Starters

Starters

By
Mark Hix
Contains
9 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781844003921
Photographer
Jason Lowe

I like to give customers the feeling that the minute they set eyes on the menu they know exactly what time of the year it is. The starter menu, in particular, lends itself perfectly to adapting with the seasons.

Starters are a great platform for celebratory ingredients, such as our homegrown asparagus, which I always feature strongly. Indeed, I think nothing of having four asparagus dishes on the menu during the vegetable’s short late spring/early summer season. Fortunately, the season isn’t quite as short as it used to be, now that our asparagus growers are doing their utmost to bring their crops on earlier and stretch them out a bit at the other end of the season.

Gull’s eggs are one of my favourite ingredients and, like asparagus, they herald the arrival of spring. They featured on our opening menu in April 2008 along with asparagus and elvers. Another popular inclusion on the starter menu is my home-cured smoked salmon. At the height of the summer, tomatoes have a well-deserved place on the menu. Heritage tomatoes served with lovage leaves and rapeseed oil, or with little nuggets of goat’s cheese and pickled walnuts, make a perfect summer first course.

Many of our starters are given seasonal tweaks through the year. Fried duck’s eggs, for example, are topped with anything from tiny sprue asparagus spears and broad beans to duck livers, black pudding and spider crab. Introducing seasonal ingredients in this manner keeps the menu fresh and appealing.

De Beauvoir smoked salmon – Hix cure

Before we opened the Oyster & Chop House, I decided that I needed to have something on the menu that would stand out as an artisan dish. I had recently come across a smoker by Bradley, an American company, and started playing around with cold-smoked salmon.

I asked Richard Cook at the Severn and Wye smokery for a bit of friendly advice on curing and settled on a mix of industrial rock salt and molasses sugar – dry curing the fish, rather as you would to make a gravadlax. From Bradley’s range of smoking bisquettes, I opted for a mix of oak and apple wood. On my first attempt I liked the flavour so much that I haven’t bothered to experiment with any other options since.

Admittedly, early on I did have a few disasters with my cold-smoking, resulting in a number of hot-smoked trials as the heat of the smoking element gradually cooked the fish. However, installing a metre length of galvanised ducting between the smoke generator and the cabinet containing the fish fillets solved the problem.

The provenance of the fish was, of course, important. As Loch Duart freedom food salmon was already on the menu, I used fillets from the smaller fish that were delivered from day one. I’ve tweaked the smoking times along the way; the smoking cabinet is quite small – the size of a small domestic fridge – so the salmon needs less time than it would in a large-scale commercial smoker. Generally, I leave the fish in for 5 or 6 hours, or overnight depending what time I go to bed, that is ...

Smoking your own salmon certainly makes you appreciate what a real artisan smoker does, although these days most of our smoke houses are electronically operated by a computerised system. There are, however, still a few around that operate in the old-fashioned way.

Believe it or not, I smoke my fish in my back garden in De Beauvoir, Hackney. Initially the neighbours were quite suspicious about me carrying salmon to the bottom of the garden with my fishing headlamp on. But they do like the salmon and the smoker itself doesn’t actually give out much smoke – no more than a few people having a fag at the bottom of the garden.

From the beginning, I sliced the salmon Scandinavian-style, almost vertically, cutting it into slices about 3 mm thick. This way you really get to taste the fish and enjoy the smoky flavour, which is rarely possible with the ubiquitous paper-thin slices that you can see the plate through.

Not only has my smoked salmon become very popular with our restaurant customers, fellow chefs have shown an interest, too. Even my mate Richard Corrigan now has it on his menu.

Recipes in this Chapter

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