As head chef at London's Portland restaurant, Merlin Labron-Johnson was awarded a Michelin star at the age of 24, then went onto open Portland's sister restaurant, Clipstone. Most recently, he returned to his West Country roots and opened Osip in Bruton, Somerset – just a stone’s throw from our own Babington House.
‘Broth has been a constant on my life’s table. When I was a child, we’d have a broth at home every week; now, as an adult, it’s a staple in my own home and I serve a hot cup of it to every diner at my restaurant. It feels reassuring and makes a humble start to their meal.
‘A broth can be made with almost anything – a bird, oxtail, bones, marrow, all manner of veg – and is a starting point for so many meals. It’s generous yet thrifty, and can feed a family handsomely but is also very cheap to make. What I love most is that it lasts and can have more than one life.
‘When I was growing up, my mum would make a basic broth which would take on new guises over the course of the week. One day it would be a vegetable bouillon, another day she might combine it with rice left over from another meal, or cook barley or pasta into it. And if we’d had a roast chicken, she might pull the remaining meat off the bones and add that.
‘We never had expensive ingredients, but my family believed in good food. My parents would try to shop at farmers’ markets and were early advocates of veg boxes. I grew up in Buckfast Leigh, near Riverford – now famous for its veg-box scheme – so we always had high-quality vegetables available. Meat was expensive and they preferred having no meat to bad meat; we’d have the occasional chicken or pheasant, which I can remember my dad picking up for £1 at market. That would sometimes go into the weekly broth.
‘I’m sure my mum learnt the art of broth making from my granny, who’s a pro at getting lots of meals out of one thing. I think that’s a skill that’s been forgotten – people don’t cook like that now. Granny’s broth is always the thing made out of all the leftovers. She raised a family of five in a caravan with very little money and learnt to be resourceful with food.
‘I have a strong memory of her feeding me broth when my parents had gone away. She called it “ship soup” and told me it was what the captains and sailors ate on their boats, enticing me to eat it with stories of the sea. I also remember trying to reheat my bowl of broth for myself at Granny’s house, over an electric heater. Granny’s broth was always more heavily seasoned than my mum’s – I think it was eating her broth that taught me about the power of salt and how it brings ingredients to life.
‘Nowadays, my girlfriend and I often have a broth on the go. She read that high-collagen foods like bone broth can help skin problems, of which she’s had a few, so she likes to make it with things like trotters that are high in gelatine. After a 17-hour shift in the kitchen, when the last thing I feel like doing is cooking, I look forward to reheating this broth with some noodles or vegetables. It’s very restorative.
‘At [Osip], we always have some poultry on the menu – duck, chicken, guinea fowl – which forms the basis of our broths. We roast the bones, along with some onion and garlic, to make a light brown broth, then infuse it with lapsang souchong tea. We season it with a fermented mushroom soy sauce, then add an oil (at the moment it’s a burnt garlic oil). Every diner is served a cup of this immediately. It’s our way of saying welcome.
‘I also love to cook broth as the French make pot au feu. They boil chicken or ham hock or oxtail, then poach vegetables in the meat liquor, before removing the solids to eat with mustard and salt and herbs alongside a cup of the broth. Or you can eat the whole lot together from a bowl. Osip is inspired by French country auberges, so serving a cup of broth to our diners is as much a nod to that idea as it is to my own culinary heritage.’