Ta’ Frenc hosts Michelin starred chef Nigel Haworth for a night to remember.
Ta’ Frenc, the award winning, Gozitan restaurant and byword for good food, held their annual Michelin Star Dinner event last weekend. As owner Mary-Grace Attard explained, her late husband Ino Attard and his business partner Lino Cefai, founded Ta’ Frenc with the aim of achieving a Michelin star rating.
Mr. Attard's sad loss has not deterred Mary Grace from his vision and, each year, she and Executive Chef Mario Schembri, invite a world famous, Michelin starred chef to visit Gozo and cook with them. Ta’ Frenc staff, with the help of acclaimed cookery writer and consultant to the restaurant, Frances Bissell, are also sent to train with these chefs in their own kitchens, in order to bring new skills back to the Maltese Islands.
This year Nigel Haworth was the guest chef. Nigel is highly acclaimed and internationally recognised both for his menus and for his TV appearances, so the staff at Ta’ Frenc were naturally very excited to welcome him to Gozo.
Following his training, Nigel worked at Gleneagles, Scotland and The Ritz in London, followed by stints in California and Switzerland; subsequently he taught cookery at Accrington & Rossendale College, Lancashire. In 1984, he took on the role of head chef at Northcote, a beautiful country house hotel (www.northcote.com) in the famous Ribble Valley, Lancashire. Within ten years, it had garnered an international reputation and a Michelin star – which has been retained ever since. Some feat!
By maintaining both an awareness of diners’ changing needs and a respect for tradition, quality and provenance, Nigel’s menus have encouraged the next generation of chefs to produce local, rustic and exquisite dishes using readily available and seasonal ingredients. This ethos sits beautifully with that of Ta’ Frenc and so we confidently anticipated a gastronomic delight.
On arrival at Ta’ Frenc - which could also be described as rustic and exquisite – we were offered a delicious array of canapés and champagne as we mingled with the other guests. Mini mouthfuls of dainty magic included a spinach infused pastry shell, with fresh tomato, sundried tomatoes and tiny pomegranate seeds. This was memorable. A ‘quiche’ of shortcrust pastry, pumpkin purée and baked cheese was also deliciously nostalgia inducing.
The main menu was designed in the style of a tasting menu but with more generous sized portions. In conjunction with Abraham’s and Vini e Capricci, Mary Grace and Nigel had enlisted Fabien Etienne, an acknowledged wine expert and international sommelier. His inspired choices and easy manner of explaining the pairings further uplifted the wonderful food we were served.
To begin the evening, Treacle Cured Salmon, King Prawn with Pickled Ginger and Coriander was served along with a Piedmontese NV Metodo Classico, Cuvée Pietro Chiarlo.
This is one of Nigel’s signature dishes. The sweet and sour contrast of the rich swathe of wasabi and soy and the black‐edged, treacly salmon was a fabulous combination. Add to this a succulent, creamy king prawn, sitting on fresh shards of ginger, spring onion, beansprouts and a coriander infused purée and the result was perfection on a plate.
The delicately sparkling cortese and chardonnay based blanc de blanc with its crisp, clean finish was absolutely right for this delicious fish starter and set the bar very high for the next courses.
Foragers’ Soup of Nettle, Spinach, Tarragon and Wild Garlic with Sheep Milk Cheese Gnocchi followed.
A fragrant infusion of bottle green potage, this was the supermodel of soups. You could taste, smell and see how beautifully healthy it was. Nigel, Mario and the team were out picking nettles from the Gozitan hills earlier that afternoon and the freshness of the ingredients was spectacular. Warm gnocchi of sweet, silky, milky cheese was a perfect accompaniment. Fabien’s excellent choice of a Rhône 2016 Condrieu ’Mandouls’ provided a subtle, fruity sweetness to contrast with the tang of the soup.
