One regularly asked question of us is, “Do you get free food?”. And our, oft-spoken answer is “No, not really.” All the food we review is paid for. Even the meals we write about for the Isle of Wight County Press are paid for out of our hard-earned. The paper pays us to write, not eat – see?
However, occasionally, we sing for our suppers or, in the case of the Gurt Cook Off, judge for them. This annual cookery competition – launched back in 2016 as part of the Isle of Wight Day celebrations – is now in its fourth year.
The Gurt Cook Off itself is a kind of fusion of Masterchef and Ready Steady Cook featuring the great produce of the Island, and is held at the Isle of Wight College restaurant. The chefs choose from the wealth of donated products and have a limited amount of time to turn these fresh and raw ingredients into delicious and creative dishes. We have been honoured to be invited to judge since 2017, along with other guest judges. This year, our fellow judges were the college’s own Janet Stevens and Isle of Wight County Press reporter Liam Chorley.
The competition is the perfect forum for showing off local talent and local food, with fabulous produce donated by some of the Island’s top growers and artisan producers. From heritage beans and other seasonal delicacies provided by Farmer Jack’s, to Briddlesford Lodge Farm’s award-winning cheeses. Living Larder also supplied hand-picked, locally-grown vegetables, while wholesale butchers WA Foods supplied the lamb and pork used in the dishes below. Some of the fruits were given by Medina Food Services and Yates Brewery supplied the beer, of course. The garlic came, from – yup, you guessed it – the Garlic Farm, and Seaview Hotel provided the fish.
There were three chefs competing for the coveted title of Gurt Cook Off champion; college tutors Jack Sallabanks and James Butchers, plus Jamin Woodmore from The Little Gloster, Gurnard. Each had been asked to create a starter and main course, with the puddings produced by the college’s hospitality students. When presented with the food, we didn’t know which chef had created each dish – but we’ve annotated them below for your information.
We said of James’ roast butternut squash and sweet potato soup (below), “Delicious, sweet and smooth comfort food. The croutons, with Garlic Farm smoked garlic, added good contrast.” Cat really liked this simple starter; the flavour was rich, with an acid after-note, and the texture creamy.
We were asked to score the skill factor in all of the dishes. Fresh mackerel had been presented whole to the chefs, so filleting and fish preparation skills were needed for Jack’s starter of smoked garlic and courgette stuffed mackerel, Isle of Wight tomato and fennel salad (below). The meat itself was beautifully tender, and there were flavour bursts of Briddlesford Lodge Farm’s sour feta.
The highest scoring starter was Jamin’s roasted mackerel (below), served with tomato salsa and smoked garlic dressing. The crisp onion, pickled in the trendy way, brought a zing to the salsa, scoring it highly on flavour. This dish also nudged up the points on the skill category because of the pickling as well as the fish preparation.
Another well-prepared fish featured in Jamin’s main course, this time sea bream fillet, which was served with confit new potatoes, seasonal greens and Gloucester sauce (below). Even us old hands had not heard of Gloucester sauce. Fortunately Liam was able to advise us,“Gloucester sauce is really rich.” Cat: “Is it?” Liam: “Yes, I only know that because of the crisps.” Cat: “That’s Worcestershire sauce!” As it happened, the Gloucester sauce was pretty understated in this dish, but it scored well on presentation and flavour combo. The seafood was all donated by the Seaview Hotel.
For Cat, the runner up position was a tie between Jamin’s bream and James’ pan-seared pork tenderloin, rosti potato, cavalo nero, butternut, wild mushroom and smoked garlic cream sauce. The meat was indeed tender and without a trace of fat, which Matt thought was to its detriment. It was a surprisingly busy dish, with lots of texture. Crispy rosti and crunchy cabbage were matched with softer romanescu and butternut squash.
The clear winner for the main course was the roasted lamb rack by Jack. This splendid and classical presentation came with two perfectly pink ribs. Cat loved this dish, describing it as easily the most delicious of the three. She was particularly enamoured with the vegetables – so much flavour! From the creamy cavolo nero, to the sweet caramelised shallot and slightly charred romanescu; the perfect way to get your five-a-day!
Over the first two courses, the winning chef was Jack Sallabanks. He created the stuffed mackerel starter and also the exceptional lamb main course. Judge Janet presented him with his prize: a bottle of Bollinger (donated by Seaview Hotel). He also won a chef profile in one of the Island’s leading magazines.
Our three desserts were created by students of the college. Because of the seasonality of the ingredients, we were served two tartes Tatin. This open apple pie is a classic dish and you might imagine there couldn’t be much variation. However, it was interesting to have two interpretations.
The compact tarte by Dan, Callum and Scarlett had a nice tartness with a slightly treacly finish (below). Cat loved the way the apple spilled out of its case, ready to be mopped in the sweet caramel sauce. This dish demonstrated a good combination of skills – even the ice cream was home made.
Cat’s favourite of the three desserts was Steven and Courtney’s rustic-looking tarte Tatin, although it wasn’t the overall dessert winner. With the soft baked fruit in a bath of the crème Anglais, it looked great and tasted delicious. The pastry was particularly noteworthy.
The winning pudding was this beautifully-presented lemon meringue tart with strawberry coulis, raspberry and mint (below), made by Mark, Isaac and Luke. Matt judged this as his favourite dish of the day – scoring higher even than the pro chefs earlier courses. The pastry was astonishingly short, and the meringue perfectly fluffy. The soft, fresh lemon was on the sweeter rather than acid end of the spectrum. The skill level was high with pastry, curd, meringue and coulis. Certainly this was a dish we would be delighted to be served in any of the Island’s top restaurants.
All of the dishes were of a exceptional quality; we’re confident we will be eating more of these talented students’ work in the near future.
Judging the Gurt Cook Off is one of the highlights of our calendar. We were delighted to have once again been invited to get involved by Phil Wilson of the Seaview Hotel and Emmanuel Ferdinand, manager at the IW College restaurant. Here’s to next year!