Fork Talk loves London: it is the uncontested king of the UK restaurant scene. But every once in a while it is nice to explore what our neighbours across the country are cooking up.
Within the last week, the national newspapers have reported that Bristol is the best city to live in the UK; an environmental city with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and the highest growth in disposable income, Bristolians enjoy a better quality of life than those in Edinburgh, Belfast and even in our beloved London.
As they enjoy the benefits of the idyllic countryside for first-hand foraging and the city for its trends and consumer-culture, Bristol’s chefs are clearly having a good time. ‘A real scene developed in the late nineties with chefs and owners who are semi-well known around here, and then it has really come into its own in the last 4-5 years with the rise of the organic scene and young restaurateurs like myself,’ explains Toby Gritten, chef-proprietor of the Pump House, where the Bristol’s city docks meets the River Avon.
It is a staggering venue: a former Victorian pumping station that used to transfer water in and out of the loch, it is both immense and immensely beautiful. Its natural industrial identity is complemented by the Bristolian tin signs and Victorian artefacts – all antiques collected by co-proprietor Dan – giving it a warmth as soft as its red velvet curtains.
Toby is apologetic as he arrives late from a foraging trip with his gorgeous golden lab Minnie, but he has treats for us to see: Hedgehog mushrooms and sprouts of wood sorrel (perfect for garnishing), ingredients that will work their way into that evening’s early autumn tasting menu.
Toby is, as he puts it, ‘inspired by produce’ – ‘the most important thing we can do is use things that are fresh and local and on your doorstep…otherwise you are snipping bags…the thrill of it is being market-led.’
You can tell that along the journey from his modest quiche-and-cake beginnings to where he is now, Toby has had to snip said bag, making his fervour for real cooking all the more profound.
And the food? Nothing short of hugely impressive. Our favourite, pigeon in a jar, demands a real element of performance – served in a glass Kilner jar filled with juniper smoke, as it fades we are invited to taste the delicate display of celeriac remoulade wih lovage, pickled pears, hazelnuts and apples topped with smoked pigeon pastrami and scattered with tiny Nasturtium flowers. In a word: dream-like.
It seems seasonality is a speciality of Bristol’s, and there can’t be a more interesting interpretation of this than with Casamia in Westbury-on-Trym.
Situated on a rather dull-looking high street surrounded by charity shops and electrical goods stores, we fall into Casamia’s path where the seasonal experience begins. We smell the faint scent of log fires, ‘where is that coming from?’ And then we approach a burning chiminea that is licking a bright pumpkin with its flames.
We walk in the restaurant, ‘is that cinnamon and ginger?’ We ask as the scent of subtle autumn spices fills the room. We are warmly greeted as gentle music is played – bright sprigs of rosemary and holly decorate the tables and natural autumnal landscapes do the same for the walls.
Unlike other trendy international restaurants that strive to isolate the senses in order to achieve a heightened eating experience, Casamia has clearly committed to be sensorialy immersive. As chef Jim Day says, ‘for us, it is not just about the food but the whole experience, from the minute you walk through those gates.’
Choice is minimal when you go to Casamia (the name meaning ‘my house’ in English), as it is when you visit a friend’s home – they only serve their 12 or 13-course seasonal tasting menu to ensure that guests engage in the full experience.
‘The way we design our menus, it is a journey – we must have sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and unami, and every dish before the last has got to make sense as a whole.’ We try the warm milk stout bread and whipped Marmite Jersey butter and agree that nothing could be more welcoming on a crisp autumn day, and also the deep-fried scallop served with apple, a touch of soy sauce and dehydrated kale, where we see Casamia’s Asian influences at play.
It becomes clear that the only way to make food in Bristol is to follow the seasons (and to get your hands dirty while out foraging, every once in a while). Real cooking and their general ethos here is about simplification instead of complication. ‘The big thing at the moment is how well you can source your ingredients,’ says the Pump House’s Toby, ‘down here, everyone is into good food, done well and done simply.’
It is not so much about competition as it is about community – the Pump House and three other restaurants regularly host guest chef nights, where chefs from neighbouring restaurants come in and prepare a course, in order to inspire and keep the chefs on their toes. What struck me most though, perhaps, is how personal their approach to dining is – in a trend that has trickled down from Noma in Copenhagen to The Clove Club in London, chefs from the family-run Casamia serve the dishes themselves, and Toby and his entire ‘family’ of staff at the Pump House put their heart and soul into that restaurant. It seems that London could learn a thing or two from its West-country cousins.