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Fields of Gold

Tommy Banks is a farmer and an award-winning chef and restaurateur, with a premium food box business and a canned wine brand. ANDY CLARKE eats and drinks at his Yorkshire table

 Andy Clarke   Autumn 2022

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Every time I walk in my garden, I catch the aroma of blackcurrant, thanks to a magnificent blackcurrant sage that grows next to the patio. It has small dark green leaves and mesmerising tiny deep red flowers. It grew from a tiny plant from a three-acre kitchen garden in a small North Yorkshire village of culinary world importance. 

I was producing ‘Punk Chef: On the Road’ there, a TV series I developed for the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust starring the remarkable chef Scott Garthwaite. 

But why is the beautiful village of Oldstead, just over 20 miles north of York, such a gem? Thanks to chef Tommy Banks, his brother, James, and their team, The Black Swan at Oldstead, a Michelin-starred restaurant, has certainly put the area on the map for foodies across the globe. 

Tommy and James grew up in the village and in 2013 they took over the pub, just a year after it won a Michelin Star in 2012 under previous head chef Adam Jackson. They retained the Star and the rest is history.  

Being brought up in a farming family, it seemed inevitable that Tommy’s heritage would lead him to an arable existence. Alongside the magnificent kitchen garden, Tommy has 20 acres of farmland where the team grow food and rear cattle for their restaurants. 

I first met Tommy after his incredible first appearance on Great British Menu in 2016 and we connected over a mutual love of field-to-plate cookery as well as a penchant for the charred side of food. 

“Throughout history, we’ve always cooked over fire. And caramelisation is a flavour I crave. It always has been.” As a kid, self-confessed ‘serious carnivore’ Tommy loved the charred outer edge of the burgers, sausages and chicken from the family barbecue. 

And it’s the char that Tommy believes adds flavour and variety to the menus at The Black Swan and his other restaurant, Roots, a relaxed tasting-menu restaurant located in the heart of York, also with a Michelin Star. 

“In our restaurants, we use barbecues a lot. Cooking over fire is a really great way of getting different flavours into the food. And grilled food mixes it up. We use Konro BBQ Grills as they are easy to use and small. We also use Binchotan charcoal as it doesn’t give off a lot of smoke.” 

What are Tommy’s favourites? “At Roots there’s an onion dish I love, using Senshyu onions (an over-wintering ripening Japanese onion). We pick the onions when they’re small and just so sweet. We then brine them in yoghurt whey and grill them on the BBQ. We also cook brassicas using fire. We quickly blanch kale or broccoli, then dress it in herb and garlic butter. We then chuck them on the flames last minute. The butter drips and burns and you get instant flavour.” 

 

 

One of the most innovative and elaborate dishes has to be the lobster tail: “We brushed the tail in a glaze made from a reduction of carrot juice, lobster heads, lavender honey and blackcurrant leaf vinegar, then we barbecue it. This is served with freshly podded Hurst Greenshaft peas dressed in blackcurrant wood oil and finished with a broth made from the lobster shell, barbecued pea pods, lemon thyme and lavender.” 

When Tommy gets any free time away from his two Michelin-starred restaurants, he loves to cook over fire at home, but he is currently putting up with a temporary electric stove at home, with “terrible extraction!” 

“I get annoyed every time food doesn’t work out how I’d like it to. Because of this, I tend to get outside and cook. There’s no mess in the kitchen when you cook outside and I can get the flames hot enough to properly caramelise the food.” 

One of Tommy’s favourites is corn on the cob, but his way of cooking prompts, well, ‘marmite’ reactions. “I love to slather it in Marmite butter.” 

Yes, this will divide the room, but I’m on board – the umami of the Marmite couples with the sweetness of the corn. Tommy also likes to barbecue kohlrabi in the summer and in the winter he turns to celeriac. 

The barbecue Tommy currently uses was designed and made for him by Nathan Davies, chef and owner of SY23 in Aberystwyth, Wales who also worked with Gareth Ward at Ynyshir and cooked the starter course at the Great British Menu banquet this year.

“It’s great for slow smoking brisket, short ribs and pork with the lid down. This is not a style of cooking I’d done a lot before. It’s really fun but I am a bit of an impatient person. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly good at it; I get distracted easily and sometimes I’ve added just one tiny piece of wood to the flames and the temperature has gone from 100 to 160 degrees without me noticing!” 

