When it comes to home-made few can beat the Sardinian answer to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
He’s called Matteo Frau but you won’t have to travel all the way to Italy to meet this chef. He runs the Red Lion in the Derbyshire village of Birchover.
This is a man who not only makes his own breads, pickles and black pudding but also churns his butter and cheese.
He makes the mozzarella, because where he grew up everyone did and the Birchover Blue cheese made with local milk should be ready by August. The bacon’s his own, plus the cured and smoked meats Italians love so much.
You might very well wash it down with a pint of the beer he devised with the help of a local brewery although the plan is to make the Nine Ladies bitter from his own micro-brewery with water from his well.
But do you know what swung it for me? He even makes his own HP sauce.
The Red Lion, a long building with exposed walls and oak beams, has been in the middle of the village since 1680. Matteo and his wife Alyson have been there since they bought it in 2006.
At first the menu was mostly Italian but that came as a little bit too much of a shock for the holidaymakers with families and the hikers with muddy boots who dropped in for a pie and pint.
“People want something more rustic and cosy,” said Matteo, a 36-year-old father of three, not slow to realise that the area teems with local produce every bit as tasty as back home between the mountains and the sea in Sardinia.
It hasn’t stopped him blending the two, though, and on special nights they can have the Full Sardinian.
What we like is that the dining area has a purposeful, utililitarian look with pews against the walls and there has been no attempt at, if I can coin a word, gastrification.
When it comes to salmon Matteo cures and smokes his own. In fact, he goes even further, visiting the fish market in Manchester twice a week as part of his policy of sourcing everything himself.
He believes the link between producer and chef shouldn’t be through an intermediary.
“The connection between farmer and restaurateur is important. He has to know what the chef wants,” Matteo said.
He can hardly hop on a fishing boat although given the chance he probably would. But he can select the right fish on the slab.
We’re expecting thin pink slices so are taken aback by a chunk the width of a finger. It’s very different: the thickness gives a different register on the tongue and the taste is halfway between briny and peaty – there’s whisky in the cure. It’s £5.95.
Stocks are currently low on Red Lion meat and cheese although my Sardinian Platter (£6.90) did contain Matteo’s salt beef. Unfortunately my wife ate it all by mistake but reported it tasted like a good pastrami.
A vibrant pesto and a selection of Italian giardiniere pickles (garden pickles) added zest and flavour. My main course pheasant (£8.95) comes from nearby Stanton Moor and tasted so fresh it could have flown into the kitchen by itself.
If this couldn’t have been more English the vegetables could not have been more Italian: peppers, aubergine and onions as a sort of caponata.
One of the specials was sea bass with prawns, linguine and bottarga (£9.50, an Italian delicacy made from smoked tuna roe.
The fish was nicely cooked (although the skin was limp) with good flavour, given an extra dimension by the salty tang from the bottarga pasted onto the fleshy side. The linguine was excellent.
The British and Italians have different opinions as to what is meant by ‘al dente’ when it comes to pasta but have no fears, it’s more Anglo than Italiano.
I’ve left Matteo’s HP sauce rather hanging in the air. He first came across British brown sauce in Sardinia when he watched a fellow chef smother it on a rasher or two of pancetta between slices of bread – the bacon butty is unknown over there. Perhaps that was God’s way of introducing him to his future because he later worked at a Derby hotel with opportunity to explore the brands.
Being Matteo he decided to make his own. As a fellow brown sauce maker, I compared notes. He uses dates, I use prunes.
Sadly I didn’t get to try it as brown sauce doesn’t go with pheasant nor with panna cotta (£3.95). This was a creamy dessert topped with a perfect berry compote inside what looked like a clear Marmite jar. You can buy them at IKEA.
I was wondering if there’d be an Italian take on Bakewell tart (£4.50) but the kitchen played it straight although I fancied it had extra almond.
All of this takes up a lot of Matteo’s time but virtue is rewarded. His dairy products, from butter to frillo, a hard cheese, collected nine awards at the Bakewell Show and he gives demonstrations.
The Red Lion does a Sunday carvery. After reading this you won’t be surprised to know that the beef is cooked in a thermal bath at 60C for 21 hours. We paid £44.50 for food and drinks.
Red Lion, Main Street, Birchover, Derbyshire DE4 2BN. Tel: 01629 650363. Closed Mon & Tue. Open Wed-Sun lunch and dinner. Vegetarian meals. Children’s portions. Real ale. Credit cards. Cash machine. Car park. Web: www.red-lion-birchover.co.uk