Cheese and pickle sandwiches, roast chicken dinners and Horlicks before bedtime are all comforting food memories that the chef and owner of HOLM, Nicholas Balfe, elegantly reimagines for guests at his restaurant with rooms in the Somerset village of South Petherton. “Nostalgia is a real driver for me,” he admits. “For me, a good dish is a transportive dish.” The flavours on the plate in HOLM can be traced back to Nicholas’s childhood garden in Dorset. “Food was a focal point of family life. That’s the reason why I do what I do professionally – there's no doubt about it,” he says. 

Between the ages of five and ten, Nicholas feasted on seasonal, homegrown produce: rhubarb, gooseberries, elderflower and artichokes were all part of his family’s culinary calendar. “I've got a very vivid memory of eating rhubarb stalks dipped in brown sugar and making elderflower fritters with my grandmother,” he says. “She was part of that post-war generation, so she really relished making the most of what she could find for free. Those ingredients and flavours are all things I hold dear now.”

Nicholas spent his teenage years in Harrogate. At the age of 14, he got his first job as a pot-wash in a bustling Italian trattoria that “knocked out pizzas and chicken cacciatore” for up to 300 people each evening. He soon graduated from the sink to the prep area: “That’s where I caught the bug for the high-octane environment of the kitchen,” he recalls.

The year before he went to university, Nicholas worked for the town’s rival restaurant, The Italian Connection. With just 20 covers and two chefs, he gradually gained more experience. “I still remember my first taste of the cheese sauce the chef was preparing to serve with the fillet steak,” he says. “It was gorgonzola, cream and a bit of masala and I remember trying it and thinking: ‘This is just amazing …’” When he wasn’t learning on the job in the kitchen, he worked front of house in the deli, acquainting himself with a range of Italian cured meats and cheeses. 

A degree in marketing followed by a few short years working in advertising temporarily diverted his attention, but the urge to work with food soon resurfaced. He staged with Moro founders, Sam and Sam Clark at their flagship restaurant in Exmouth Market – an experience that propelled him on an eight-month “camino de jamón” through Spain on the trail of jamón Ibérico. On his return, he worked for Margo Henderson at Rochelle Canteen – “a magical, produce-driven restaurant” – followed by a stint as the head chef at Brunswick House.

In 2012, Nicholas opened Salon in Brixton with two business partners. The raw simplicity of Salon was an extension of London’s emerging pop-up food culture and drew inspiration from “that Parisian movement of basically taking over ramshackle old bistros and turning them into new wave, gastronomic experiences.” Diners came in droves for Nicholas’s inventive, seasonal dishes. 

Following the success of Salon, the trio opened Levan in Peckham in 2019, followed by Larry’s – both inherently urban eateries that effortlessly tapped into London’s appetite for what one food critic described as “blissful … devourable … world-changing” dishes. 

Salon was world-changing for Nicholas in a different sense. He met his wife there and, by 2021, the urge to raise their young family outside of London brought him to the door of a 19th-century, honey-coloured building in South Petherton. “It sounds like something Buzz Lightyear might say, but what I wanted to do was create a destination restaurant for the local community and beyond,” Nicholas says.

The menu he has created here expertly straddles the accessible and the inventive: “As I've got a little bit more mature, I find myself referencing the classics more overtly,” he says. That comforting combination of cheese and pickle, for example, is reimagined in his signature dish of Westcombe cheddar fries accompanied by pickled walnut. Local lamb is served with a jus that tastes “like a spoonful of roast dinner” – a distillation of childhood Sundays. 

Last autumn, Nicholas opened seven rooms above the restaurant. “It’s lovely to be able to welcome people from a little bit further afield,” he says. “It means we can look after our guests from the moment they walk in. We can offer them a drink by the fire, then have them for dinner, then breakfast, before sending them off for the day and welcoming them back again for dinner. It's quite a special experience.”

The move from city to country has also enabled Nicholas to embrace an honest, holistic approach to hospitality. Both literally and metaphorically, “there is no back staircase” he says. Diners and overnight guests enter through the same front door and are welcomed by waiting staff and chefs. “I think that’s what makes it so unique and intimate,” says Nicholas. “From the moment you walk in the door, you're able to see the chefs tinkering away which I think creates a different level of appreciation for the hard work that goes into hospitality.”

