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LINDEN Hall in the heart of Northumberland is the spectacular setting for The Journal Taste 2 food and drink festival taking place tomorrow.

Linden Hall in the heart of Northumberland is the spectacular setting for The Journal Taste 2 food and drink festival taking place tomorrow. Jane Hall speaks to the hotel’s new head chef about why local is best – and the part he’ll be playing in Taste 2.

Gareth Marks, head chef at Linden Hall

CHEF Gareth Marks doesn’t hesitate when asked what his food philosophy is: “Keep it simple, do it well”.

It’s a path the 35-year-old has been following since he first walked into a professional kitchen as a naive 17-year-old on work experience.

That was at Linden Hall in the days when it was owned by North East travel firm Callers-Pegasus and was the place to be seen meeting, greeting and most definitely eating.

Since then rival luxury hotels have come on the regional scene and tapped into the public’s growing affluence, the current downturn aside. But despite the competition, the hotel, golf and country club at Longhorsley, near Morpeth in Northumberland, has kept its reputation as a fine dining place.

Now owned by the Macdonald Hotel Group, its food offering is about to step up a gear. Gareth Marks is back at the Grade II-listed Georgian country house where his cheffing career began – not washing up, but running the show. Working for a hotel group can have its downside, not least having to fall into line when it comes to menus and suppliers. But Gareth – who walked back into Linden Hall’s kitchen only last week for the first time in 18 years – has been given free rein.

Local produce already features heavily on the menus in both the Dobson Restaurant and the hotel’s Linden Tree pub. But Gareth is keen to up the ante and go back to the future by using even more local produce and introducing what he calls “old school cuts and cooking”.

A long-time advocate of local produce – he recently presented Tyne Tees TV’s critically acclaimed A Taste of the North – he says there is huge scope still to push the regional food message inside and outside the area.

“I have been living, breathing and eating local food since we started the 15-mile menu five years ago at Malmaison in Newcastle where I was then head chef. The menu did what it said – everything was from within 15 miles of the hotel.

“It was sparked off by the suppliers coming to see me and showing me what they could do. That was also around the time the farmers’ markets were really starting to kick off and more local suppliers were coming on board. That was how I got involved with the Tyne Tees programme, and my future was sealed in respect of what we have in the way of food in this region.

“We have so many excellent suppliers, like Ridley’s Fish and Game, Jimmy Bell the lambman, who is just up the road from us here at Linden Hall, Steve Ramshaw at Northumbrian Quality Meats and fruit and vegetable supplier Ken Holland, right through to the guys who produce the Wylam beers.

“While local produce is on the menu here at Linden Hall, there is still huge scope to push regional food and make sure everyone who wants to gets a look in. There is so much quality to shout about.”

Which is why Gareth is over the moon The Journal has chosen Linden Hall to stage its Taste 2 food and drink festival in association with Tesco, taking place tomorrow.

Gareth is one of six local celebrity chefs who will demonstrate their skills in a mobile kitchen at the one-day event – a role he fulfilled last April at the first Journal Taste North East England Campaign food festival which saw 62 producers and 10,000 people descend on the National Trust’s Gibside estate at Rowlands Gill, near Gateshead.

The Journal Taste campaign aims to encourage consumers, retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs to buy, use and eat local for the sake of the region’s economy and our health.

Such was the success of the Gibside event that this time 100 of the area’s finest food and drink suppliers and producers will gather alongside Hairy Bikers Simon King and Dave Myers, former Newcastle United favourite David Ginola, who is launching his Coste Brulade wines in the UK at Taste 2, and Gareth and his chef colleagues.

These include Vicky Turnbull, of Durham’s Grafton House hotel; Pierre Rigothier, of Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle; Richard Sim, of Made in Northumberland, which promotes the county’s fine food; Kenny Atkinson, who brought the Scilly Isles their first Michelin star this year and has now joined Seaham Hall’s acclaimed White Room Restaurant, and BBC MasterChef finalist David Hall. Gareth is looking forward to “showing people what we do and what can be done”.

He intends to create his dishes on the day, inspired by the wealth of quality products on offer. And that is one of the reasons he is supporting The Journal’s Taste campaign, and why he is more than happy to take to the demonstration kitchen for a second time on our behalf.

“Why am I supporting Taste 2? Because this festival gives everyone access to what we have around us. That’s one of the memories I have of the first Taste festival at Gibside – the good buzz and the way we got the crowd involved in what they wanted to eat.”

Gareth believes Linden Hall is the perfect backdrop for a food festival. “It is in the heart of Northumberland and has long historical links with the land. It speaks for itself, really.”

Records show that in the 1930s every commercial advantage was taken of the Linden Hall estate, with money coming from licences for shooting game and fishing.

Much of the meat for the main house was provided by the estate gamekeeper, with eggs, milk, butter and cheese supplied from the Home Farm and fruit and vegetables from a large kitchen garden.

And while Linden Hall, set in 450 acres complete with red squirrels and deer, has now passed from being a family mansion to a home-from- home for guests seeking a retreat from the outside world, one thing has stayed constant – a local menu.

Gareth, who says his food heroes are his mother and grandmother, is looking forward to keeping diners’ appetites whetted with an ever changing in-season offering. “I’ll be looking at changing the menu every couple of months to keep people interested and to reflect the seasons.

“I’ve been going through the paperwork here and while food is moving on quickly and we have to keep up with the times and with new ingredients, history does have a place. I love using off-cuts, like shoulders of lamb, and I want to start pushing slow-cooked foods.

“I would love to have more game as well. The grouse season has just kicked off and something like that has got to have a place on a seasonal menu offered in the heart of Northumberland. It’s all about bringing a fresh attitude to Linden Hall. The hotel is old, but there is still a lot of love here.”

It’s time to head back to the kitchen. Shaking his head, Gareth can’t believe he is back where he began. “I have come full circle. But I am a great believer in fate. And this feels right.”

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