Star-turn Tessa is at the top of her game

Tessa Bramley of The old Vicarage
Tessa Bramley of The old Vicarage
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Sheffield’s only Michelin-starred chef has just learned she’s held on to the coveted award for a 13th time.

It’s a major accolade for Tessa Bramley and her hugely innovative modern British style.

Sea bass with pea and muscat sauce'The old vicarage

Sea bass with pea and muscat sauce'The old vicarage

She’s both honoured and amazed but it’s when she starts talking rhubarb that this rather shy woman at the top of her game goes into raptures.

The first of the Yorkshire crop has just arrived in the Ridgeway kitchens of her revered establishment, the Old Vicarage.

“It’s sparkling-pink and gorgeous,” she enthuses. It is to be served with Whitby cod and a warming hint of star anise. And you’ll never guess where she got the inspiration...

“From my grandma,” she beams. “Fish and rhubarb is a dish peculiar to Yorkshire. It started when fish suppliers bringing their stock over would swap some with the rhubarb growers.

Grandma Sarah Hardwick was an adventurous cook - and it was she who taught the young Tessa how to marry flavours and turn hedgerow produce into epicurean delights which still influence her culinary creations to this day.

A miner’s wife twice over (Tessa’s grandfather died at the pit face when her father was just five), Sarah was a parlourmaid in Sheffield and picked up tips from the cook, Tessa explains. She remembers as a child being taught how to whisk butter into sauces to turn them into glossy rivers and running to buy star anise from the local chemist.

“I owe a lot to her,” she says warmly. “She taught me how to use so much of the things that grew in the lanes and fields. I often cook another of her favourites, elderflowers and salmon; it has a lovely muscat flavour.”

“It’s trendy now to forage for ingredients, but I’ve done it all my life. People say: ‘Oh how avant garde’ when they see it on the menu. But there’s nothing new under the sun. Most of the time, we cooks are simply rediscovering our roots.”

Tessa will be 72 in April and what keeps her so in love with cooking are the constant challenges and hurdles she has to overcome. Though nature, not the fussy dinner guest, is her hardest taskmaster.

“On the days when the kitchen garden is so frozen we can’t dig up the sprouts, or the sea is so wild the fishermen can’t go out, you have to get your thinking cap on,” she explains.

And when nature throws up a bumper crop of something, Tessa takes it as inspiration. Last autumn’s glut of crab apples became thyme-scented jelly - the perfect accompaniment for her game dishes.

One of only four women in the UK to hold a Michelin star, she’s just back from Michelin’s 100th birthday party.

She’s still giggling at the memory of rubbing shoulders with gastronomic greats like Blumenthal, and feeling a little in awe, when one of the famous faces suddenly rushed up to greet her.

“It was Raymond Blanc,” she says, still amazed he knew her name.

Says the self-effacing chef: “I always feel like I’m cooking in a vacuum; my own little world. I’m astounded to find people know me. It makes you realise you’re part of a small family.”

She’s rightly proud of retaining her Michelin star. “I can’t quite remember whether it’s 12 years or 13 now,” she muses. “But I’ve definitely had it longer than any other chef in Yorkshire.

“You have no idea when the inspectors are going to drop in,” she says. “In the early years I would find myself looking at guests and wondering: Is that them?

“But then you just get on with things. I don’t even find out I’ve got the star again until the guide is on sale. The first year I won, I found out from Martin Dawes at The Star. I nearly dropped through the floor when he told me why he was ringing. He couldn’t believe I didn’t know.”

FACTFILE

The Michelin Guide for 2011 has made no changes to its entries for South Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

The Old Vicarage at Ridgeway and Fischer’s Baslow Hall retain their single stars.

Bib Gourmand awards, made for good food at moderate prices, have been retained at Artisan in Crosspool and the Druid Inn at Birchover.

The Michelin Guide started life as a car and road trip guide with the best restaurants and accommodation available en route. Launched by the Michelin brothers, the publication, the oldest of its kind and considered the most influential, staged the centenary of its British and Irish guide this month.

A total of 143 stars were handed out to British and Irish restaurants in the 2011 guide last week, a record number.

Michelin only uses anonymous, professionally-trained inspectors to assess a restaurant’s food and service.