In the ground floor restaurant and the rooms above, the raw lime plaster walls and exposed brickwork are softened by sheepskins from Otter Valley Farms. “In fact, we’ve got mutton on the menu at the moment,” says Nicholas. “So the skins over these chairs could potentially come from an animal we’ve served in the restaurant …” There’s even a rhubarb patch in the garden out back. “The picture here is almost complete,” he says.

Pan-Seared Trout with Spring Vegetables & Brown Butter Sabayon

This dish could potentially sound quit pedestrian if it weren’t for the brown butter sabayon - a rich, decadent, umami sauce cut through with acidity from good quality rice vinegar and given extra oomph from a dash of white soy. If you can’t find white soy, use a dash of sherry vinegar and a dash of light soy instead.

Trout is getting easier to find in supermarkets and is a far more sustainable alternative to salmon. Some farmed rainbow trout can have a slightly earthy flavour which some people find unpleasant. We use Chalk Stream trout from Hampshire at the restaurant which has a beautifully crisp, clean flavour, but any good quality trout will do

Serves 4 as a main. 

Ingredients:

4 fillets of good quality trout, approx 120g each, skin on, scaled, pin bones removed (ask your fishmonger if you don’t feel confident with any of that)
6 large English asparagus spears
100g fresh or frozen peas, podded
100g fresh or frozen broad beans, podded
Half a bulb of fennel, very finely sliced - ideally on a mandolin
100g sea greens such as monk’s beard, sea beet or purslane (optional)
A handful of fresh soft herbs such chervil, parsley or dill
A few tarragon leaves
75ml extra virgin olive oil
Juice of a lemon
A dash neutral oil e.g. rapeseed oil
A knob of butter

For the brown butter sabayon

175g unsalted butter, ‘browned’ - see below.
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp white soy
1 tsp rice wine vinegar

Recipe:

First, prepare the vegetables. Remove the woody end of the asparagus then blanche briefly in boiling salted water, then refresh in iced water. When they are cool, trim up and slice into half cm discs. Ensure the peas and broad beans are podded and defrosted if using frozen. Season the fennel with salt and lemon juice. Blanche and refresh the sea greens if using. Pick through the herbs to remove any thick stalks. Set everything aside in the fridge until needed.

Remove any packaging from the trout and pat dry with kitchen towel. Leave skin side up uncovered so the skin dries out. You can do this anything up to a day before if you like.

Next, make the sabayon. Brown the butter by whisking in a pan over a medium heat, whisking continuously until it foams vigorously, the solids caramelise, you smell a nutty aroma and the colour is golden brown. Strain through a sieve and set aside to cool - it should yield approximately 125g.

Over a bain marie on a medium high heat, whisk together the egg yolks, soy and vinegar until it becomes light and fluffy. Turn the heat right down and whisk in the now just cooled butter until you have a fluffy, silky consistency. Set aside in a warm place until needed. Add a splash of warm water and whisk again if it begins to look too thick.

Now, cook the trout. Heat a non-stick pan over a medium-high heat with a dash of neutral oil. Season the trout all over with sea salt, and place skin side down in the pan. Press on to the flesh side of the trout so the entirety of the skin connects with the heat of the pan - this helps form an even crust. Don’t be tempted to move trout at this stage - leave it for a good 2-3 minutes, before turning the heat down slightly and adding the butter. Baste the fish all over for another minute or so, by which time the skin should be crisp and delicious. Turn the fillets over for a final minute, before transferring to a rest in a warm place.

Finally warm through the vegetables in the olive oil over a gentle heat. Season with salt, then lemon to taste.

Plate up by placing a trout fillet on each plate with a spoonful of the vegetables and a spoonful of the sabayon to finish and enjoy.

Nicholas wears the TOAST Unstructured Cotton Linen Blazer and Alfie Garment Dyed Herringbone Trousers. The Leach Pottery Mixing Bowls are also featured.

Words by Nell Card.

Photography by Marco Kesseler.

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2 comments

Beautifully written and described, I think I can taste the flavours in this delicious recipe! Thank you TOAST, planning a visit in the future, the photos accompanying the text make it so inviting!

Agalis 12 days ago

Thank you for making Holm such a welcoming place in South Petherton! So glad you’re part of our community! Luckily, I’m right around the corner and enjoy your wonderful dishes and great hospitality often!

June 1 month ago