There is a strange tradition in our local village pub. The Crown Inn, Weston, in Northamptonshire, where I have sipped since my late teens, occasionally plays host to famous chefs. The chefs turn up, cook dinner for the village, then leave with nothing but the locals' gratitude ringing in their ears.
Over the years we've had the likes of Henry Harris, Mark Hix and Ian Pengelley among others. And last week saw Matt Tebbutt at the helm. Out of the goodness of his heart he arrived bearing some eel, a few racks of lamb and his cheery smile.
He then set about cooking a three-course menu that the village will remember for a long time. You see these yokels don't get out much. Weston is one of those lost villages of Northamptonshire, a pretty county of gently rolling hills, of ridge and furrow fields, reddish stone and an accent that sounds more Cornish than Midlands. London is a far off city of pestilence and villainy.
In the pub they drink Hook Norton ales, plan epic fairs, fetes, flower and food shows. Gentry mixes with farmers, labourers with toffs, builders with property developers. It is as English as you can get. And The Crown Inn is at the centre of England; literally. Draw lines from London to Liverpool, Exeter to Leeds and where those lines cross is pretty much where Matt Tebbutt could be found sweating a few evenings back. The Crown is now run by Mike and Hannah Foalks; the perfect lord and landlady couple, he being as welcoming as she is beautiful. Since they bought the pub a year or so ago it's been gently tarted up, given a grey-blue wash of paint and the kitchen uses produce grown in one of the village's kitchen gardens.
And then there's my role. I persuade the chef to come and then I wait tables with the staff. It gives me a brief insight as to what it's like on the other side. The critic gets a taste of his own medicine. Ish. I reckon the punters are lucky to have the chance to eat the food of some of London's great chefs and others. So they'd better like their three-course meal, pay up, say thank you and tell everyone what a marvellous waiter I am.
Speaking of which it was a hot evening. Matt, who you'll know from occasional stand-ins for James Martin on ITV's Saturday Kitchen, and from presenting shows like Food Unwrapped on Channel 4, has a pub in Monmouthshire called the Foxhunter as well as a column on Britain's best-loved food magazine (Waitrose Kitchen, of course). And he's a damn fine chef.
From his steaming pass I took out smoked eel with pork belly, herby leaves and crispy little onion rings. It's a wonderful dish - deep, rich flavours and great textures. Then came pink lamb cutlets with seasonal veg then a strawberry pud. Matt signed copies of his book Guilty Pleasures then the nutty kitchen porters - bright undergraduates of course - and I and the team downed tequilas and celebrated a top night.
Aldo Zilli is up next on July 10. There'll be his lobster spaghetti dish among others. Those lucky villagers, with their pitch forks and side burns...
The other major moment of scoffing this week was at The Taste of London Festival in Regents Park. The opening night was as balmy as fine as the organisers could only have dreamed of. Crammed together in tents were some of the capital's top restaurants so that you can go from Le Gavroche to Bar Bouloud via Club Gascon via Duck & Waffle getting a taste of what eating there would be like if you had the intelligence to work out how to actually book a table.
Because my stomach doesn't appreciate being a receptacle for 30 different types of cuisine within the space of two hours I like to choose one place and settle in for a bit, which I know isn't the point, but I'm not a very good herdy cow.
So this year I ventured upon the wonderful L'Anima stall and consumed wonderful fettuccine with peas and ridiculous amounts of shaved truffles, a spicy chicken dish and then richly, deeply gorgeous tiramisu. They even gave me a real and big glass of wine. Which made me feel very special as the hordes about me put plastic to their lips.
Francesca Mazzei is a wonderful chef, his team a lively set of dark and hairy bees. Travel into the city and munch at his place. You'll leave happy, which is surely the whole point.Suggest a correction