Red cassock and black cloak billowing round his ankles, Dean Trevor Beeson cuts a dramatic figure as he swishes into Winchester Cathedral's new restaurant, part of a £1m visitors' centre opened last November by the Queen. He beams at customers and chats to the day's quota of diocese volunteers who give their time to help run the restaurant for free.
There's plenty to make Beeson smile. The 92-cover, self-service restaurant is fast becoming the best and most successful ecclesiastical catering venture in the country. "He's superb. He's one of the plusses here. He does this every day," enthuses refectory manager and executive chef Nigel Rogers.
Rogers needs the support of the chair upon which he's sitting. Dark rings encircle his eyes; pallor lies beneath his ruddy complexion; and his outstretched hands have a slight tremor. Only a few weeks ago he left hospital early after a two-week bout of pneumonia, the result of a punishing, self-inflicted regime to get the restaurant on the road.
The result is a far cry from the curly-sandwich school of tourist-spot catering; everything here is fresh, local and historical. The kitchen bakes mounds of bread and cakes and biscuits daily. As much produce as possible comes from Hampshire, with Rogers expending considerable time and effort to seek out the best suppliers.
Rogers compiled the authentic Hampshire recipes, some dating from the 11th century, from a variety of local archive sources. Crowning it all, main courses which include locally caught fresh wild salmon range from only £2.90 to £4.95, including vegetables or salad. This superb value for money has been appreciated by the local community.
So why is Rogers knocking himself out making everything, only using fresh produce and eschewing the short cuts which could be expected at this level of the market? His reply has a familiar ring to it: "I want to use fresh, local produce and make home-made things. I've had enough of places which say they're doing this, but they don't. If they weren't going to do it this way, I wouldn't be here."
A chef for 19 years, 37-year-old Rogers has worked in conferences, banqueting and private catering, in front and back of house management, and done a stint in the USA. "Nigel's life would certainly be a lot easier if we'd taken a different route," commiserates visitor centre manager Stuart Vause. "We chose the hard route because it's right for what we've set out to do. We want people to come back. We want to serve the local community. We need their support throughout the year because the tourist season is only from May to September.
"Another cathedral has a pizza franchise, but we didn't want to do that. We have to be responsive to the environment we're in."
Over the last year Vause has brought a dignified commercialism to the visitors' centre As well as the restaurant this includes a shop, styled along National Trust lines, brimming with cathedral-branded goods, a kiosk and a welcome bank of public lavatories.
The complex is a stone's throw from the cathedral's west door, its siting made possible by the fortunate positioning of a former 16th-century coach house, now the shop. The restaurant, a pleasing contemporary building with a restful grey and white interior is concealed by 7m-high walls. The centre's creation was instigated by the need for better facilities for the cathedral's 500,000 annual visitors who were previously served by a solitary lavatory and a tea room.
Financed by a fund raising campaign, the revenue generated goes towards the cathedral's £600,000 annual running costs. The centre comes under the auspices of Winchester Cathedral Enterprise Ltd, the cathedral's professionally-run business arm, a separate entity from its theological side.
During summer, 40 extra seats and a barbecue are placed on the restaurant's terrace, the only way to cope with the tourist influx. Even without the tourists the restaurant has two sittings at lunch-time, and averages 180-200 meals a day.
A large proportion of customers are regulars, among them pensioners, mothers with small children, tour guides and businessmen. Vause says: "There's nothing to compare with this in Winchester, where the alternatives are formal restaurants, pubs, fast-food outlets and tea rooms. On Saturdays they even trek over from the shops to eat here."
Rogers' menu is short and includes children's dishes, snacks and refreshments throughout the day. Lunch is supplemented by three daily specials. Rogers' quest for excellence is apparent. Cream tea (£2.50 with a choice of four teas) offers not just strawberry jam, but strawberry and Champagne conserve!
Lunch dishes represent a slice of English history and demonstrate Rogers' assiduous research. Trenchers at £2.90 are hugely popular. "They're medieval, the slice of bread served as plate for the roast and was eaten by the serfs when the squire had finished," laughs Rogers. His adaptation is a doorstep of granary with four toppings, among them Eldon pork sausages and mashed potato or tomato, pesto and sheep's cheese.
18th century dishes
Another bestseller is Dean's Pie (£4.95) - lamb, seasonal vegetables, mint and yoghurt pastry cobbler - which comes from a recipe enjoyed by a former dean. Mary Blackwell Salmon Pudding (£4.95) is named after an 18th-century innkeeper accused of poaching but saved from jail by the New Forest verderers (guardians) who liked the dish so much.
Rogers rattles off others: Poachers' Pot (£4.50), a game casserole using the same local wild mushroom varieties used in Henry VIII's time; Liver and Orange Casserole, dating from 1290 when citrus fruits were first imported; and Hampshire kidneys and onions, a speciality from Southampton's inns eaten with a spoon by sailors who usually added a tot of rum.
A recent addition to the menu is Rose Pudding, dating from the court of Richard II. It uses white rose petals, developed with the help of famous rose grower David Austen.
Fish and pork feature prominently because of local associations. The river Test is noted for its wild salmon so Rogers buys local when he can, although his mainstay is Scottish farmed. The Hampshire Hog materialises in locally-farmed Sutherland's pork, "the finest you can buy," insists Rogers. "Using fresh, local supplies isn't necessarily more expensive, but it's more time-consuming."
Hampshire firm Axton supplies all fruit and vegetables on a daily basis. Wild mushrooms, which are seasonal, come from a New Forest picker. Asparagus is from a local farmer. "The only thing we don't make is ice-cream, and that's because we can't better our local producer, Blackburn & Haynes," Rogers says.
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