You could never accuse Ludlow culinary maestro Will Holland of being a ‘country bumpkin’ chef, says Richard McComb.
Pigs in general might not fly but the suckling variety most certainly do in Ludlow.
Ever since head chef Will Holland devised his tasting plate of piglet, it has been flying out of the kitchen at La Bécasse. There are five melty elements – loin, head, shoulder, ear and a farci. Yes, ear. Some chefs make a pig’s ear of their cooking; Holland cooks with them.
The sweetmeat is served with spring cabbage and sage, so there’s nothing too whacky there. But because Holland is Holland, there is a twist. In place of classic apple there is chargrilled nectarine – and a crumbling of Amaretti biscuits. There’s a subtle differentness, done for the enhancement of the dish, not for pretty-boy frivolity. Holland leaves that for gastronomy’s arrivistes.
It’s an odd thing to write about a chef who is still only 31 (well, that’s what he claims) but Holland works and speaks with a measured maturity. He opened La Bécasse in July 2007 for chef/restaurateur Alan Murchison and picked up a Michelin star in January 2009. He could have gone it alone by now and set up his own restaurant but it would have been out of vanity, he says. Everyone knows La Bécasse is Will Holland’s restaurant. If it originally was Murchison’s baby, the adoption papers were signed long ago. Holland, who looks like a cross between a skinhead and choir boy, is the daddy.
Before another busy dinner service, the chef enthuses about the produce available near his kitchen in Corve Street. The suckling pig, which I will try later, is from Bryn Derw farm in Llandinam, Powys, about 40 miles away. Chris and Diane Jones had not reared suckling pigs before, but agreed to have a go when Holland, a fan of their natural farming philosophy, said he thought the product would be a winner.
The Jones, who have banned the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives, now supply several pigs every few weeks to La Bécasse. The dish was so popular one week that the chef put an emergency order for a fourth animal and the Jones brought it over.
Holland says: “It is such a privilege to have a relationship with suppliers like that. For a chef, that is quite exciting. It is the sort of thing that chefs get off on – ingredients.”
The pig’s head is boned and rolled, soaked in brine for two days and cooked. “It’s the best crackling you have ever tasted,” says Holland. The shoulder is braised, the loin roasted, the ear crisped and the belly is confit-ed. Selected trimmings are used for a classic choux farci. Holland adds: “It’s the poshest hog roast going.”
He insists the key to using local ingredients is quality and consistency. Similarly, the chef is not prepared to rule out ingredients (foie gras, coffee and lemons are just three he lists) simply because they cannot be sourced within the wider Ludlow area.
There is, however, huge respect for the town’s culinary heritage and the resilience of community spirit. Holland says: “The town has got a village mentality. You look after each other. You shop locally, you support local farmers. Ludlow is classed as a gastronomic hot-spot but the reason for that is that it has got a food culture. That is not because of the Michelin restaurants. It is because of the butchers and the bakers and the cheese makers.
“The chefs come into it because we have the power to make headlines. I can go on [the BBC show] Saturday Kitchen and talk directly to three million people. The butcher up the road is not going to have the ability to do that.”
Holland is able to highlight Ludlow on the television and do his bit for promoting the town and its producers: “I want to support the town. I am part of it. What goes around comes around. In these hard times of recession Ludlow has benefited from that spirit.”
You could never accuse Will Holland of lacking in self-belief, but there is enormous respect for Ludlow’s trail-blazing chefs – for Shaun Hill, of the former Merchant House, Claude Bosi (now with two stars in London) of Hibiscus, which once occupied the La Bécasse’s site, and Chris Bradley at Mr Underhills. “I am just building on what they have started and flying the flag,” says Holland.
He is flying the flag pretty spectacularly with his modern British take on classic French cuisine. Holland says: “We cannot forget, as much as we might want to, that the French have influenced us.”
He is fascinated by “interesting flavour combinations”, hence nectarines rather than apples with the suckling pig. “I want you to read the menu and for it to challenge you. I think there is a fine line between being cheffy and trying to be different for different’s sake.
“With everything I do, there is method behind the madness. Definitely. I don’t want to put people off but because I’m in the country and not in a city I don’t want people just to think I cook country bumpkin food, where it’s braised shank of lamb with half a pound of mash and rosemary gravy.”
After joyfully eating my way through an eight-course bespoke gourmand menu, I don’t think there’s any fear of diners likening cuisine Holland to ye olde tavern fodder.
It’s a stunning menu, reproduced above for your delectation. Highlights – where to start? Like a lot of great cooking, it’s about the details.
There is the wonderful sesame studded foie gras terrine with the pigeon carpaccio; the “chilled tomato essence” accompanying the crab is outlandishly pure; the Ragstone goat’s cheese mousse, which I didn’t used to favour, has been tweaked by Holland; softened, it is less acidic and considerably better for it.
The suckling pig, though, runs off with the winner’s trophy for dish of the night. This is king of the porkers’ cooking, a trotter away from being too big. Although there is huge technical know-how thrown at the dish, it is the essence of the taste that triumphs.
A wine tasting accompanies the dishes, showcasing Burgundy, the Rhône, Bordeaux, Alsace, Portugal and Italy.
The restaurant has recently introduced a new fruit cocktail drinks list which appeals to non-drinkers or nominated drivers. Choose from rhubarb, raspberry and ginger juice; lime, lemon, kiwi and mint juice; and orange, mango and red chilli smoothie.
Holland is looking to push on, raise the bar further, which he says will need him to be in the kitchen, concentrating and inspiring his team. The goal is a second Michelin star which he says will take “a good couple of years.”
“The La Bécasse experience has to grow into what it is going to grow into. You can’t hurry that,” says Holland.
* La Bécasse, 17 Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire, SY8 1DA. T: 01584 872 325. Go to: www.labecasse.co.uk