EATING FOR BRITAIN: A DAY IN THE KITCHEN AT RULES
With the writing for EATING FOR BRITAIN well under way, it is interesting to see what sort of picture is being formed of Britain past and present by its food. It is not meant to be a history book. There would be little point to that when Colin Spencer has already completed that mammoth task better than anyone else has and probably ever will. However, amongst what I hope will be amusing and readable chapters of my journeys to meet producers, chefs, farmers and shop owners, I hope there will still be enough information to form a worthwhile opinion about the way we eat in the UK.
While the notion that the Industrial Revolution and rationing fractured links to a glorious past of rural abundance and recipes passed from grandmother to mother to daughter may be far fetched, so is the idea that all strata of society viewed food as fuel and of function rather than of beauty. Feasting and fine dining may have only been the pleasures of the wealthy few, but that does not mean they did not exist. Just as they do today for those who wander around, er Borough Market to buy their produce.
You will thank God that there is actually a point to this, as a little over a week ago, I spent a day in the kitchen of a restaurant which truly does have links with our past, Rules. Opened two hundred and fifteen years ago as an Oyster house, Rules was a last chance for Thomas Rule who had led what their history calls a “wayward” life. Over the years, it seems to have maintained that slightly louche appeal and it is little wonder that King Edward VII made it his venue for a bit of rough with Lilly Langtry.
I have always been a fan of Rules, even as it went through a down period in the 1990’s when waiters wandered around with mini computers taking your orders and some wines were listed as “from the former colonies” Now, after considerable refurbishment and the opening of London’s best cocktail bar, it seems to have regained much of it’s former glory. The kitchen too had its challenges until five years ago, when the owner, John Mayhew brought in Richard Sawyer as Head Chef. Richard, is the sort of “old school” chef whose food I always love to eat, with years at the Savoy followed by almost as many working with Michel Bourdin at The Connaught behind him before he finally pitched up at Rules.
I had asked Richard if he and his crew could show me how to make two dishes for my book; Potted Shrimps and Steak & Kidney Pudding. Staples of the Rules menu for just about ever, these dishes really do have a link with our past. The earliest cookery manuals giving advice on potting for preservation and Hannah Glasse's instructions on how to make a good beef & oyster pudding are precious little different to making the ones I would see today.
Richard was already monitoring deliveries when I arrived and half of the thirty-person brigade were at their sections preparing for the fully booked lunchtime service. I was soon dressed in whites and then spent the next seven hours wandering around the kitchen trying not to get in anyone’s way as I flashed away with my camera and recorded video footage of the dishes being made.
You can see from my pictures and videos that, while I certainly saw the two dishes I had come in search of being prepared, thanks to the generosity of Senior Sous Chef’s Paul and Gary, I also saw a whole lot more during my time in the kitchen. The first thing that struck me was how quiet the place was with little shouting as people got on with their tasks in a hugely professional manner. The second was the quality of the ingredients, delivered in a constant stream down a steel chute from street level to await inspection by Richard. Whole Salmon, Plaice and Halibut ready to be trimmed by Richard himself. Lobsters from Scotland and The Scilly Isles, Beef from Rules's own closed herd of Belted Galloway and young grouse and roe deer from their own Lartington Estate. It’s impressive stuff and, as Richard himself put it
“If you can’t get excited about ingredients like this, you must be dead”
As the lunch service approached, I watched the two dishes I had come to see being prepared and the care both Paul and Gary took confirmed to me why they usually form my first two choices whenever I visit Rules. While I knew they were well made, in my ignorance, I had little idea that so much work went into making the relatively small portions that make it onto the plate.
When it came time to choose my own lunch, however, I shied away from my normal choices and turned my attention to the fabulous looking grouse that sat in the cool room ready to be roasted. I am one of those people who like their game to taste of game, so the notion of eating grouse a mere nine days after The Glorious 12th would normally not appeal, but when Paul showed me one plated up ready to head to the restaurant, I changed my mind and asked for one of my own, which they offered me as their guest.
It had been pan fried on each side to take on some colour and then just roasted for fifteen minutes and rested for a further ten minutes until the flesh was a perfect and consistent pink. It was topped off with bacon andsat on a bed of hispi cabbage sweated off with chestnuts and lardons. Traditionally, the livers would have been served with the grouse, but at Rules they use a duck liver pate and then serve the bird with the classic accompaniments of Madeira sauce, game chips, breadcrumbs, Cumberland sauce and bread sauce topped with a thick slick of clarified butter. Quite frankly, it's superb stuff and I stood at the pass gnawing at the bones and spooning the sauces into my mouth until I realised that I was in the way of service.
My time in the kitchen at Rules was coming to an end. I stopped for half an hour to watch Richard trimming three large saddles of Roe deer, removing every last scrap of meat until what remained looked like the result of a piranha attack. Then I did a quick round of the kitchen to say a heartfelt “thank you” for the good humour and generosity of the staff as I asked stupid questions and got in the way
I am hoping that my time at Rules will make an interesting chapter for the book, but what I am certain of is that after my time there, I shall never look at the restaurant or the dishes that come from its kitchen in quite the same way ever again.