, an equally warm and informal space with its own open hearth, to kick of the celebrations with a romantic pint. I'm afraid my memory fails me when it comes to recollecting exactly what we drank, but I had the golden ale and the Ewing had the dark IPA and both were very fine.

Lunch is a veritable bargain, with three courses going for a mere £18, and features a seasonal menu that regularly changes to showcase the season’s top ingredients.

Bread was a (very good) dark and treacle-y soda, and a (slightly dry) cheese and onion brioche alongside obligatory (pleasingly cheesy) butter on a slate.

The Ewing kicked off with a brace of bread crumbed smoked haddock fish cakes, which, on breaking open the crisp carapace revealed a good, old fashioned haddock-studded mashed potato centre. A little tuber heavy, perhaps, but she loved the zingy tartare dolloped alongside.

My starter of seared scallops with carrots and coriander (£3.00 supplement) was all springy, sweet bivalves and gloriously smooth and buttery root puree, pepped up with the crunch of puffed wheat and the bite of pickled carrot strips. Small, but perfectly formed.

The pork belly was sadly off the menu, but any disappointment was short-lived when my alternative choice, the sea bass with onion dressing, arrived. This was a cracking dish; crisp-skinned fish, nuggets of burnished confit celariac and a heady nigella seed-spiked sauce.

The highlight, however, was the kale leaves the sea bass was perched upon; they had been deep fried whole and were earthy, nutty and sweet. Like a heap of delicious crispy Chinese-style seaweed, and all for me.

The Ewing's dish was a proper rib-sticker; game ragu on a bed of gnocchi, topped with parsnip crisps. This was a lovely dish, the chunky game ragu being sticky and unctuous while the puffy dumplings underneath were lifted with a rich Parmesan cream.

My choice of pud was the Cambridge burnt cream with forced rhubarb; when in Rome, and all that. This was the most triumphant of puddings, a crisp caramel shell giving way to the flawless, softly set vanilla custard underneath. The poached rhubarb blushed with the first signs of spring and while I found the biscuit a little superfluous, the Ewing clearly disagreed with my sentiments and soon made light work of it.

The chocolate cake was a similar success, especially with the Ewing who loved the fudgy centre and fluffy-mousse like topping, finished with meringue and ark muscavado cream.

Hole in the Wall on Urbanspoon
A trip to Norwich saw us make a visit to Macarons and More,  just up from the Famous Colman's Mustard shop in the glamorous Royal Arcade. Carrying on the BBC cookery show theme, this fancy-looking cake shop is owned by ex-Paediatrician Tim Kinnaird, who was also a Masterchef 2010 finalist. Tim was the affable chap who had Gregg in raptures with his fancy puddings.

Baking is clearly his forte, and as the name suggests the shop stock a range of macarons, brownies, pate de fruit, biscuits and marshmallows that can also be ordered online. There is also a small seating area if you want to linger over a hot chocolate and a slice of homemade cake.

The eponymous macaron are the real draw here, with a glass counter crammed with the little almondy jewels in flavours ranging from violet and blackcurrant to chocolate gingerbread. Even more impressive than the standard range are the giant macarons filled with fresh fruit and the, quite simply brilliant, salted caramel macalongs.

These treats feature a salted caramel meringue shell, shaped like an ├ęclair, which is then crammed full of rich caramel mascarpone and topped with crunchy caramel pieces and caramel sauce. Complete decadence and something of steal when compared to their smaller brethren, coming in at three quid each.

As well as a two macalongs, we also shared half a dozen macaron, in mint and dark choc, passion fruit and milk choc, honey and lemon, Norfolk lavender, praline and PB and J.

Rather unusually, I was possibly most taken with the lavender; a gentle scent that evoked a Provencal breeze rather than your Nan’s wardrobe. The P B and J, with its peanut butter and jam combination was also a winner, as was the classic passion fruit and milky chocolate, while the praline was reminiscent of Ferrero Rocher and Nutella, which can never be a bad thing.

I’ve written about the delights of macaron on the blog before, after a sugar-fuelled honeymoon to Paris, and these were right up there with the very best. What I really enjoyed was the perfect contrast between their fragile shells and the sweet, damp almondyness within.

Of course, it would be fanciful to think we could escape without sustaining at least a little more damage to our wallets, in this case with a tin of their ‘spoonable’ hot chocolate, a rich confection that can also be poured over ice cream. The Ewing chose the classic chocolate, but there is an Aztec chilli and Indian spiced versions for those who prefer their bedtime treat to be a little jazzier.

Macarons and More is in a lovely spot, and has the wares to match. A planned return visit will certainly see a sampling of the homemade sweets, although, after seeing the recipe on the website, I may have to give the marshmallow choc chip cookie sandwiches a try at home before I head east again.

While we managed to sample the wares of two of the finalists, the eventual winner of Masterchef 2010, Dhruv Baker, has yet to open his own gaff, although plans are apparently afoot and a cookbook is due out very soon.

I have, however, tried Baker’s 'British Curry Rice’, a collaboration with Tilda that was inspired by both his Anglo-Indian heritage and one of the highlights of the 2010 series finale - a visit by the trio to India, to cook for the maharajah of Jodhpur at the Grand Place. Nice enough when the effort of making dinner barely exceeds ripping open a pouch, if not managing to scale the heady heights of the fabulous burnt cream and macalongs. But I guess that’s as close as I’m going to get for now…

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