Right, get your coats because I’m taking you out. In fact, grab your snorkel, a medical kit and some spare undies too because we’re going on a culinary adventure. Some parts you’ll enjoy more than others but I warn you, we’ll be making pit stops in Weird-ville and Crazytown on the way.
South African born Ernst Van Zyl has recently brought molecular gastronomy to Etrop Grange near Manchester airport using culinary techniques he’s learnt from stages spent cooking at The Fat Duck and Noma, the top restaurants in the world. Next year, he’s off again to absorb some of the genius behind the 2 Michelin starred Franzén Lindeberg in Sweden, before heading off to work a few weeks at L’Enclume. He’s like a sponge-carrying magpie, flitting off and soaking up knowledge before bringing it back to the Etrop’s kitchens.
He wasn’t going to be cooking from the a la carte menu during busy December but had announced an ambitious collaboration with ‘DineInOut’ a new private dining club based in South Manchester and Cheshire. This was hosted by number one Etrop fan and Ernst ‘fanzilla’ Tania Harvey, who had requested a special menu inspired by ‘The 12 days of Christmas’. Never one to shirk a challenge, Ernst had agreed to cook this 12 course extravaganza for 12 diners.
Each course wasn’t going to be presented in chronological order, so we were all asked to guess which dish alluded to which verse. I’ll tell you what each one was here and thanks to Joby’s lovely photographs, I shan’t add too much lavish description. However, some dishes inspired rather more commentary than others.
As we had 12 courses to get through, the first few dishes were understandably designed to be small and light. First up ‘Eight Maids a Milking’ - a goat’s milk marshmallow with quince purée and fennel seed granola.
The milk marshmallow was pretty much like straight up egg white but livened up with the hit of tangy goat’s cheese dotted underneath and the textural work out provided by the savoury granola.
Course two turned out to be ‘Four Calling Birds’. Duck leg confit bonbons, one coated in an orange glaze, and one encased in white chocolate and hazelnuts.
Now, I’m aware that these progressive chefs like to break down the neural networks usually associated with certain flavour combinations - duck with orange, yes, very good, but white chocolate? I closed my eyes and tried to enter a transcendental state in order to introduce these previously unconnected flavours to each other, but by the time I’d opened them again the white chocolate had put knuckle dusters on and beaten the shit out of the poor duck which was cowering on the opposite side of my tastebuds. Put it this way, Magnum won’t be putting out a special duck confit edition any time soon.
Next, Eleven Piper’s Piping. Hay Espuma with toasted wild rice and celeriac. A light nutty cream which had been piped onto a cling-wrapped, smoke-filled glass bowl.
It all got a bit playful at this point as the room filled up with the heady smell of smoke associated with a roaring winter fire and we were all soon tapping the tops to see who could get the best smoke rings.
Course 4, Turtle Doves. Tender roast breast of pigeon with thin slivers of salsify, almond and a cranberry wafer.
All together now, ‘Five Go-old Rings’ - this course most reflected Ernst’s Michelin starred work experience. Rings of golden beetroot in two forms; one juiced and set into pliable rings with gelling agent, and the other thinly pared, crunchy and pickled.
The golden theme was continued in the form of crumbled Blackstick’s blue cheese, passionfruit and edible gold dust. All quite simple until you work out the staggering number of processes that has gone into this dish.
Six Geese-A-Laying was Foie Gras ice cream on a bed of apple puree with Granny Smith granita and salted peanut brittle.
I’ve got to be honest, this was pretty tough to get down. Goose liver doesn’t release it’s creamy, unctuous density in frozen form. I won’t be raiding the freezer section of my local Saino’s to chew on their pate range in the near future. Perhaps if Ernst discovered a way to incorporate the salted peanut brittle without losing the crunch, it might work better - but keeping it above 0c would definitely work better.
The arrival of course 7 was pre-fixed by a mysterious Alice in Wonderland like syringe labelled ‘Squirt Me’.
