Behind an unassuming black door to the rear of the Star and Dove pub in Bristol there is some culinary alchemy at play. To enter this realm of skuets and lozenges I first have to pull the handle of a Victorian butlers bell. As I hear the muffled jangle of the bell within I half expect Lurch to answer the door. But no, I am greeted by a delightful young woman who bears no resemblance whatsoever to Lurch or any other member of the Addams family.
As I step over the threshold into the Historical Dining Rooms I am aware that I am leaving 21st century Bristol behind and entering an era where dinner was more of an event than a ready made meal popped in the microwave so often served today. Mahogany coloured panelling, which property developers often discard without a second thought, adorns the walls of this Victorian building. Everything from the antique furniture through to the hand painted wall paper and the muted lighting conveys the feel of a Regency dining hall minus the stern faced personnel found plonked in the corner of such rooms in England’s stately homes and museums.
So even before I peruse the Bill of Fare it’s clear that Leigh Pascoe, Tim Denny and Matt Duggan, the chefs behind the Historical Dining Rooms, take the historical provenance of food very seriously indeed.
Capturing the flavours of the past and keeping a keen eye on the seasons are so important they have a roof top garden where rare and largely forsaken varieties of vegetables and herbs are grown to supply the restaurant. This includes Rat-Tailed Radishes (favoured by Queen Elizabeth 1 as a digestive) and a Victorian delicacy, Daubenton Kale. I’m initially introduced to this as an hors d’oeuvre served with a frothy glass of Mrs Beeton’s lemonade (a deceptively innocuous cocktail with the propensity I’m sure to knock you for six if more than a couple are consumed). The crispy leaves sprinkled with instant vinegar powder arrive at my table in an old fashioned toast rack. I can safely say it is the most original and possibly tastiest salt and vinegar crisp I’ve ever eaten.
But before my historically inspired culinary journey can begin I am instructed to refresh my hands in Thieves Vinegar, a fragrant recipe devised by Hannah Glasse in 1747 infused with herbs from their roof top garden. I regularly remind my children to wash their hands before dinner but had never considered the ceremonial significance of the act. It was common practice among the ancient Greeks and with medieval European nobility but has largely fallen by the wayside, except evidently in England. I have to confess it’s hard not to feel a little affronted when, as an adult, you are asked wash you hands although they did indeed feel refreshed and not in the least bit vinegary.
Rather than being rooted in one era the menu skips around the centuries. The initial course of ‘Snacks’ commences in the mid fifteenth century with the enigmatically entitled roasted milk (a mild, milky mousse topped with honeycomb from their own hives which also live on the roof); dips back to the late fourteenth century with a crunchy Lozenge (an early form of pasta, in this instance fried until crisp) topped with cream cheese and crushed long pepper; then zips forward to the eighteenth century with a Regalia of Cowcumber (a delicious warm roundel of breaded cucumber, served with lamb bacon and red wine). It’s worth mentioning here that the bread served at the same was accompanied by homemade whey butter and dripping topped with crushed crackling. Why more restaurants don’t serve bread with dripping (an underrated spread in my opinion) is beyond me. Dripping has a savoury intensity you simply don’t get with butter. If you haven’t tried dripping on toast or warm bread you haven’t lived.
But I digress. Those of a nervous disposition when it comes to eating offal should really try the Skuets. The original dish from Eliza Smith (author of the Compleat Housewife) dates back to 1753 and featured sweetbreads skewered with bacon then grilled and served with a fricassee of sheep’s tongue. At the Historical Dining Rooms the veal sweetbreads are served cunningly disguised as small sausages and arrive in a glass presentation box shrouded in smoke. As for the fricassee of sheep’s tongue your tastebuds would have no idea that they had been metaphorically licked by shaun the sheep so tender and un-tongue-like was this morsel. If you need convincing that historical food is not all stodgy pease pudding or over spiced ‘rotten’ meat then Skuets would do the job. This dish is highly accomplished in its execution and is an absolute pleasure to feast on visually and literally. (Sadly whilst the subtle lighting works wonders for the overall ambience of the restaurant it did me little favour when taking photos. These images really do not do the food justice!).
The flavours Leigh and his team employ are robust but not over powering. The pickled components such as the black walnuts and wild garlic kernels in the Stockfish course are piquant without being astringent. The candy striped vanilla and chocolate sponge encasing a delicately flavoured green tea ice cream in the manner of an Arctic Roll (but far more sophisticated than Captain Birdseye envisaged it) served with a whipped chocolate cream contains an appropriate level of sweetness. The salty porkiness captured in a cloud like pea mousse seemed impossibly tasty for something so light and was perfect as a pre starter. The wines were also beautifully matched to each course and were largely English too. The whole meal was served at a considerate pace and with impeccable grace with sufficient time allowed between each course to reflect on the culinary experience. And everything is presented with the panache befitting a top end restaurant. Something of a surprise perhaps when you consider the restaurant’s humble location.
If time travel were possible would I really want to do it? There are so many questions I would like to ask, events I would like to witness and forgotten foods I would like to taste. Yet there is a certain mystique about the past. Surely, one of the reasons we find history so alluring is the fact there is so much we don’t really know? It’s exciting to interpret people’s vague words and to guess at what they really meant particularly in the kitchen. The Historical Dining Rooms prove that it is possible to re-imagine the flavours of the past in a very 21st century fashion whilst reminding us that some ingredients (and customs) are well worth revisiting.
With thanks to Leigh Pascoe and his team who allowed me to dine as their guest at The Historical Dining Rooms.