A fresh email plops into the inbox. You are invited to a tequila lunch with Mark Hix on Thursday it casually says. I re-read it a few times. The words “Hix” “lunch” and “tequila” reverberate in my nosh-addled mind like strobe lighting. I call my mates, but this is no wind up. Apparently there is a God. I feel awash with happiness, like I’ve won the culinary lottery.
It’s an Inspirit Brands event and strolling through the City sunshine to the Oyster and Chop House, even the suits emit thin-lipped smiles at one another, like vicious little paper cuts. It’s one of those days when you fall all over in love again with this skanky old town. It’s one of those days, when all you want to do is stand outside and drink chilled lemon verbena cocktails mixed by a world champion bartender, the citrusy leaves plucked fresh from his garden that morning. Which is precisely what we do.
I try not to gawp at Cleo Rocos wobbling exotically around on her crutches like the ornithological walking wounded (she’s suffering from a brutally agonising knee injury, but laughs and jokes throughout our lunch). I’m introduced to Sam Galsworthy of Sipsmith, Alice Lascelles of Imbibe Magazine, Stuart Ekins of Inspirit Brands, Peter Prescott and Nick Strangeway amongst others. They ask me what I do. I feel vaguely embarrassed – not everyone gets blogging. I have another cocktail, it slips down dangerously easily with its non-alcoholic tang, every little gulpful a fizz of lemon sherbet. They’re all so warm and it’s so luxuriously hot I feel relaxed and as if I’m amongst friends, rather than feeling like the unexpected item in the bagging area.
We enter the deliciously cool interior and sit around the table drinking Ocho Blanco tequila. I’ve never been to the Oyster and Chop house before. It’s classy, but a far cry from one of those pricey establishments where the view is terribly amazing and the food amazingly terrible. Here it’s all about good food and good times. There’s the most extraordinary artwork on the far wall, it’s a blue neon swirl of indecipherable handwriting by Tim Noble and Sue Webster.
The menu reads mellifluously, it’s like a meeting of all the best characters from a Mervyn Peake novel and the Beano. We are to feast on Wilderness freshwater crayfish with Stinger ale and wild fennel, there will be Cornish Mids (potatoes), Scottish girolles, there will be Little Wallop and Farleigh Wallop. I am beside myself with excitement, but try to keep my cool as I’m sat between Hixy and Cleo. Tequila flows, it’s great to see it treated with such respect, like a fine wine. Every course is matched with a perfectly compatible breed and there’s no salt or citrus in sight. Throughout the meal we are treated to Ocho Reposado, Ocho Anejo, Partida Blanco, Partida Reposado, Partida Anejo and my personal favourite, the almost brandy-like Partida Elegante. These range from peppery and spicy to soft and slick in the mouth. Mark’s passion for the stuff is infectious and he fills me in on his sourcing trip to South America.
A floury loaf is plumped rustically on a chopping board before me along with a pat of custard-yellow butter. Everyone sits a little shyly at first; the bread smells unbearably oven-fresh. Platters of the crayfish are served, in a glorious jumble of rust-coloured legs and claws. A medley of silver instruments and cracking devices glint surgically up at me.
“You’re going to need a bib” Mark gently warns me, tucking one into his t-shirt collar. Instead I throw caution to the wind and dive in, unprotected. I’m rewarded with a crayfish-roe facial; like something out of a caviar bukkake flick. I’m too happy to care. The maroon armour drips with the fume of ale and aniseed. The flesh is sweet, salty and maddeningly saporous. I concentrate on winkling out every last morsel and suddenly realise I am surrounded by a chorus of cracking, crunching, slurping and giggling. It’s the perfect ice breaker. Within minutes the pristine bowl of lemon water is transformed into a murky puddle of shattered debris. This is primal eating at its very best; I tear off some more bread and mop up the buttery, fennel-drenched juices.
I’m so busy stuffing my face that I forget to take a photo. Mark arranges for a live one to be brought up so I can snap away, as it waves an angry pincer at me.
We have De Beauvoir smoked salmon with a special `Hix cure’. He tells me how he smokes all his own fish and prefers to serve it cut slightly thicker than usual. This way you can taste both the fish and the smoke. I don’t really like salmon but politely take a bite. I’m blown away. It’s seriously gorgeous, like it’s been caught and freshly smoked with apple wood that very morning. My frankly gob smacked taste buds are as high as a kite.
