Celebrity chef, James Martin, 49, is a big fan of Scotland
In fact, while he was shooting ITV’s Islands to Highlands, he almost bought an island in Shetland - presumably the 64-acre Linga, one of the Scalloway Islands, which was up for sale recently.
“I was filming with a gentleman and he said, you need to buy that,” says Hampshire-based Martin. “I enquired about it and kept looking back. When we left, I was thinking about it. Anyway, I walked away in the end. I was close”.
That’s probably just as well, or the reception might not have been too great on our phone call about his new book, Butter, which is out now.
“I’ve used that ingredient quite a bit on TV over the last 30 years. The publishers wanted something about cooking at home, and I thought, why don’t we do an ingredient-led book”, says Martin, who presents ITV’s James Martin’s Saturday Morning, from his house. “The response has been massive”.
It features 130 sweet and savoury recipes including truffle butter brioche, rum baba, langoustine with roast lemon butter, waffles with whipped pecan maple butter, rhubarb custard bread and butter pudding, and ribs with liquorice butter glaze.
Sometimes the butter is incidental, other times it's the star of the show, especially when it comes to the French toast sandwich, which is fried in half of a melted block, or the salmon pave confit, cooked in 300g of clarified butter. The book also demonstrates how to make your own butter, and pastry, and is interspersed with quotes from Martin’s chef pals, including one from Tom Kerridge, who says of this ingredient; “I would bathe in it if I could”.
Perhaps the post-lockdown diet will have to be postponed.
“It's everything in balance and moderation”, says Martin. “We have this obsession in the UK, this up and down with weight, while the rest of Europe and the whole world eats butter. They consume more of it than us and they don’t have the issues that we do. At the end of the day, it's a natural ingredient, not manufactured”.
Whatever you do, don’t ask if you can replace the butter ingredient with margarine.
“It contains up to 30 ingredients, half of which you won't even know what they are. Even doctors are saying that their advice in the Seventies to eat margarine was wrong. I don’t want to eat something when I don’t know what it is”, says Martin. “However, I will never lecture others and say, eat this, try this and do that. I've never been one of those people that stands with a placard and shouts and screams. People have a choice”.
You certainly couldn’t use spread to make the beautifully crumbly-looking shortbread that’s in the book. Unfortunately, other Scottish butter-heavy treats, like rowies and tablet, didn’t make it to the final cut, though Martin insists he loves those too. Almost as much as our produce, which he’s always happy to wax lyrical about.
“You've got the ultimate larder”, he says. “Whether it's fruit, potatoes or seafood. I'm very jealous”.
Even though you might imagine that French butter is the best in the world, Martin endorses The Edinburgh Butter Company, which launched in 2018.
“I've been using them in my restaurants for quite a long time,” he says. “There are two main ones that chefs use, including a company called Ampersand, which is based in Oxford and shares the same ethos as The Edinburgh Butter Company. If you're a pastry chef like myself, the quality of raw materials like flour and butter is vital. Not all butters are the same, by any means, they all have different characteristics”.
As well as a tour coming up next year, another book already in the pipeline, looking after his restaurants, including the James Martin Kitchen cafe chain, and filming, this chef is also in the process of reinvigorating the blast-from-the-past that is baked potato chain SpudUlike.
After starting out as an Edinburgh-based business back in 1974, this failing company went into administration in 2019 and was bought by potato growers Albert Bartlett. Martin recently came on board, to redesign the menu.
“It was sold in 1979 to the British School of Motoring, then it sadly declined”, Martin says. “People took their eye off the ball, when it came to what the customer wanted and didn’t listen to them or the staff. The customers thought it was too bland and boring. By the end of this month, we’ll have re-branded every single site”.
He was up in Airdrie two weeks ago, to discuss “SpudUlike by James Martin” with owner Ronnie Bartlett and meet the farmers who produce the potato. According to Martin, they’ve gone for the Maribel variety, which they cook with no salt or oil, though Martin promises they’ll still have a crispy skin.
There are ten branches opening in the UK at the moment, including Livingston on October 20 and Braehead on October 29.
They haven’t returned to their Edinburgh roots yet, but here’s hoping.
However, the new venture might not be exactly as we remember. Although their menu includes toppings of cottage cheese and chilli con carne, they’re a little more sophisticated than they used to be. These days, their jacket spuds come with BBQ pork ribs, peri peri chicken and chickpea daal.
Of course, any variety of baked potato is the perfect vehicle for butter. In the new SpudUlike’s case, they’ve sourced this ingredient from a Cotswolds company, Netherend, who, Martin says, also supply The Ritz and The Savoy.
Presumably, they won’t be sparing with it, and each tattie will be topped with enough melted butter for even Tom Kerridge to bathe in.
Butter: Comforting, Delicious, Versatile. Over 130 Recipes Celebrating Butter by James Martin is out now, Quadrille, £22