‘Three French Hens’ inspired a well flavoured chicken consomme with mushroom and leek. The syringe contained cauliflower puree which, once released from the syringe, became cauliflower ‘noodles’. It was very immature of ‘someone’ to try and pipe the word ‘bum’ into their soup bowl with their syringe, so sorry about that *avoids eye contact*.
The soup was accompanied by Ernst’s delicious, warm sourdough bread.
Nine Ladies Dancing came along for course 8 in the form of warm ‘Queen’ scallops with pumpkin, chorizo and buttermilk. Just saying it out loud has a touch of the fairytale about it.
Now, here we are, at what turned out to be the most challenging course both for Chef and diner. Seven Swans-A-Swimming was bound to cause a little difficulty what as swans are the official property of HRH and absolutely illegal to kill or eat. Ernst decided to concentrate on the ‘swimming’ part and presented salmon which had been slowly cooked in a water bath at 42c with grapefruit and tiny enoki mushrooms.
The waiter had surreptitiously been spraying the room with some kind of grapefruit diffusion beforehand to add to the atmosphere and this course was like a snapshot of Edwardian opulence. I have to admit though, if I never have to eat salmon encased in softly toasted Italian meringue on a blue seaweed jelly lake again, I won’t be too sorry. However, there is a good idea in here somewhere. Sweet-cured salmon is delicious, and I once successfully experimented with a poppyseed macaron filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese for a canape. This however, I’m sure Ernst himself would agree, needs
throwing away a little more work.
Course 10 turned out to be one of the highlights and again, contained flavour combinations I’d never have matched before, but this time, with more harmonious results.
Lords-A-Leaping, Tatton park venison tartare, oyster emulsion with parsley, grape and black olive. Highlighting this dish like a lurid yellowy green marker, was pine resin or Christmas Tree jelly. Now, what with Ernst’s Scandinavian culinary influences and it being the appropriate season, I guessed this would make an appearance somewhere and, as I’ve never had the urge to knock back the toilet duck, I was worried.
Well, I needn’t have been. I’m not saying this should be mass marketed and spread lavishly on crispbread, but it worked well with the black olive puree to add a bitter sweetness, a little like pickled lemons or limes, to cut through the mass of raw venison. After the meal I asked Ernst how this was made and he proceeded to explain a hugely complicated sounding process involving ‘Vitamix’, ‘warmth which acts as an extractor’, ‘muslin bag overnight’.
I was getting a bit concerned as we’d reached course 11 and I wasn’t sure I’d be left satiated without some hot proteinous main event. So here it came, the one bit of the song that we all remember, A Partridge in a Pear Tree.
Pan Fried breast of partridge with roast pears, Jerusalem artichokes (hallelujah, I love these under-rated roots) and tiny pine infused preserved pear drops. All of which was served on a vibrant purple smear of red cabbage puree (the secret to keeping the colour is in the addition of ascorbic acid #geekfact)
Course 12, pudding time. Over the course of the evening, we’d all been trying to guess which dish correlated to which verse with varying degrees of success. I was still wrongly waiting for dancing ladies, yet what arrived was 12 Drummers Drumming.
Ernst had set a thin, translucent shard of sugar over a dish which we were to bang on like a drum revealing…..well, nothing really. Oh no, hang on, further peering into the dish revealed tiny Lilliputian sized cubes of gingerbread and a Pontipine sized orange jelly. We were given a jug of bitter chocolate sauce to pour over it. Call me greedy, call me a Northerner, but even after 12 courses, I still prefer my puddings to have a higher carb to air ratio.
Fortunately, along came a gorgeous looking bonus platter of petit fours. Blood orange pastilles, pink peppercorn Madeleines (another successful unusual flavour combo) and dark chocolate and popping candy truffles.
So, an epic write up of an epic feast. Some of the dishes were more successful than others but hats off to Chef Ernst who was brave enough to take up such a culinary gauntlet thrown down in the middle of the silly season. Each of his dishes contained touches of Winter fairy tale magic in the forms of gingerbread, pine, pumpkins and wood smoke. I think there is a risk in getting carried away with the infinite possibilities when trying to create new flavour combinations, but I for one will always support a talented creative that gives it a good go.
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