There are times in life when you get shown exactly where you are in the food chain.
Compared to some people you are attractive, talented and clever, whilst compared to others you are an ugly knuckle dragging Orc who can’t string a sentence together and know nothing. Some people may describe you as a thoroughbred racehorse, others, an old nag.
I initially experienced this on my first day of secondary school at around the same time I became familiar with the phrase ‘small fish in a big pond’. I got this feeling once again after meeting Mary-Ellen McTague and Lawrence Tottingham, chef/owners of Aumbry in Prestwich, Manchester.
I love learning about techniques and ingredients, and I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t cook for a couple of days. Social media has pushed my knowledge of the current food world up to ‘Mastermind specialist subject’ proportions, but what I wouldn’t give to have just a couple of hours poking around inside Mary-Ellen’s head and grabbing some tips.
Mary-Ellen has a pure professional pedigree, an enviable kitchen bloodline. With no formal catering qualifications, she abandoned a degree in languages to begin as housekeeper at the perpetually Michelin starred Sharrow Bay. Soon, she became the first woman to work in their kitchen, met her husband Lawrence, and learnt on the job. After two years, she managed to clinch a two-week trial at the Fat Duck where she remained for the next four years.
A desire to be closer to their families brought them both back up north where she began working at the highly acclaimed Ramson’s in Ramsbottom before making the bold move, with Lawrence, to open their own establishment, Aumbry, in October 2009.
I used to live in Prestwich, so why did two ex-Heston Blumenthal trained chefs wait until I’d moved to the other side of Manchester before setting up in my teenage stomping ground? However, we deemed our 6th wedding anniversary to be good enough reason to return northwards.
I thought it fortuitous to bring along an offering to culinary gods so I picked a bunch of fresh lovage from my garden and tied it with a bow. Our table was booked for 9.30pm, and we got there an hour early to drop the bouquet off at Aumbry before popping in to my old local ‘The Church Inn’ for a gorgeous pint of Marble beer and a listen to the gloriously unchanged Manchester-biased juke box.
At Aumbry, we were lead upstairs to a seating area and given cheese gougers and home cooked salt and pepper crisps, together with two glasses of chilled champagne kindly offered by Mary-Ellen as a thank you for the lovage.
I explained to my husband that the left-hand side of the menu was the a la carte and the right hand side suggested a 10 course tasting menu for £55. He shut his menu and picked up his drink. ‘But we can’t have that’ I said, with hope in my eyes and trembling lips, ‘it’s £55….each!…and then of course’ I threw in casually, ’there’s a wine-matching option for each course, which is another £35 on top…’ He was clearly having a ‘Sultan of Brunei’ moment as he waved my concerns away with his hand and sealed the deal by saying ‘it’s our anniversary, you should have more sense of occasion Deanna.’
I just want to add a few words here explaining a ‘tasting menu’ for those unfamiliar with the concept. Our family has a legendary story about taking grandpa for ‘nouvelle cuisine’ only to have him complain loudly in between each of the many tiny courses that there ‘wasn’t enough to fill a budgie’s tummy.’ A tasting menu offers smaller portions of several dishes which provide the kitchen with an opportunity to showcase their abilities. To me, this was an edible adventure, like Alice in Wonderland opening tiny doors to delicious plates of miniature food with made great intensity and culinary flare.
Firstly, we were offered some home-made bread. A small silver cloched butter dish revealed two perfectly formed miniature domes of whipped butter – Jersey with Maldon salt and nut brown butter which tasted subtly sweet.
Course 1 – Cumbrian Beef & Horseradish Roulade with ramson & bone marrow croquette and a grenadine reduction.
Paired with Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 2009
Course 2 – Home Smoked Mackerel with poached rhubarb, mustard cream & toasted rye bread.
Paired with Chablis ‘Le Grand Bois’ grande Chaume 2008
Course 3 – Bury Black pudding Scotch Egg with mushroom relish and tomato ketchup (yes, home-made, not bloody Heinz!)
Paired with Bardolino Custoza 2009 (worked well with the tannins but, for the same reason, would have worked equally well with a nice cup of tea)
Course 4 – Potato & Wild Garlic Soup with extra virgin Olive oil.
Paired with Kali Gi Athiri 2009
Course 5 – Pearl Barley Kedgeree with poached quails eggs & crispy shallot rings (so light and fine that a mere baby’s breath could have shattered them into powder) and milk foam.
Paired with Chateau St Michelle Chardonnay 2008
Course 6 – an extra course – Poached plaice with wood sorrel, chervil powder, steamed suet oyster pudding and fennel puree.
Of course there was a beautifully matched wine pairing but forgive me..(hic)..for not making note of it.
Course 7 - Roast Breast of Guinea Fowl, parcel of the leg & Jerusalem artichoke.
Paired with Argiolas Costera Cannonau di Sardegna 2007
Course 8 – British & Irish cheeses with homemade fig, tomato and pear chutneys served with oat cakes.
Paired with Gewurztraminer Late Harvest 2006 & Krohn Colheita port 1978
At this point the details were becoming blurred but I shall try to do it justice.
Course 9 – an extra course - Elderflower Panna Cotta with some kind of delicious strawberries and a buttery biscuit thing.
Paired with more Gewurztraminer as above
Course 10 – Almond crisp with chocolate mousse, griottine cherries & cocoa sorbet.
My husband was offered crepes layered with rich apple crème patisserie and, er.. (really, you have to forgive me for forgetting the details at this point, it was all getting a bit loose)
Served with Malbec Dulce Naturale Jean Bousquet
Naturally, by now, we were so full that (much to my disappointment) I couldn’t manage the hazelnut and rosemary truffle petit fours and I couldn’t slip them into my handbag as they were dusted with cocoa.
So all in all our meal consisted of over 50 complicated components, each made by processes using involved methods, and all made and cooked in a tiny room, smaller than the average domestic kitchen. Aumbry is a rarity in Manchester, we are lucky to have it. Go, I urge you to support our own home grown talent.
Now here comes the punch line. Mary Ellen and Lawrence are managing to produce this consistently high standard of intricate food and run their own restaurant whilst they also have a 6 month old baby and a toddler. Despite having a wonderful and much-appreciated circle of supportive family to help, after a busy service running the pass, Mary-Ellen still has to go home and take on the 24 hour demands of being a mother. This is just one of the reasons I ended up being pulled backwards out of the door and into a taxi, repeatedly referring to Mary-Ellen as a hero and an inspiration until well into the journey home.