James Martin
Monday, 30 November -0001

‘No bacon sandwich will ever be as good as my granny’s...’

From home comforts to the bugbear of hospital meals, no-nonsense TV chef James Martin talks to Melonie Clarke about two decades in the limelight

Written by Melonie Clarke
Sausage and mash with beans, my mum’s cheese scones warm from the oven, and my grandad’s homemade pickled onions: all these come to mind when I think about home comforts. And according to much-loved British chef James Martin, we could all do with more of them.

Following on from his latest BBC series, Martin’s new book, Home Comforts, lives up to its title, featuring everything from simple pie and mash to fancier fare. But what is his ultimate feel-good dish? ‘Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding,’ he says.

His fondest memories are also of comfort food. ‘My grandmother’s bacon sandwiches,’ he exclaims. ‘She used to get the bread from Marks & Spencer… She used to butter it with Lurpak, which she put under the grill so it just melted. It wasn’t that spreadable poncey stuff you get nowadays, and it was proper bacon from a butcher in Petergate, York. It was cooked on an old gas enamel grill, with the red knobs on it: the best bacon sandwich I have ever eaten in my life.’

Even though he claims he still can’t replicate it, he has included a recipe in the book. ‘No bacon sandwich will ever be as good as my granny’s bacon sandwich.’

With Christmas mere weeks away, what will be on his menu? ‘I don’t really do turkey. Being a pig farmer’s kid, we have to have roast pork and roast beef on the table. That’s not to say that there won’t be some turkey, for the older people, but I’m not a great fan of it. It won’t be on my dinner plate. My mum comes down, and if I didn’t have Christmas pudding or mince pies there would be hell.’

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‘Also smoked salmon and prawns,’ he continues. ‘There would also be hell if I didn’t have that. There are certain things that you can’t do without, like a cold ham so everyone can dive in when they want a sandwich.’

And of course, he’ll be doing the cooking. ‘I will be cooking in the kitchen and I am looking forward to it. I don’t want people to get stressed out at Christmas, so it is much easier for me to do it – quick and simple.’

Given his farming background, it’s no surprise that whatever he is cooking, be it a bacon sandwich or a roast, it’s produce from local businesses all the way.

‘I was just with farmers working in Penrith, and you realise how important it is and how fragile farming has become. We have to support them in the restaurant business and people should support them at home. Local butchers are few and far between, so the ones that are there, we have to look after them. It’s usually a tradition that has lasted 50 or 100 years, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

‘As a farmer’s kid, I wouldn’t be allowed out of my house if I wasn’t promoting British farming.’

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Demand for cheaper food, he believes, is putting extra strain on our local producers. ‘You have only got to speak to producers, which I do on a regular basis, to realise what pressure they are under today with these big supermarkets. As a nation we want cheaper and cheaper food, but there must be a limit, because otherwise we get problems like the horse-meat scandal, and we will get more of that if we continue to go down that route. There is no such thing as cheap food. Certainly no such thing as cheap good food.’

This is not the only foodie cause he takes seriously, having spent the last five years trying to improve the food in our hospitals. ‘Don’t even get me started on that. Five years and I’m still working on it…

‘Honestly, you are dealing with idiots at a higher level. [Secretary of State for Health] Jeremy Hunt sent a tweet to thank Jamie Oliver for all of the hard work he has done with hospitals – he can’t even get my name right. It’s hysterical. If that’s the muppet you’re dealing with, and he will be replaced by another muppet… Do they really care? I wouldn’t mind, but I spent five years doing it and I’ll continue to do it. I don’t do it for any money; there is no financial gain for me whatsoever. I’m just trying to save money and serve better food.

‘It’s not a magic wand where I’m going to give you £5m and things will be better. It’s not about that; it’s about teaching people. To change anything in business, you don’t chuck money at it. Fundamentally, teaching and training people is the most valuable tool – and that costs nothing.

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‘People have been writing recipes and saying do this, when half the hospitals that I’ve been to don’t have grills. You can’t physically do most things because of where the kitchens are in relation to the hospital.

