Yesterday was my father’s funeral. My Dad was a cook and chef nearly all his working life. He entered the Navy, after a troubled upbringing, at the age of 16 starting as an assistant cook. Travelling the world on HMS Tiger, Victorious, Lincoln, Excellent and others he rose through cook to become leading cook, until marriage and thoughts of me came along.
His record reads ‘Webb is a capable and excellent leading cook, though he does have some problem with authority.” In civvy street he managed and cooked in the Model Inn in Cardiff (now a dog rough pub), the Kings Arms in Swindon, the George and Dragon in Andover as the Barley Mow near Channel 4 and the Anchor by Tate Modern, then just an old power station.
After half a pint of rum a day in the navy and a life behind the bar and dealing with the heat and stresses of the kitchen it’d be an understatement to say he had a fondness for a drink. Alcoholism is a seldom-addressed occupational hazard in the hospitality industry. Indeed Keith Floyd’s recent documentary and passing struck a major chord with me, I felt so sorry for his daughter. But unlike Floyd my dad was never a drunk, never nasty or spiteful, never unkempt or dishevelled. Booze fuelled the patter, and the patter meant the customer paid handsomely and went home happy.
After my parents divorced in 1985 my Dad drifted down to the West Country. Here as an agency chef he did any number of jobs, from hotels to staff kitchens in large factories. There was even a spell at a fish and chip shop where in the summer of1991 me and my mate Christian, between O levels and A levels spent eight weeks frying fish, drinking heavily and trying to loose our virginity. I remember dropping 5kg blocks of dripping into boiling fat with a hangover and trying not to get scalded. One Dad deciding that the curry sauce supplied was shit and that he was going to make his own ‘special’ sauce. I went up to the deli and bought a fist full of dried bird’s eye chillies, and other curry powders. We made a sauce so powerful we jokingly sold it with a health warning. Blokes loved it.
And now I find myself back in the West Country for his funeral. I’d arranged to have lunch with my sister and brother-in-law before hand, so they’d be no rumbling stomachs during the eulogy. They’d set of at 5am from Buxton and I at 9 from London with only a slice of toast inside me, so by noon we were all a little peckish. My sister wanted to visit River Cottage canteen, being a big fan of Hugh. I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant, last time I was there the canteen was more a café vibe, and the weather being so foul, wet and cold we fancied a proper lunch.
Thankfully they’ve moved the café element to the front of the shop and beefed up the restaurant feel in the back (though still incredibly casual). Maybe they always did this and my mind’s playing tricks… anyway. Tim Maddams was at the pass so I had a chat about when I visited River Cottage as part of the Food Map and other small talk before asking ‘What’s good today then?’ ‘Well I’ve got two rabbits in, I was going to put them on as a special, they’re not even on the menu board yet”. He fetched them from the oven for us to have a look at. They beauties were slowly braising in a wine stock with heaps of thyme, onion and garlic and just two or three dried chillies for a tiny nip of heat. The bunnies themselves were practically snared by some lovely streaky bacon and some salty, meaty chunks of salami in there too. One sniff and I said “sold, we’ll have ’em.”.
My sister doesn’t eat much meat. She went veggie in the early 90s as a protest to intensive animal farming and cruelty. Lately she’s been coming round to wild food, believing if it’s had a good free life and is shot quickly (as well as having the opportunity to escape) then she’ll give it a go. Being a family not afraid to get stuck and all of us hungry from early starts we also ordered a main of mussels between the three of us as a starter. Though they were plump and incredibly juicy, and the sauce good, they were but the warm up act to the headlining brace of bunnies.
These came in with great fanfare and looks of astonishment from the fellow diners, especially the two timid souls at the table next to us who’d order burgers. Now I’m sure River Cottage Canteen burgers are good an all, but talk about a culinary equivalent of lights-off-missionary-position. Our rabbits came whole on a RC branded chopping board, with the pan juices in a little jug. With that came a big bowl of decent fluffy mash, and a side of buttered greens, some lovely chard if I’m not mistaken.
“Here you go, and one of you gets to be mum’ said the waitress as she put it down. Our Mum not being here I duly dived in. The rabbit was tender enough to pop apart with our regular knives and forks, and we set about it.
What followed was a fitting and wonderful meal and a worthy of a send off for my Dad. We washed it all down with a couple of bottle of stinger ale and by the time we’d finished the table looked like someone had napalmed the set of Watership down. We left cheered by the joy of living and family and sharing and headed for Yeovil Crem.
Those of you who read this blog regularly (thank you) will know my penchant for taking home the bones of meals and making stock. I did it at Hawksmoor, and again at St John, so obviously the skeletons of these I took back to the pass and Tim very kindly wrapped them in tin foil. The stock went on when I got back to London.