Gusbourne

There are many lovely things that emerge from my supperclubs. Working hard on the menus, meeting the wonderful and friendly guests who attend and who share my passion and enthusiasm for good food and conviviality and then the feeling of immense pride when we present 30 beautiful plates and hear the dining room go quiet as people tuck in.

Getting to know the producers and suppliers from whom I source my ingredients is another of my favourite things and it sits at the heart of why I do what I do. Through the supperclub I have been introduced to lots of equally passionate people and today was one of those days.

Thanks to Stefano Cuomo, owner of Macknade where I host most of my dinners, I recently had a call from Ben Walgate, CEO of Gusbourne Estate, a boutique winemaker in Kent. Ben has been at Gusbourne for just over a year and is looking at ways to introduce their wines to a wider Kentish market, having already made a name for themselves in the trade, winning awards at the IWC and being listed by restaurants including Folkestone’s Rocksalt and in specialist retailers, as well as in the press. Ben invited me over to the vineyard near Appledore (they also have 21 hectares in Sussex) where the winery is and so I spent a fascinating morning finding out about their wines – they make mostly sparkling – and seeing the tens of thousands of bottles produced over the last few years.

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Monday morning at 10.30 was a bit early for a tasting, but Ben very kindly sent me home with a bottle of their award winning 2010 Brut Reserve and also a bottle of the 2013 Pinot Noir – which apparently would have gone very nicely with last weekend’s partridge…I will taste them and let you know how I get on, tough job I know. More interestingly for you is that we agreed that Ben will come to an emwilco supperclub at Macknade in the new year and bring along some wines for you to try. And if you can’t wait that long then there’s Clive Barlow who I am sure would be happy to help…or Gusbourne’s own online shop.

Menu finalised for 8th November

I’ve been watching the weather and waiting to see if this wonderful and prolonged Indian summer would come to an end and if so would we want to eat rich, hearty stews and pies. But it seems we are in for more of the same for a while and so the menu reflects that cusp of the seasons. Light terrine of ham hock, chowder with seared scallops and then roast partridge so plentiful in the butchers that they’re hard to ignore. To finish, the comfort of rice pudding, a winter staple to keep the chill at bay, but with the exotic twist of cardamom and pistachios.

Hectic

Many regular followers of this blog and attendees at the supperclub will know that whilst food is my passion it is not yet my full time occupation.

Until last year I worked at Arts Council England and spent a huge about of my time on trains and motorways – often planning menus and thinking about food. I now work for myself as a independent arts manager and project manager and this summer has turned into a brilliant but hectic period of juggling and plate spinning. It is all very exciting and if you want to find out more then have a look at Margate’s Summer of Colour and the Folkestone Triennial.

What it means sadly is that I cannot manage to also squeeze in a June supper at Macknade as planned without losing my marbles…I may however pop up in Whitstable or Folkestone in an impromptu way so keep an eye on here and on Twitter @emwilco for info.

Menu now finalised

After a brilliant few days in southern Spain it’s a delight to come home to acres of blues sky, long may it continue! I have it on good authority from Susanna at The Good’s Shed that with all this lovely weather there will be Kentish asparagus in time for the end of April and so it features on the menu for the next supper. Having practically lived on wonderful Serrano ham for the last few days I wanted to bring that flavour to this menu, with an English cured meat which Macknade stock. The Mediterranean theme continues with a bouillabaisse and with my take on Spanakopita which uses the abundant nettles and wild garlic which have also been flourishing whilst I was away. To round it all off a seasonal crème brûlée with some local rhubarb – not ‘forced‘ in a darkened shed, but picked from outside my back door – couldn’t get much more local or seasonal than that!

Menu ideas forming

Only a few weeks until the next supper and so the menu starts to come together. I am often asked where my inspiration comes from? Do I use recipes? How do I decide?

The answers are as varied as the questions, but essentially I am inspired by the place that I live and by the seasons, the weather and the food that is abundant. At the moment everything is bursting into life, in the fields (lamb), in the woodlands (wild garlic) in hedgerows and roadsides (Alexanders, chickweed, nettles) and so it goes on. This time last year I was lucky enough to spend two memorable days in the company of three amazing and inspirational wild-food specialists. Mark Williams (aka @markwildfood) who runs guided walks and cook-outs all about foraging from his idyllic base in Galloway, Christoffer Hruskova, Michelin starred Danish chef, previously of North Road in London and now developing an extraordinary ice cream range. And finally the dry, droll and very talented Gary Goldie who made is name at Ardanaiseig and as a former Scottish chef of the year, and now has his name over the door in Oban at “Gary Goldie at the Queens”.
Between the four of us and over two days we picked over 25 different wild food species and gathered ‘spoots’ at low tide – razor clams to you and me. And on the Sunday evening of that extraordinary weekend we cooked a 16 course tasting menu and I learned more techniques in one day than in the preceding year.
So I will be drawing on those memories and ideas, but as I am currently in Andalusia I am tempted too to let some Spanish influences creep in…..now if we can just find octopus on the North Kent Coast…..