‘It’s a very difficult organisation and not an easy fix. After five years I am still scratching my head. With the help of all the other great people that work at the NHS, amazing stuff could be done. If they all started talking to each other that would be brilliant.’

Having been on our screens for nearly 20 years, does he find being a TV chef gets easier with each series? ‘There are a lot more [TV chefs] than when I first started. The restaurant industry has changed, and certainly the TV food industry has changed. But I stick by my guns. I think TV is a powerful medium, in terms of teaching, in imparting knowledge and also in changing people’s lives. The problem with TV now is that it is all about them [the chef] and not about food. I always say that the food has got to come first, and that’s why with Home Comforts we just cook food that people like, as simple as that.’

Home Comforts, by James Martin, is published by Quadrille, priced £20.

Smoked salmon, prawn and cucumber mousse

Serves 6

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  • a little rapeseed oil
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled and very finely sliced
  • 400g unsliced smoked salmon, chopped
  • juice of 1 lemon, or to taste, plus lemon wedges to serve
  • 200g full-fat cream cheese
  • 450ml double cream
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 300g cooked prawns, shelled and deveined
  • 50g watercress
  • 6 cooked tiger prawns in the shell
  • melba toast, to serve

Use a little rapeseed oil to oil a shallow 22cm diameter, 4.5cm deep savarin mould, then line with cling film, making sure it overlaps the mould all the way around.

Layer most of the cucumber into the mould, overlapping the slices as if they were fish scales, so that they cover all of the inside of the mould. Set aside.

Put the chopped smoked salmon into a food processor with the lemon juice and blitz until smooth. Add the cream cheese and blitz once more, then, with the food processor running, slowly add the double cream until the mixture is thickened and smooth. Season with salt and pepper and adjust the lemon juice to taste.

Carefully spoon half the mixture into the cucumberlined mould. Top with half the prawns, then cover with the remaining mousse.

Smooth it flat with a palette knife and cover the top with the remaining cucumber. Pull the cling film up to cover, then place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until ready to serve.

Peel back the cling film, then place the mould upside down on a serving plate. Gently lift off the mould and peel back the cling film.

Pile the watercress and remaining prawns into the centre of the mould. Decorate with the tiger prawns. Serve with wedges of lemon and plenty of melba toast.


LEBANESE SPICED LAMB FLATBREAD

Serves 8

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For the pizza dough
  • 400g ‘00’ flour, plus more to dust
  • 100g semolina flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1½ tsp caster sugar
  • 7g sachet fast-action yeast
  • 325ml warm water

For the filling

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground baharat spice mix
  • 500g minced lamb
  • 75g sultanas
  • 300ml chicken stock
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 250ml natural yogurt
  • 2 green chillies, finely chopped
  • leaves from 4 sprigs of mint 
  • leaves from 16 sprigs of coriander

Start the day before by making the dough. Place the flours, salt and sugar into a large bowl and stir. Mix the yeast with a little of the water in a jug to form a paste, then add the rest of the water to the jug, so that the yeast is dissolved into the water.

Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the yeasted water, gradually mixing to form a soft dough.

Tip out and knead on a lightly floured work surface until smooth and elastic.

Divide into four and roll each into a ball, then place on a tray, cover and leave to rise for 24 hours.

For the filling, heat a sauté pan until hot, add the oil, shallot, garlic and spices and cook for 2 minutes, then add the lamb and cook over a high heat, turning frequently and breaking up with the spoon, until browned.

Add the sultanas and chicken stock and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes until the lamb is tender and the liquid virtually gone. Season to taste, then allow to cool totally.

Preheat the oven to as high as it will go. Place a heavy baking tray or pizza stone in the oven and allow to heat.

Roll each piece of dough out on a lightly floured surface into an oval roughly 20 x 15cm, and about 5mm thick, then place on to an upturned, floured baking tray.

Cover the dough bases with the lamb mixture, then evenly scatter over the yogurt and chillies and season with salt and pepper.

Place on the heated tray or stone (you may have to cook them in batches) and cook for 5 to 10 minutes until golden and crispy. Scatter with the herbs and serve immediately.

 




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