The Adventures of Gin Squirrel: Tasting Menu at Etrop Grange
So it seems that I think I am the Queen. Like Her Majesty, I like to make my birthday last as long as possible. The fourth and final celebration for this momentous occasion (ok, not exactly that momentous, I only turned 24) was to have my very own 5 course taster menu at Etrop Grange. I had been in touch with head chef, Ernst van Zyl for a while due to the ever-addictive forum of Twitter, and he had very kindly offered to make my culinary dreams come true. I would be a fool to turn it down, so I badgered my parents into taking me on a night of fine dining.
Dressed up to the nines, we took our seats at a warm table in the corner and surveyed the menu. Over a deliciously zingy bottle of Bishop’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc, we took turns in guessing how we thought each dish would be presented. Of course, we got it wrong every time. Ernst is nothing short of a genius, his extensive training at the Fat Duck, Noma and Le Manoir (to name but a few) was apparent in every dish. Speculating was futile, so I sat back in my chair, wine in hand and waited for the dishes to arrive.
First up was a dish not on the menu. A small, smoke-filled jar was placed in front of me, which when I opened revealed a tiny egg shell atop a nest of hay. This small, ‘amuse bouche’ was duck egg custard with soy sauce and pineapple. Whilst I am not a fan of eggs, I was intrigued so in went my spoon. The flavour was buttery and rich, very filling for such a small morsel.
Back to the menu, and we were served a braised pigs cheek. The plate arrived which was so beautifully presented; I was instantly hit by the sweetness of apples. Little discs of chorizo, orbs of apple atop a streak of apple puree surrounded what I can only describe as a little sleeping alien. This was in fact the pigs cheek, encased in layers of Stowford Press cider gel. This was a modern take on pork with apple sauce, using a variety of textures and flavours to create a really interesting dish. The sharpness of the apples, the slight smoke from the chorizo complimented the meaty cheek perfectly. Oh, I was in for a treat!
Next we had poached leek with avocado, shallots and salted peanut butter. A slate arrived, with slices of leek surrounded by beads of avocado, a perfect shallot, strips of red onion with a smattering of peanut crumble sprinkled over it. This was quite a surprising combination, but boy did it work. The creaminess of the puree and the buttery leeks were offset by the salty crunch from the peanut crumble and the tingly heat of the red onion that made my nose quiver.
Onto the main course: duck. This was the only dish that was a surprise to me, and I am so glad that it was. A thick, pink breast sat in a pool of gingerbread puree, whilst tiny broccoli shoots, wafer thin quince slices and gingerbread croutons danced around it. A generous wedge of poached quince (a fruit Ernst grew up with in his homeland of South Africa) was surrounded by watercress puree. Duck and ginger is not a marriage I would ever have considered, however it was heavenly. We all agreed that the tiny pieces of gingerbread were the best we’d ever tasted, rich and treacly. My mum commented it was like her grandmother used to make, instantly transported back to her childhood. We also all agreed that the quince was a very underestimated fruit. Caught somewhere between a pear and a lemon this was a great addition to the plate.
Then there was the pomegranate dish. A combination of fresh pomegranate seeds, pomegranate puree and hay custard were piped on top of Roobios tea puree, decorated by thin parmesan crisps, wild rice, black olives and Nasturtium flowers. This was my favourite dish of the night, so beautiful, so delicate, so creamy, I couldn’t get enough! The olives and parmesan added an essential saltiness to cut through the cream, the Roobios tea added a floral note, whilst the Nasturtium flowers had a peppery flavour akin to rocket or watercress. The wild rice tasted like Sugar Puffs which I loved as a child. I’ll be honest, had I been at home I would have licked the plate clean.
And to the finale: Araguani chocolate soup. When I read the ingredients for this dish (bitter chocolate, pineapple, goats milk and curry) I was rather alarmed. Chocolate and curry, really? The bowl arrived, a ribbon of pineapple puree on the side, ending with a spoon of goat’s milk sorbet made 2 minutes prior thanks to liquid nitrogen (hello Heston!). Atop this was a pineapple crisp, and shards of goat’s milk paper adorned the puree like mountains, along with tiny cubes of curried pineapple. Where was the chocolate I hear you ask? It came in a jug, warm and rich which Ernst himself poured into my bowl, the sorbet instantly weakening to the chocolate’s heat. The bowl was then filled with a sweet, creamy two-tone pool (which I of course filled with yet more chocolate!). The pineapple tasted like sweet stem ginger, very moreish and a delicious accompaniment for the rich chocolate. Well let me tell you, this was just incredible and that jug of chocolate did not last long!
If this wasn’t enough, a birthday cake (organised by my sneaky mother) was brought to me, along with petit fours: liquorice chocolate, black olive fudge, sweet madelines and some form of squidgy pineapple that we ate before we knew what they were. It’s safe to say, I had definitely saved the best birthday experience to last, as I was thoroughly spoilt.
The beauty of the dishes lie in the flavour and texture combinations. With every mouthful you could create different adventures, the pure artistry of each meal a delight to all of the senses. I would like to thank Ernst and his team for providing such fabulous food. This was more than just a meal; it was an experience. And definitely one I would like to repeat.