Chefs get used to peculiar requests from diners but few have had the dubious honour of being asked by a countess – dressed head to toe in scarlet – to fillet a turbot for her ocelot!
Simon Couth, chef patron of the Hathersage Social Club, was working at the swish Swiss Montreux Palace hotel when the countess arrived with her entourage.
“She was a friend of Salvador Dali and had come to represent his work... accompanied by her ocelot, a dwarf leopard, complete with studded diamond chain. It was all very surreal!” he recalls.
Like many teenagers growing up in Devon, Simon did an apprenticeship in hotels, which led to a job with the Eurotel group.
“I managed to convince them I had enough experience and spoke enough French to give me the opportunity,” he says.
“I remember walking up the stairs of this magnificent hotel as an 18-year-old, wondering what the hell I had let myself in for. It was a baptism of fire but I learned the importance of the nuances of taste, meticulous food planning and bloody hard work.”
It’s Simon’s passion for food, and sourcing quality ingredients, that is causing such a buzz about Hathersage Social Club – a former garden centre now with added kitchen, restaurant and cinema screen.
He reckons it’s the quirky, relaxed atmosphere that makes the club unique – along with the one-off nature of the evening menus.
Day time is the complete opposite: “We have regular specialities like Liege waffles and our avocado toast; I think there’s something reassuring about seeing an old favourite on the menu.
“Our offering is special because of the love and provenance of what we deliver...”
So far that dedication has taken him and partner Lucy Wurstlin out with a Robin Hood’s Bay fisherman to catch lobster; deer stalking for a venison feast; and touring some of the best cattle farms in the region.
This passion for food was trained and stimulated by Simon’s family, who live in southern France: “I’ve had 25 years of eating, cooking and sourcing wonderful food in this great region that is home to Roquefort cheese,” he says.
“My absolute favourite meal is pavé de boeuf, a big slab of beef from Aubrac cattle, a very old French breed. I like it served rare with a large glass of Gaillac red wine, perhaps a Chateau Montels.”
Simon’s signature dish is Basque cod: “My family have a house near the French/ Spanish border so we love the rustic, spiced food they serve in that region.
“This recipe borrows from that tradition but uses a technique for the parchment baking of cod that we found on a culinary tour of Turkey.”
Basque cod in parchment:
ingredients (serves 4)
4 cod steaks 250-350g, boned but skin on
Splash of Rosé port
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic chopped
2 Romano red peppers, sliced into thin strips
Handful of black olives in oil
2tsp Espelette pepper
(or 1 mild red chilli + 1tsp crushed pink peppercorns)
4 sheets of baking paper
4 butcher’s ties / string
Chopped parsley or softened spring onion slices to garnish
spicy tomato sauce:
Soften onions and Romano peppers in a good splash of oil. Add garlic and cook on low for five minutes before adding the Espelette pepper. Mix well. Add black olives, pitted and chopped. Season to taste.
Pour in tomatoes plus a similar amount of cold water. Turn up heat to simmer; add port. Cover and cook on a very low temperature for 20mins, adding water if necessary.
Finally, remove lid, turn up heat and boil to reduce to a rich and thick sauce. Allow to cool.
Dust the skin of the cod with seasoned plain flour. Heat a skillet/frying pan with small amount of oil. Press down seasoned side of cod into the pan and cook 4-5 mins. Remove from heat.
Take a square of baking paper and add 1tbsp of cooled tomato sauce to the centre. Place cod portion (skin side down) on to sauce. Add another tbsp of sauce on top, with a drizzle of olive oil.
Pull up edges of paper to form a parcel. Wrap the top of each with a butcher’s tie or string. These fish parcels are then ready to bake – they can be prepared in advance of a meal as required.
Bake for 20mins in a pre-heated oven at 2000C.
Use scissors to snip off the top of parchment below the tie. Open out slightly and garnish with a sprinkle of roughly chopped parsley or slices of gently softened spring onion slices.
Serve simply with crusty bread or with small roasted potatoes.