Try award-winning cookery book author’s Med-inspired food in Suffolk
- Credit: Jenny Zarins
During lockdown lifestyle and kitchenware store The Merchant’s Table in Woodbridge has become a bit of a foodie mecca.
Residents and visitors have been taking advantage of the shop’s unique partnerships with three artisanal producers, who are using it as a collection point for customers. They include Fellowes Farm (bread), former Darsham Nurseries head chef Nicola Hordern (pastries), and multi award-winning cookery book author and chef Maria Elia, who’s regularly been selling out of her Mediterranean-inspired dishes, which come accompanied by delightfully illustrated, hand-written cooking instructions.
Local diners have proved a keen appetite for Maria’s dishes which are, she says, easy to prepare, and cooked from the heart.
As we chat about all things food and cooking, the chef paints a broad picture of a lifelong love of everything edible, beginning in the kitchens of her Greek-Cypriot father’s own restaurant in Richmond upon Thames.
It was, she recalls, a childhood of familial pinched cheeks, great hulking platters of edible sunshine shared across the table, and packed school lunches of pickled pigeon!
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“I quite literally grew up in that restaurant,” Maria says. “Mum would run front of house, pick me up from nursery, dash us back to the restaurant for service and I’d be in the kitchen, watching my dad, which was amazing. I learnt a lot of Greek swear words! Cheffing is totally in my blood.”
From those humble beginnings, Maria's career has taken her all over the world. Working in London’s Café Royal. As a private chef on a yacht with no budget – fishermen presenting lobsters at the porthole for her perusal as the boat docked.
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There was time spent working under Stephen Terry at Oliver Peyton’s restaurant Coast, running a section alongside the likes of Mark Sergeant.
And after stages at famed gastronomic powerhouse El Bulli, and Arzak in San Sebastian, Maria took the helm at Delfina on Bermondsey Street, London, trailblazing for other female chefs at a time when the industry was even more male dominated, and when it was rare for anyone to take restaurants based in the City seriously.
Maria set up the Whitechapel Gallery dining rooms, and was head hunted for a resort on Lake Tahoe, California, where she worked for many months of the year in between consultancy gigs that took her to all four corners of the globe.
In between, Maria somehow managed to write three cookbooks, including the acclaimed Smashing Plates, which saw her appear on primetime TV in the states. Talking of TV – you may have caught the chef on Ready Steady Cook or Saturday Kitchen on our side of the pond.
So, how did she land up in Suffolk?
“My friend Madalene used to own the British Larder [now the Unruly Pig] and I used to come to Suffolk and help them in the kitchen, running it to give them time off. I just loved it for the amazing produce. When I was moving out of London I wanted to be near the countryside and sea, and Suffolk seemed like the obvious place.”
Maria moved to Clopton last summer, with hopes to convert a barn on her property for pop-up dining events, but lockdown restrictions put paid to those dreams.
“So, I met up with The Merchant’s Table because they do a supper club and sometimes have pop-ups in the shop. We chatted, and ended up coming up with the idea that the shop could become a collection point for my food. It’s [the shop] all about bringing people around the table to eat. The perfect fit.”
The chef says she’s “crazy busy”, with customers able to collect on a Thursday or Friday lunchtime, from a menu published on Instagram (@MariaElia9) earlier in the week. Clients can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to Maria’s menu mailing list.
There are two options every week, either meat/fish or vegetarian/vegan. “I’ve made so many different things. Posh kebabs, like shawarma on skewers with lovely pitta breads – soft, pillowy, handmade pitta breads. I gave them oil and Greek oregano to roll those up with, and apple tzatziki and fennel cabbage slaw. One week I made moussaka, which I’m so proud of. There's been keftedes (a vegetarian carrot meatball), and tomato, feta and almond baklava with fennel seed tzatziki. At the moment I’m trialling a kolokasi– a stew made with a type of Cypriot taro root and pork. It absorbs all the flavours.”
Maria uses local produce wherever she can, including meat from Palfrey & Hall butchers in Debenham.
While there are no collections this week (ending March 26) Maria is currently gearing up for Easter...with a twist.
“I’m going to go off-piste I think,” she laughs, “with Asian food. I spent time in Thailand and fell in love with the flavours. I thought I could take those as a base to do something a bit different for collection from March 30. So I’ll have Asian braised brisket of beef. That will be slow-cooked in a master stock with coriander root, ginger and garlic. I’ll make a sauce from the cooking liquor. And for the vegetarian version it will be braised mushrooms. Both will come with a pomelo salad with lime leaf, lemongrass and nam jim dressing, and coconut jasmine rice. For dessert I might make a type of chocolate tart flavoured with star anise and ginger.
“I try to make all the meals as low maintenance as possible. You just finish them off by boiling in the vac pac bag, or on a tray in the oven.”
While she’s relishing cooking her heat at home options, Maria is chomping at the bit to cook for seated customers again and hopes she can announce pop-up suppers in the coming months.
“To be able to offer my own dining experience would be brilliant. People can hopefully go back to sharing a table which is so important because there’s nothing better than enjoying good wine, good company and great food together – that's what hospitality is all about. I can’t wait!”
Recipe: Maria’s marinated lamb with feta curd, peas and artichokes
“This is a favourite spring recipe that’s quick and easy to prepare...and beautiful to look at. You might want to ask your butcher to butterfly a whole leg of lamb which you can barbecue. If using this method add extra marinade and cook over a hot barbecue for around eight to 10 minutes either side, then rest well. This is a great way to use up the olive oil from a jar of marinated artichoke – any excess makes a lovely salad dressing too with some white wine vinegar or lemon juice.”
400g trimmed lamb neck fillet or 400g piece of boneless leg meat.
Pinch dried oregano
Drizzle of olive oil
4 tbsps clear honey
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the feta curd:
150g feta cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp lemon juice
5 tbsp artichoke oil (from marinated artichokes)*
For the peas:
150g fresh peas (podded weight) you can use frozen petit pois if fresh are unavailable or not yet in season.
1 large garlic clove, crushed
20g chopped fresh mint
20g chopped fresh dill
100g feta, crumbled
A little freshly grated lemon zest and 2tbsps of juice
4 tbsp olive oil/artichoke oil
4 marinated artichokes quartered
A handful of pea shoots
Rub lamb with a little oil, sea salt, pepper and oregano. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes, or overnight in the fridge if you have time. Bring back to room temperature before cooking.
Pre-heat a griddle pan over a medium heat (or barbecue).
Sear the meat for four to five minutes on either side, (or cooked to your liking) remove from griddle, drizzle with honey and leave to rest, lightly covering with foil.
Meanwhile make the curd. Blend the 150g of feta, lemon juice in a small blender, whilst the motor is running slowly add the artichoke oil, blitz until smoot. Season with black pepper and set aside.
Blanch the peas in salted water for no more than a minute and plunge into iced water. Drain well. If using frozen, no need to blanch, just defrost.
In batches lightly crush the peas in a pestle and mortar and transfer to a bowl. Mix with the crushed garlic, mint, dill and remaining feta, lemon zest, juice and artichoke oil. Season to taste.
To assemble smear feta curd over plates, spoon over the crushed peas, slice lamb and divide evenly between plates, then top with artichoke quarters, and sprinkle with pea shoots, drizzle with olive oil and serve immediately.