“I’ll be with you in the squeeze of a lemon” Oliver Goldsmith

Mike and Sheila purchased a robust cottage in North Norfolk, with a garden more befitting the scale of a Victorian smallholding than a domestic backyard. The reason Mike required such a generous plot was to begin his new career cultivating rare pig breeds for market. He had given up his profession as a builder and wanted to establish a rural sanctuary with porcine playmates. Unfortunately the choice of venue, along with his timing, coincided with a dramatic slump in UK pork prices.

Without breaking step, Mike and Sheila were forced to look elsewhere for the mortgage payments. And so The Ark Restaurant was born. Their cottage was an accumulation of small rooms, most of which were immediately pressed into service as bed and breakfast accommodation, whilst others became a flight of distinctive dining rooms. Mike and Sheila moved their bedroom into the attic, sheltered by a low vaulted roof reminiscent of a bad camping holiday.

Ambience needed no faux importation to the dining areas as this was home cooking manifestly served in their own home. And Sheila proved to be an instinctive cook, cast in the mould of the eminent Joyce Molyneux at The Carved Angel in Dartmouth, both fittingly influenced by the writing of Elizabeth David. The beating heart of the restaurant was the kitchen, presided over by Sheila, with pulsating heat issuing from a racing green Aga.

The ample grounds were pressed into service as an impromptu allotment providing a bounty of fresh vegetables, meanwhile Mike had to assimilate the unexpected demands of front-of-house, which he mischievously undertook with the forlorn humour of Max Wall and the anarchy of Freddie Starr. Were it not already situated in a tiny village, New Yorkers would have readily christened this the quintessential ‘neighbourhood restaurant’. It became a runaway success, with locals and metropolitan blow-ins, both regularly queuing for a table. I became its wine supplier and over many years developed a high regard for Mike and Sheila’s innate culinary standpoint. I have rarely seen such respect for undisguised food better exhibited, although I harbour such hopes every time I enter a restaurant.

Ksynia and I were invited to dinner there one evening, on a day the restaurant was formerly closed. We were casually presented with the most glorious steak and kidney pie, and although I have tasted many similar attempts since then – I have never tasted a better one. I can still taste it now, and that was some fifteen years ago. Sadly I am unable to urge you to book as the restaurant is no longer functioning,

On the night I asked for the recipe and Sheila popped off to the kitchen with a casual aside, “but of course, you’ll have it in the squeeze of a lemon”. Whether she was referring to Mr Goldsmith’s famous time scale or the dessert she was constructing on the stove, I will never know. As Mike was unfailing in his regular refilling of our glasses, the resultant note Sheila had so speedily scribbled on the back of one of her outdated petrol bills, was misplaced almost immediately. Even now, in my own kitchen, and without that precious missive, it is often the squeeze of a lemon that incongruously brings back memories of that benchmark pie, and the urge to make one is frequently irresistible. With the loss of that priceless fuel bill, the closest recipe I’ve ever found is from Gary Rhodes – New British Classics (1999)

1 tbsp beef dripping or cooking oil
675g chuck steak cut into 2.5cm dice
225g ox or lamb’s kidneys, trimmed and diced
350g puff pastry
2 onions, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and cut into1.5 cm dice
4 large flat mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp plain flour
1 tsp tomato purée
1 bay leaf
600ml beef stock
Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten

Heat a large frying-pan with the dripping

Season the diced beef with salt and pepper and fry in the pan until completely sealed. Lift out meat and transfer to a saucepan

Add a touch more dripping to the pan. Season the kidneys and fry quickly to seal, then transfer to saucepan

Onions and carrots can now be placed in the frying-pan along with a knob of butter, cook for 2-3 minutes, then transfer to saucepan

Lastly fry the mushrooms in a little more butter and keep to one side

Place saucepan on a medium heat, stir in the flour and cook for 2-3 minutes then add tomato purée, bay leaf and mushrooms

Add stock and simmer gently for 1½ – 2 hours, skimming where necessary

Once cooked taste for seasoning, add a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce and transfer to a 1.2 litre pie dish.

Pre-heat the oven, 220c/425F

Roll out pastry and cut a strip to sit around the rim of the dish

Allow the stew to cool and brush the rim of the dish with beaten egg and sit the pastry strip on top and brush again

Place pastry lid on dish, crimping the edges and brush with egg

Place in pre-heated oven and cook for 30-40 minutes

Wine Choice

Unlike the recipe, the wine I remember.  Mike provided (in some abundance) a turbo-charged Red Label Merlot,1997, from 40 year old vines on Francis Ford Coppola’s estate in California . More than a serviceable substitute for Cabernet Sauvignon and made in the style of a Merlot dominated St-Émilion from the right bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux. Its overwhelming fruit aromas with rich blackberry flavours were tamed with lightly astringent tannins, all of which served to cut through the natural heft of that delicious steak and kidney pie.