Mark is a brilliant host – laid back and a great laugh, the sort of person you could imagine down the pub with your mates. He insists on giving all the women a necklace in the shape of a meat chop, it’s designed by Stephen Webster and beyond generous. He talks to his staff like they’re old pals. At one point a glamorous young woman arrives and scolds him about something. I assume she’s a latecomer to the meal from their mellow banter – it’s his PA Jo.
There are no airs and graces at this table and he doesn’t take himself too seriously because he’s confident enough not to have to. In this industry there just aren’t enough people like that and it’s easy to forget that he’s single handedly done more for reviving fantastic British produce than any of his peers.
To my right Cleo is telling us about the time she was kidnapped in Buenos Aires and had to stab the driver in the neck with a pen knife to escape (she was more worried about getting blood on the white dress she’d borrowed than anything else). I look at her expressive, bovine eyes and can’t imagine her hurting anything. She’s beautiful, enigmatic and vivacious. I’ve met a few celeb laydeez before, and she’s as far away from those dead-eyed, Stepfordy types as you can get. He receives a text from Tracy Emin; she wants to ask him something about chicken soup. She’s going to make him a mobile for the bar of his new Soho venture. I sit there trying to pretend this is an everyday occurrence, but the inner Heat-reader in me is going mental. Everyone stops talking as the roast Woolley Park farm chicken is unceremoniously set down, it’s a juddering, meaty beast all glistening juices and crisp, caramel-burnished skin. Mark explains to me about the conical stands he’s had specifically made to keep the bird upright, so the chicken doesn’t become all soggy underneath. Apparently the secret to making it so succulent is not to overcook it. I listen, my eyes half closed in a stupor as the lavish scent curls its seductive way through the air and taps me on the nostrils. He cuts me a huge hunk and piles my plate with sage-studded stuffing and gravy. The meat has a deep, richness to it, and is so tender it really ought to come with some sort of X-rated certificate. I want to laugh because I can’t quite believe what’s taking place in my cakehole. It’s not often after early childhood that you get the chance to experience a completely novel sensation, so when one smacks you around the gob like this it’s hard to really know how to react. Purring comes to mind, but I don’t know these people well enough. I resist the temptation to lean over and pluck out the oysters. The taste of that chicken still haunts me days later, it wakes me up in the night, like some sort of poultrified incubus.
The accompanying creamed spinach is a stunning emerald paste, studded with tawny Scottish girolles, earthy and deep, the perfect counterpoint to the mighty fowl. The pea shoot salad is sweet, crisp and delicate. The Cornish Mids are ok, but I’m not really a fan of boiled potatoes, and give in to the rustling siren call of the matchstick spuds instead; pure crispy, salted naughtiness.
The Burrow Hill cider and tequila jelly, margarita jelly and New Forest Perry and tequila jelly are served, but now I’m fuller than the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and don’t really appreciate them as much as I should. They are intense little mouthfuls but I’m not sure I can take any more grog.
Finally we have Alex James’s Blue Monday and Little Wallop. There’s also Farleigh Wallop all adorned with oatcakes and honey.
I zone in on the Blue Monday, it’s rapturously creamy and tart, a cheese I can really get on board with. The salty curds are shot through with steely, almost Tyrian purple streaks of mould. It cleaves through the toffee notes in the honey like pure lactic lightning. The little wallop is a fresh burst of goaty mildness. It’s washed in Somerset Cider Brandy and wears a hide of vine leaves. But it’s the Blue Monday that hooks me. As everyone laughs and talks around me I sneak in mouthful after creamy, saline mouthful.
Everyone agrees the meal has been a triumphant success. It’s been the antithesis of molecular gastronomy, just unselfconsciously honest food, superlative drinks and excellent company. Hixy’s grub is witty, classy, big hearted and shed loads of fun with a secret, almost nerdish eye for detail. No one wants to leave.
“Gin martinis at 69 Colebrooke Row?” he suggests jovially. Taxis are called and we all head out. It’s raining now, but I can’t imagine life getting much better than this.
On the way out, I glance up at the neon artwork again and suddenly realise it isn’t indecipherable scrawl at all; it is in fact mirror writing. “Fucking beautiful” says the reflection. I silently agree.