I consider myself to be fortunate. I am lucky enough to have travelled the world and experienced a vast array of different cultures, cuisines and customs. Food is a passion that I cannot escape from. I will always find the time to try new food, to experience new tastes and to search out new culinary masters. I have enjoyed the amazing seven course taster menu at Le Gavroche in London, the exquisite Pierre Gagnaire on Rue Balzac in Paris, Nobu Matsuhisa’s fabulous Nobo restaurant, in Tribeca, New York and many, many more. I may not be a world renowned food critic or an eloquent journalist. I do think, however, that I can spot a talented chef when I see one… and I think I have found exactly that, a culinary master, hidden away in a small sleepy village deep in the Charente countryside in South-West France.
If you happened to find yourself in Montignac-le-Coq you wouldn’t find a restaurant hidden down one of the tiny side streets, in fact, you wouldn’t find a bar, a shop or, indeed very many signs of life. Away on the edge of the village is Bagatelle, an old house where Gareth Morgan, his wife Sue and their three children live.
Once or twice a week they empty the furniture from their living room, fill it with tables and chairs and create a very special culinary experience.
My wife and I recently had the opportunity to take four friends to Bagatelle. From the initial welcome as we walked through the door to the very last goodbye when we reluctantly left we realised that we had experienced something very, very special.
I don’t remember telling Sue the names of my guests when I booked but somehow she seemed to know them in that funny, intimate way that you know your closest friends. We chatted for a while over aperitifs but the rest of my party seemed to know that I was eager to be seated, eager to experience, eager to recall the joy of my previous Gareth Morgan culinary creation. And when we did find ourselves seated, I knew the anticipation had spread to everyone at the table.
Moments later we staring expectantly at an exquisitely plated Nettle and Chervil consommé accompanied by a salad of wild dandelion leaves and herbs, fromage frais de chevre, herb oil and syrup of Banyals vinegar.
A small bell tinkles, silence befalls the room and Gareth takes a few minutes to tell us that the first course is inspired by everything that is happening outside right now. The wild dandelion leaves will be gone inside a week and the baby herbs are only just ready to pick.
We are ready to enjoy the moment.
The complexity of the layer upon layer of flavours combined with a breath-taking depth of taste is quite simply wonderful. There is silence in the room; you can hear appreciative murmurs, the licking of lips and the intensity of concentration from every table. There is no doubt that we are experiencing something very special.
While we are waiting for the next course I tell my friends that Gareth has built himself a smokehouse in the garden and if they have the opportunity they should try his deeply smoked salmon, or, my personal favourite, his smoked parmesan. I tell them of some of the more unusual smoked produce, Smoked Chorizo or, indeed, smoked salt.
The bell tinkles again and Gareth presents pan fried fillet of Sandre accompanied by new season white asparagus, steamed cockles served with a smoked butter beurre blanc, crab sauce and leek sprouts. While we tuck in to the light, firm but tender meat of the Sander the intensely delicate flavour is heightened by the smokiness of the beurre blanc. The quietly simple texture of the early asparagus against the gently steamed cockles suddenly comes to life with the addition of the rich, smooth crab sauce. I can’t help but wonder how one can conceive of a plate with such complex interactions of taste and texture. Every plate on the table is wiped clean.
A silent, knowing smile passes between my friends. I know that they are hooked. I always knew they would be. Why would they not be? This, after all, is Gareth Morgan’s domain.
The bell tinkles for the third time.
Gareth smiles and tells me that he found a summer truffle in the garden which inspired our next dish of risotto of avolines pasta, cepes and truffle de Perigord finished with aged Brebis and, my favourite, home smoked parmesan, almond and thyme.
One of the best mushroom and truffle risottos I have ever eaten was when I visited La Petite Maison in Nice. I will never understand why La Petite Maison is always so popular. Admittedly the food is excellent but the service is bad and the owner is just plain nasty. Not so at Bagatelle, Gareth’s risotto, made, not with rice but with avolines pasta was an order of magnitude better than that served up at La Petite Maison in Nice and the service just couldn’t be faulted.
As we cleaned our plates we slowly started to realise that we were more than half way through our meal. A slight sadness crept in, nobody wanted it to end.
The bell tinkles for the fourth time.
A quiet hush settles on the room.
The tension of anticipation rises unseen. Gareth, in his quiet, gentle voice describes the work of art that is roast loin of veal, confit breast of veal, violette potato, violette mustard veal sauce, caramelised cipolini onions, violette artichoke and fresh violettes.
I think I have died and gone to heaven. I am speechless. I have run out of superlatives.
The master is at work and I want to be his apprentice.
The bell tinkles for the fifth and final time.
There is disbelief in the room. Surely, even someone us hugely talented as Gareth Morgan cannot top the four previous courses. It is simply not possible.
I am quietly confident. After all, this isn’t the first time I have experienced Gareth’s genius and it certainly won’t be the last!
Gareth tells us that he isn’t widely travelled but he has recently been inspired by some beautiful books he has been reading on Asian culture and street food. Our final dish is the culmination of that inspiration and is certain to be the culmination of our taste experience for the evening. The pistachio and currant tartlette quite simply put, was delightful. The accompanying rhubarb bavarois flavoured with ginger and rosewater was inspired. The blood orange, pomegranate and orange flower water sherbet was so delicate that it tingled on the tip of your tongue. But, put them all together and the intensity and complexity of flavours were like a firework exploding in your mouth.
This isn’t mastery, it is wizardry. Magic! Nothing more, nothing less! Pure magic!
If you find yourself in south-west France make sure you seek out Gareth and Sue. You will be assured of a friendly welcome and you will never forget the magic that passes your lips. But remember to take cash with you because they don’t take credit cards. But I promise that you won’t have one of those heart-stopping moments that you always seem to get when you are presented with the bill in a fine dining restaurant!