October 01 2011
The first time I saw chef Mike North he was up a tree: a coconut palm, to be precise, on the beach at the Constance Belle Mare Plage Hotel in Mauritius. I was paying my annual March visit to the Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau, named after the great French chef and featuring some of Europe’s finest Michelin-starred pan-rattlers. Each is teamed with a local chef and challenged to make something delicious with tropical ingredients and European technique. It makes for a very jolly week or so, especially if you are fond of excellent food, great French wines and maybe a round of golf at one of the resort’s two superb courses.
North was representing Britain, and finished a very creditable third: when I saw him, however, he was retrieving a volleyball that had lodged in the palm’s fronds during a spirited game with his fellow chefs. He is a slim chap, as modern chefs tend to be, and climbing the tree was not a problem: sliding down again, though, was considerably more painful. A bottle of white rum – as both antiseptic and anaesthetic – was pressed into service. He recovered so quickly he was able to go swimming later that day and promptly trod on a sea urchin. More rum, nurse!
North and wife Imogen’s Oxfordshire restaurant is called, oddly enough, The Nut Tree; on my visit, however, Mike had his feet planted firmly on the kitchen floor. The Nut Tree is a village pub – a couple of local ales are on draught and there is a cosy bar – but its dining room has held a Michelin star for the past three years.
Very well deserved it is, too. North has pitched the menu perfectly between the adventurous and the comforting: a layered terrine of pig’s head and black pudding, for example, served with a brace of runny quail’s eggs and a smooth piccalilli sauce, is a dish with the refinement of serious cooking but the pleasurable squidginess of a good fry-up.
A plate of hogget (year-old sheep) showed a similar mastery of texture: rare fillet matched with fragrant kidney and a clever “torte” of the slow-cooked, richly flavoured shoulder meat, layered with potatoes that had simmered gently in the lamb stock. Mike’s great skill is in taking the essence of a great dish (a hotpot, in this case) and turning it into something intensely delicious. That, in a nutshell, is gastronomy.
There are other things to admire about The Nut Tree, such as the eclectic wine list, which is fairly priced and knowledgeably served; the splendid cheeses (a sublimely silky Saint-Nectaire); the indulgent desserts (justifiably, sticky toffee pudding never leaves the menu: try it with the Henriques & Henriques 10-year-old madeira) – but it is the shrewd combination of village pub and great restaurant that makes it so special. Every village should have one: The Nut Tree is a cracker.