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The long road back

Chef Mark Hix is starting over

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Come ‘the Glorious Twelfth’ and the start of the grouse-shooting season, a few years back I would drop everything to be up in Scotland on one of the big shoots. But the concerns voiced ever louder about the methods used, and the impact on the peat bogs of the grouse moors, have steadily reduced my appetite for such large-scale events.

That said, when the invitation came my way from some old mates to join them on a much smaller shoot and bag a few handfuls of grouse – rather than hundreds as in the past – I was tempted, but in two minds. So as you read this, I may well be in the north.

If I do go, I have no lack of grouseseas­on recipes. Simplicity is the key

When furlough is over, I’m hoping things will look up, but I’m not convinced

with grouse – half a bird on toast as a starter with wild berries, or a whole roasted bird. Delicious. The taste of grouse, once you’ve got rid of the remnants of shot, is distinctiv­e and slightly liver-y.

So, good reasons to accept the invitation, but what is tempting me most is the chance to add in a bit of salmon fishing. Working flat out every day, I crave that head space you find on a river bank.

With the easing of lockdown and the peak summer season in full swing, it is full-on, especially when I’m on the fish truck in the morning. Last week I had to reduce my opening days to just one. Despite all our efforts, the staff shortages we have been suffering since we were allowed to reopen are not getting any better. I am clinging to the hope that, when furlough is finally removed from the equation, the labour market will look up, but I am not wholly convinced.

On which subject, as a long-time advocate of shopping and eating locally, I have recently agreed to be an ambassador for Jurassic Feast, a new community initiative and app.

The aim is to encourage people to buy more local ingredient­s and to eat out at restaurant­s that support local producers, but I can’t help also noticing that hospitalit­y businesses like mine that are signed up are also using it to advertise for staff. We are all, it seems, in the same undercrewe­d boat.

At least I don’t need too many helping hands with my Kitchen Tables – where a group can book to come to my house and chat to me as I cook lunch or dinner for them. These are really picking up. So some days it is end to end. Not that I am complainin­g. There is so much ground to make up financiall­y after all those months of closure.

All this activity means I am struggling to set aside a few days for my second hernia op. I suppose I should be doing that instead of even thinking of going to Scotland, but it gives me very little trouble at the moment, as long as I delegate any box-lifting.

And, if I am honest, having to go back into hospital when everything is in season and the sun is out feels counter-intuitive. There are just so many other things I’d rather be doing – like devising ways to use the lovely fresh chanterell­e mushrooms that are starting to arrive on our menus. And what about all that summer veg that is around in such abundance right now?

We have, for example, a glut of pumpkins and squashes ripening at the moment in the kitchen garden that I carefully planted and have nurtured at The Fox Inn. I know what you will be thinking – they don’t taste of anything. But they do, especially if you make sure to grow only the tasty varieties like Crown Prince and butternut squashes with their delicious orangey-yellow flesh.

Grudgingly, I will concede that courgettes can be a bit bland, but we are currently serving our homegrown ones with ricotta, pickled walnuts and – the best bit of a courgette – their flowers as a starter. They are going down a treat.

If there was one thing I missed during those long months of lockdown, it was the occasional hour in the evening down in Lyme at the harbour pubs with my fisherman mates. So I am trying to make sure now that I make time to do it once a week.

The bar at The Fox is slowly, slowly getting back to normal, but there is still a palpable nervousnes­s that means drinkers quickly head outside having ordered their pints. In the harbour pubs, though, it feels much more back to business, which makes them – for me at least –the perfect tonic in these still-edgy times.

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