Winter 2008 - Mâche Showdown

12/04/2013 11:04
Showing the versatility of lamb's lettuce in a highly competitive arena the international final of the Loire Valley Lamb's Lettuce Association competition took place between France, Spain and the UK in November.

Entente cordiale may have been the watchwords before the international final of the Loire Valley Lamb's Lettuce Association competition began, but once installed in the kitchens of the renowned French culinary school, Lycée Nicolas Appert, in Orvault, near Nantes, the finalists from France, Spain and the UK became serious contenders.

Under Europe's media spotlight, the UK's Nick Chapman, sous chef at the House of Commons in London; Spain's Alberto de la Fuente Helleman, chef at La Botilleria del Café de Oriente in Madrid; and France's Nicolas Guiet, sous chef from La Mare aux Oiseaux, had to repeat the winning lamb's lettuce recipes they had produced earlier in the finals in their own country, as well as create an innovative dish using it in conjunction with a mystery basket of ingredients.

But in a closely fought contest the French chef emerged the victor winning the title and the €1,500 prize, with the UK chef coming a close second.

Each chef was assigned a commis chef from the school – Laurette Le François, Hoel Kermorvant and Maxime Lancien – the latter two conversant in Spanish and English respectively to help Helleman and Chapman find their way around the kitchen and its equipment.

This was the second year the international competition had been held, and it is aimed at positioning the Loire Valley lamb's lettuce in the foodservice sector as a salad leaf that fits well with modern European consumption trends.

Better known as mâche in France, the competitors combined classic know-how with contemporary ingredients such as Ferran Adría's Texturas range to produce dishes that utilised the lettuce and enhanced its flavours in three different categories: rapid cuisine, healthy eating and gourmet –encompassing all the sectors within the foodservice industry.

They had to adhere to a strict criteria – creativity, originality, overall presentation, taste, recipe solution and above all practicality so that it can be reproduced in a commercial kitchen environment – and all this under the gaze of not just one television crew but two – top French Cable's Cuisine TV as well as French Network TV.

All the finalists improvised and fine tuned their dishes to fit the criteria, but in some cases they had to contend with some substitutes for ingredients.

Helleman for example was unable to get hold of the “carnivorous plant flower” that was needed to enhance his rapid cuisine dish. While it was easily available for his Spanish final, the South American ingredient was unobtainable for this one and it took away some of the kudos from his presentation. However in the modification of his healthy eating dish, he made up for it by removing the orange rind to make it more practical and easier to eat while still keeping it packed full of flavour.

Flavours were a crucial factor of the competition. Guiet's rapid cuisine dish benefited from the lamb's lettuce. The ingredients he combined with it really brought out the flavours of the lettuce and complemented the prawn. While it was a little tricky to eat, it was a recipe solution that was very quick and good.

Chapman's gourmet dish captured the flavour of the lamb's lettuce, which was very much an integral part of the saddle of rabbit recipe.

A most original looking dish, the butternut squash and demi glace enhanced the flavour and it was considered to be the best presented hot dish by the chairman of the judging panel, the UK's Craft Guild of Chefs CEO Martin Bates.

He said as a recipe solution it could be prepared in advance and that by modifying the potato by shaping it into a cylinder made it more appealing, plus the lettuce worked well with the Savoy cabbage.

The presentation of Guiet's gourmet dish was said to be superb, but the judges felt it just needed a little more flavour from the sauce that was drizzled over it.

One difference to this year's competition was the mystery basket – an addition suggested by Bates, who was also involved in selecting the ingredients.

When it came to these dishes, all three chefs gave a good performance. Helleman offered the best presentation while Guiet's use of lamb's lettuce was very avant garde. Chapman's dish was by far the tastiest and the judges considered it to be a good seasonal dish packed with flavour enhanced by the huge dollop of lamb's lettuce.

Bates said the latter was practical, easily produced in the kitchen, not that creative with the lettuce “but it was powerfully flavoured and complemented everything on the plate”.

The competition, held by the Loire Valley Lamb's Lettuce Association in close association with the Craft Guild, highlights the practicality and versatility of lamb's lettuce among chefs.

The judging panel comprised Martin Bates; his French counterpart Didier Peschard, president of the Loire Valley Eurotoques; Mey Hofmann of the Hofmann culinary school and restaurant in Barcelona; and Bernard Géry, president of the Valnantais Co-operative and Regional Legumes Association.

President of the Loire Valley Lamb's Lettuce Commission, Olivier de Grandmaison, said: “Loire Valley mâche is a product of our unique ‘terroir'. Around 85% of mâche cultivated in France is from the Nantes region and most of this is exported throughout Europe.

“This international competition, now in its second year, is important to highlight the many benefits of mâche and to allow up and coming UK, Spanish and French chefs to share their inspiration for this high quality ingredient.”

Twenty seven year old Guiet, who has worked at his restaurant for the past two and a half years, is one of a team of nine under head chef Eric Guerin.

Guiet says that he uses lamb's lettuce all the time and, as his restaurant is only 60km away from where it is produced, it is delivered the same day and the quality is as good as the leaves he saw delivered earlier to the factory.

From the start he was at ease in the college, having been taught his culinary skills there, and the camera crews didn't faze him so he was able to concentrate on working with the lettuce and his other ingredients.

He hadn't taken any chances with the latter and brought as much as he possibly could just in case there were gaps. “If I haven't got the right ingredients, I could not do it perfectly,” he explained.

Ingredients such as xanthana and Guérande salt, hydromel and gellan, were vital to his recipes. For example he needed hydromel, a traditional eau de vie made from cider, honey and bee venom for his emulsion, while Guérande salt is a natural salt full of flavour sourced from the West of France and said to be good to mix with sweet flavours.

Guiet was also very precise in the execution of his dishes, ticking off all these ingredients as he used them to ensure nothing was missed.

Chapman, who came second in the competition, scored the highest overall in the mystery basket round and impressed the judging panel.

He thought the quality of the lamb's lettuce in France was very high and possibly because it had travelled less distance for the competition was better than that found in the UK.

He too came prepared with his equipment and as much mise on place as he could – rabbit, jelly, scallops, foie gras, truffle oil and fish stock – as, he said, with only a certain time to plate up, getting it ready prior to the contest helped.

Before the competition he said he was going to treat it in the same way as he treated the one in the UK – focused and intent on what he was going to do – and he didn't want to see what his competitors were going to produce or their methods.

Chapman, who has been sous chef at the House of Commons for 16 months, says that on the competition front he says he'd like another crack at the Roux Scholarship, in which he competed in 2002.

“I want to do it again and my head chef Mark Hill wants me to try for the National Chef of the Year.”

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