Tommy is also partial to cooking a whole fish in there. “I cook seabass and trout. I stuff the cavity with butter and herbs, I brush the fish in butter and let it set before putting on the heat. I love the flavour of butter as it caramelises. I make a brush out of herbs, usually something like sage or marjoram. The herbs infuse the butter, and then I dab it over the fish. Sometimes I make a miso butter. It’s so good on turbot.” 

Tommy even brushes burgers with butter and has a take on spuds too.

“I boil new potatoes in their skin and then finish them on the barbecue where I colour them up by using a bit of oil, apple cider vinegar and salt.” 

Tommy and his partner, Charlotte, are now proud parents to 10-month-old Poppy, who loves the insides of sausages. “We’re weaning her, and it’s great because when I cook outside, I like the caramelisation, but because she has no teeth, she gets the inside. It’s a win for everybody!” 

Tommy also runs Made in Oldstead, a premium home-delivery and experience service that came out of lockdown. “Suddenly, we found ourselves with no business, but with staff, and suppliers to look after, and a desire to keep cooking for our community.” 

This business evolution has turned out to be a career highlight. “Originally, it was merely about sustenance – now it’s more about having a date night with really good food.” And Made in Oldstead also produces a barbecue box in the summer months.

There is more and this venture plays to my love of food and drinks pairing, with the Banks brothers’ range of premium canned wines. Tommy, James and the team naturally buy plenty of wine and are often offered great wine direct from wineries others do not have access to.

“A lot of restaurants sell their own branded wine, but I was not convinced about going down that route”. It was his brother, James, who convinced Tommy that they could do something rather special, but rather than putting the restaurant’s or Tommy’s name on the bottles, they decided to call the range ‘Unlabelled’ as a way to get people to try different sips. 

“Then we thought: what if we took really great fine wines and made them accessible to people that might not normally buy them?”

They have now created a way to enjoy wines which would normally sell for around £70 to £80 a bottle in a restaurant at around £6 to £7 per can. 

“Cans are the new screw top! Some people turn their nose up at them, but they shouldn’t. By packaging wine this way, it’s kinder to the environment as the packaging is lighter and it helps people who want to know more about wine to explore something that they might not normally try. It also means that you don’t open a whole bottle when you don’t need to.” 

Their first release of wine was from South Africa, an area they were keen to support after a series of lockdowns and strict alcohol bans during the pandemic crippled the industry. 

They now have a BBQ Wine Tasting Set, consisting of a trio of French wines, which I have sampled. The Muscadet has meadow flowers on the nose and a slight spritz in the mouth. The flavour is dominated by white melon with a hint of honeysuckle, followed by a squeeze of lime, which makes it perfect to pair with barbecued seafood and vegetables. 

The Pineau D’Aunis Rosé displays aromas of summer berries and redcurrant stalks. 

It’s refreshing, lean and clean with hints |of summer berries and a pinch of white pepper on the finish. “Perfectly paired with the sun,” as Tommy puts it. 

The Petite Syrah Malbec red is full of plum and hedgerow fruit with a dash of eucalyptus when you sniff it. On the palate, ripe, sweet blackcurrants prevail and there are earthy qualities in there, herbaceous notes and pinch spice on the finish. Great for flame-grilled and slow-cooked meats. 

So what’s next? This summer saw Tommy bring Made in Oldstead to Pub in the Park with Tom Kerridge, where food-lovers tasted a range of dishes created and cooked by Tommy and team. Tommy also cooked at the firepit, where his turbot on the bone with barbecue brassicas, fermented celeriac sauce and glazed lobster tail with sungold tomato dressing and basil was out of this world. 

On top of this, the mad keen sports fan has created food hampers for events at Lord’s cricket ground and will be running the East Wing restaurant at Twickenham rugby stadium for the England-South Africa game in November and next year’s Six Nations, designing a new menu including Dexter beef from his farm.

Tommy, in so many ways, is putting smiles on the faces of those with discerning palates. One of the nicest, down-to-earth people in the industry, the world is a finer place for his culinary ingenuity.


 


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