YOU can find some pretty nifty cooking these days in the unlikeliest of places because chefs are making the oddest career moves. Take Thomas Samworth.
One minute the award-winning chef is cooking as junior sous chef for Michelin-starred Gary Rhodes at London’s W1, the next for equally starry Max Fischer as his head chef at Rowley’s gastro pub in Baslow. Now he’s at a farm shop in Low Bradfield.
Yes, you read that right. Of course, it’s a high class farm shop and deli as they go, but even co-owner Rachel Hague admitted she was surprised when Thomas phoned her for the job. But then they used to sit in the same classroom together when they were eight.
It would be lovely to say that this was the same school. It isn’t that neat. Her parents bought the former buildings some years ago as an investment and she and her farmer partner John Woodhouse opened it last year.
Thomas doesn’t spend all his time making ham sandwiches and bangers and mash. There’s the catering for Rachel’s weddings business, a Saturday night bistro and a more relaxed Friday supper club.
The bistro costs £18.95 for two courses, £24.95 for three, with coffee included, and while you can’t expect all the frills and fol-de-rols you would have got at Rowley’s you can lick your lips in anticipation of some fine cooking. In fact, we were so keen to get there on our Saturday night that we had to hammer on the door at 7.28pm to get in. The café is above the deli and you have to be escorted up (and out).
What was particularly getting me licking my lips was the rabbit on the short (three options at each course) menu. I’ll hop a long way for bunny.
Sadly it was off. “Problems with our suppliers,” Thomas told me later in his dinky little kitchen shared with sous chef James Gray. And I’d naively imagined someone would have taken a pot shot at them in the nearby fields, what with the Schoolrooms’ emphasis on local produce. “Wild rabbit tastes too strong,” he said.
Let’s get the grumbles out of the way first. The café, brightly illustrated with animal paintings by local artist Lynne Wilkinson (who was dining at a nearby table) needs to be dressed a little better for the evening. Putting a cloth over the counter, removing the crisps display stand and turning the music down (they did) would help.
And the wine (a floral sauvignon blanc and grassy chardonnay from Sheffield’s Le Bon Vin) and jug of water could have been cooler.
After that we were sailing.
The complementary breads come from the artisan bakery at Welbeck Abbey (you can buy them in the shop) and they are exemplary.
Thomas’s contributions started with a really fine slice of pressed duck leg mosaic, the confited meat tasting rich and well flavoured and pressed to just the right texture. It was served at the correct temperature, too, unlike the wine.
The garnish was brightly coloured pickled golden beetroot, crushed hazelnuts for crunch and a Cumberland (redcurrant) sauce to complete the technicolor effect. Very tasty.
My wife had the poached salmon which tasted as if it had just been hooked out of the water, it was so fresh and precisely cooked. The freshness was backed up by a cucumber and fennel salad and, for luxury, crayfish in mayonnaise.
The third choice was a Yorkshire blue cheese terrine. My rabbit had been replaced by chicken. A breast had been stuffed with tarragon and wrapped with air-dried ham, then roasted and sectioned on a colourful butternut squash risotto. There was a blob of tarragon flavoured mascarpone for relief.
Again the flavours were precise and the rice had just that tiniest hint of chalkiness, as the Italians insist upon, but the dish lacked a little in presentation.
Not so the fish, accurately cooked fillets of sea bream, firm and sweet with crisp skin, on a tower of crushed potatoes with peas and lettuce in a creamy sauce.
Veggies would have had to stick to cheese again with a Yorkshire feta flavoured rice cake. Thomas is now 28. I remember I first wrote about him in 2003 when a star pupil at Sheffield College winning the Maurice des Ombiaux trophy, a sort of European Cup for junior chefs, in Belgium (I think), under the tutelage of Mick Burke.
I couldn’t get quite as excited over desserts, although my wife did.
“It’s like eating a Crunchie bar,” she said of the warm chocolate mousse served over a honeycomb parfait with bits of dark chocolate ‘crumble.’
Perhaps I wanted pastrywork but I still noticed the care taken with the raspberryish jelly with the lemon posset. Third course is cheese.
“There’s no point in having a bigger menu,” Thomas said afterwards, describing his aim as “simple cooking done well, with a twist,” and I wouldn’t disagree. The menu changes monthly.
The room was not full because two parties of four failed to show, a blow to a country place which can hardly expect walk-ins to refill.
I seem to be liberal with five stars lately (am I getting easier to please?) but this was certainly worth it.
Food cost £49.90 and wines £10.50. If you can promise to turn up, check them out.
The Dawes Verdict
Old School House
Mill Lee Road, Low Bradfield, Sheffield S6 6LB.
Tel: Tel: 0114 285 1920.
Open: Friday supper club (two courses £14, three £18) and Saturday bistro.
Upstairs dining room. Credit cards. Music. No disabled access. Large car park.