Local Rabbit and Leek Turnover with Piccalilli provided a humorous and delicious acknowledgement of ‘Maltese ingredients in British cooking’. With a nod to the beloved Maltese and Gozitan pastizz, the Turnover was glossy golden pastry encasing roasted rabbit and leeks to produce comfort food at its best. The side of piccalilli was exactly right with this dish.
Piccalilli is a very British ‘invention’: based on Indian pickle, it usually comprises cauliflower, onion and gherkin, seasoned with mustard and turmeric. It has been served as an accompaniment to English food since 1760. Northcote make their own famed piccalilli and Nigel’s Gozitan take on this stalwart was superb. Julienned carrots and courgettes with tiny cauliflower florets and pea shoots nestled beside a golden, turmeric infused jus. Each flavour was distinct, polished and sharp. The 2016 Pecorino ‘Trabochetto’, from the Abruzzo region was refreshingly mineral in taste with a clean finish.
Foraging is currently very fashionable amongst many cooks but for most Maltese and Gozitan chefs and for Nigel Haworth, it is part of life. Wild Seabass, Charred Lettuce and Wood Sorrel brought back memories for Mary Grace of picking and eating wild herbs on her way to school and the pleasure one takes from simple things. Nigel brought the wood sorrel (Ingliza zghira in Maltese) from Lancashire as a precaution, as it is rare in Malta and Gozo.
The freshest and most delicately textured seabass sat on an unctuous jus of wood sorrel with a hint of lemon and was mouth meltingly good. The award winning, 2016 Saint Joseph ’La Source’, another wine from the Rhône region, had a honey blossom taste lengthening into a creamy finish to work perfectly with the seabass.
Local Lamb, Lemon Marmalade, Spinach and Courgette was probably my favourite dish on this extensive and varied menu. French trimmed cutlets were pinkly succulent and fragrant. A mandolined length of courgette, char grilled then rolled was delicious and, with a spoonful of freshly puréed spinach and a spoonful of tangy lemon marmalade, the combination of tastes and textures worked beautifully together.
Fabien really proved both his love of Rhône wines and his know-how with a 2014 Côte Rôtie ‘Montmain’. This beautifully balanced wine was long on the finish and delivered a great and unexpected minerality to complement the lemon marmalade.
Wisely, we had been very light on lunch earlier in the day and so the arrival of pudding was delight. Cherry Goat’s Cheese Cake with Cherry Sorbet and Basil was both a visual and palatable feast. What looked like a large cherry was an artfully constructed and presented ‘cheesecake’ with the cherry on the inside. A scattering of biscuit crumbs for crunch and a punchy sorbet, served with fresh basil, was the perfect dessert in an elegant and innovative menu.
Personally, I usually decline a dessert wine but the NV Moscato d’Asti Nivole was one of the most extraordinarily good wines to have come my way. Both rich and delicate, this sparkling wine is a complete gem. At only 5% alcohol you won’t stagger away from the table either, which is always a bonus.
The finale was a perfectly served demi tasse of espresso and an Eccles cake. This particular Lancastrian delicacy is a small, round cake, made from flaky pastry filled with currants and topped with demerara sugar. Named after the town of Eccles from where it originates, it is a national treasure in Great Britain. Nigel has even made it into ice cream at Northcote, but here, at Ta’ Frenc, it was the perfect end to a wonderful Gozitan/English collaboration.
One of the many thoughtful features of dinners such as these, is the opportunity to meet the chefs and sommeliers who influence and add so much to our dining experiences. People who work with food are clearly very generous: with their creativity, efforts and, especially, their time. The event was billed as ‘Ambrosial’. We would have to agree.
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TEMPLE Magazine were guests of Ta’ Frenc on Friday 4th May 2018
Updated 22.05.18 This article has been amended as chef Nigel Haworth cooked at a promotion in Dubai this year and did not work there following his training as originally stated.
Copyright: Temple Concierge Ltd
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Images Copyright: Brian Grech