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James Martin

He has cooked with ingredients from around the world, but there is one he has always used “without compromise and without substitute”. James Martin talks butter and barbecue with Rupert Bates

 Rupert Bates   Winter 2021

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Cookbooks, for obvious reasons, don’t usually leave much to the imagination on the cover. No point in being cryptic or clever with your book title where food is involved.​ James Martin’s latest book is called: Butter. “So, what’s it about, James?”

The image on the cover shows the chef clutching a fistful of golden butter over a bowl of butter and the book is churning into publishing gold. It is quite simply a love letter – with over 130 recipes – to “the world’s greatest ingredient”. It is a book that has you dreaming of bathing in the stuff, not just eating it. Don’t take it from me, take it from Tom Kerridge, who is quoted in the book saying: “I would bathe in it if I could.” Paul Foster of Salt restaurant in Stratford-upon-Avon goes a step further: “Food without butter is like a marriage without sex. It is just not complete.”

“Butter is the most versatile of ingredients used all around the world and one of the purest forms of food, simply made by churning cream,” says Martin, who puts the discovery of butter alongside the invention of the wheel, with the taste solely dependent on where the cream comes from, which in turn depends on the breed of cow and the pasture it feeds on.

Martin would never have been let into France, a country with a big influence on his career, to film series such as James Martin’s French Adventure without bowing down to the butter gods. His BBQ miso butter onions – with miso paste, butter and sugar for the glaze – is one of my highlights of the book. Onions from Roscoff – think bikes, berets, string of onions and Breton tops – are, says Martin, “the king of all onions’ and sensational on the grill, with some thyme, garlic, beef stock and beer in the recipe mix.

Martin says many people take butter for granted and don’t understand it. “I want to make butter a bit like olive oil and recognised as an ingredient and a seasoning.”

We sweat over our cut of meat, choice of recipes and then lob in any old butter. “

It should never be any old butter,” says Martin, advocating the likes of Bungay, Ampersand and Edinburgh Butter Co.

Martin loves to barbecue. “Flavoured butters with cooked meat and vegetables are fabulous. Try marmite butter on grilled food.”

The week we spoke he had been foraging with Alysia Vasey. “We foraged wild mushrooms and reindeer moss – those trees on model railways. Fried, it tastes amazing and served it with BBQ duck breast.”

You only have to watch James Martin’s Saturday Morning on ITV to appreciate his love of live fire cooking in his Hampshire outdoor kitchen. Martin, from Yorkshire originally, born in Malton, reckons he has about 35 different al fresco ‘cooking vessels’ including his trusted Konro Japanese grills, which have travelled with him around the world, a Josper oven, a collection of ceramic kamado grills, a Sub-Zero & Wolf gas grill and a Chesneys, not to mention the hero of many a TV shot, his homemade pizza oven.

“The key to a pizza oven is size. It needs to be big enough to take the food and get hot enough. My oven can get to over 600°C and can cook a pizza in 30 seconds.”

 

 

And use your grills year round, rather than leave them to rust in the winter, gathering spiders and rust and ending up as little more than “rubbish garden ornaments”.

When it comes to BBQ food his favourite would be thick pork chop – Middle White pork from a local butcher.

“With a decent amount of fat on, served with apple sauce and a jacket spud – simple but great food.”

That increased desire to cook outside has also seen restaurants showcase their live fire food and fine grilling. “It is a great way to finish off food,” says Martin, citing Gareth Ward at Ynyshir in Machynlleth, Wales, and Niklas Ekstedt of Ekstedt at the Yard in London, as two of the finest chef exponents of wood-fired cooking.

Martin’s restaurants are James Martin Manchester and The Kitchen at Chewton Glen, with a new one planned beside Silverstone motor racing circuit, overlooking the pit lanes.

“I am very fortunate having great teams around me, allowing me to explore new avenues. Life’s too short not to do things you enjoy.”

Back in the 1990s I regularly frequented the Hotel du Vin in Winchester, Hampshire, which had just opened, remembering, in particular, one meal with owners Robin Hutson, and the late, great sommelier Gerard Basset, as part of an interview. I suspect that meal – delicious by the way James – might have been cooked by a talented young head chef in a bandana.

“I wore the bandana because I couldn’t afford to get a haircut!” says Martin, then in his early 20s.

“The Hotel du Vin was an amazing time and extraordinarily busy. I was privileged to work with one of the greatest hoteliers in Robin and the finest sommelier in Gerard, with this whippersnapper in the kitchen. I learnt so much.”

Fast forward nearly 30 years and Martin believes the pandemic has given us a greater understanding of food and its provenance, as well as how precious and fragile the hospitality business and its supply chain are. During lockdown, when Martin heard about the amount of food being wasted – he heard one example of 10,000kg  of mussels a week being thrown away – his chefs suggested he used his huge social media following to do something about it and set up James Martin Market, an online shop supporting hand-picked producers and suppliers he has learnt to love and trust on his food journey, selling their produce direct for them, including BBQ meat boxes for home delivery.

“It’s like my own little supermarket of people I have met along the way.”

Martin’s latest venture is reviving an iconic fast-food brand. Martin has partnered

with potato king Albert Bartlett to buy SpudULike, the restaurant chain dating back to 1974, out of receivership “and take the humble baked potato to a whole new level”.

“It is up to me to make the top as good as the bottom,” says Martin, with toppings such as peri-peri chicken wings. The jacket potato just got a smart new tailor.

“And, yes, there will be butter!”

BUTTER: Comforting, delicious, versatile, over 130 recipes celebrating butter by James Martin (Quadrille)

Photography: John Carey

 


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