Date change

The June supper will now be on the 28th, not the 21st. April’s event remains on the 26th, the menu will be finalised in the next couple of weeks and booking will open on April 13th

The rhubarb triangle…..of Kent

“….yeah you know, near the rhubarb caves on the Graveney Road?” I overheard during a meal at a friend’s house last Spring. I was at the other end of the table and couldn’t hear the rest of the story or its context but with that snippet my interest was piqued. Why so interesting? I am fascinated by the food, farming, and produce of the area where I live and pride myself in sniffing out the small growers, butchers and fishmongers, artisan makers and unusual produce and this one had totally passed me by. True rhubarb aficionados will know that there is a place in England that has gained protected status for its rhubarb and that’s the Yorkshire ‘rhubarb triangle’. In 2010 after several years of petitioning the EU, the rhubarb which is grown between the towns of Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, finally received the European Union’s ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ classification “Yorkshire forced rhubarb”. This status recognises the unique quality of forced Yorkshire rhubarb which has been grown in this way since the late 1800’s and sets it alongside Parma ham, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Jersey Royals as an indicator of its quality and unique nature.

There were said to be over 200 hundred growers in Yorkshire during the peak of production, when the triangle was between the towns of Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, but now only around 12 remain. In order to have caves you would expect there to be hills. So if I reveal that Graveney is not in fact in Yorkshire, nor indeed hilly, but is in fact a tiny village on the North Kent coast a little to the west of Whitstable and not far from the market town of Faversham (home to England’s oldest brewery) in landscape second only in its flatness to the Fens, you will understand a little better my surprise at hearing ‘caves’, ‘rhubarb’ and ‘Graveney’ in the same sentence.

And so I turned sleuth. First I tracked down and asked the utterer of those words if indeed I had heard him correctly, where he had been referring to and whether he had any more information. Bizarrely he set me onto my first contact, a maths teacher at the local secondary school, he knew about the apparent oddity having visited the company who now occupy the farm. He gave me their details and after a couple of slightly odd conversations with the company secretary I found myself in the reception of a scientific instrument manufacturer shaking hands with the very friendly owner. He ushered me out of the single story prefab where their specialist business is located and we walked the short distance across the car park and down a gentle slope into a dip at the edge of a wheat field. The change in level was slight and gradual but sufficient to have provided the depth needed to create a mini hillside.

A garage door set into two brick archways indicated the way in, and much as I loved the romantic idea of caves and wish it was true, when we entered we were in a series of fours brick lined, manmade tunnels. Just above, at the top of the slope, was a tumbledown brick structure which I later discovered had housed the boiler used to heat the water to warm the tunnels. We talked about what might have caused there to be such a dip in the otherwise flat land and wondered if the brick making industry that once thrived in and around Faversham might be it, or given the chalk beneath our feet, perhaps a disused lime quarry? And given that these were not huge tunnels, the production could not have been vast and yet they had been specially built. We wondered aloud how they came to be and whether there were more nearby, but by then we were just making it up and my friendly guide had run out of information, just giving me one more helpful hint. The family who had farmed here and owned the land previously, still lived nearby and one of them worked as a volunteer guide at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, very apt. And so my final stop was with Michael Austen, whose family had worked the farm, first as tenants from 1863 to owners in 1990 but who sold up in 2002 when it was no longer viable.

I have always loved maps and charts, the way they change in scale and hierarchy thorough time and the stories that they can tell. As I sat and spoke to Mr Austin he laughed a little at my naivety when I asked if the dip in the land had been a by-product of local industry and he spread out a wonderful chart from 1628 which clearly showed the feature in the landscape and labelled the dip ‘Hunnyhole’ and I wondered to myself if Winnie the Pooh might have liked to visit? Alongside the maps he had detailed notebooks showing the amount and variety of the crops that the farm produced over the years and the number of labourers employed.

In 1863 when his ancestor Thomas Austen took over the tenancy it was mostly just arable and cattle grazing, but in the early 1900s hop production had increased, helped by the national demand but also to supply the family owned brewery in Ramsgate. In this time too a market garden replaced nearly all of the cereals and grassland and a small dairy herd was established with butter and cream delivered to the nearby town of Faversham. The farm thrived and the hop production increased so that a larger oast kiln needed to be built and other improvements to the farm were made. The brick fields and factories nearby produced a good quantity of reject bricks which whilst not serviceable for housing were perfectly satisfactory for farm buildings. And so coinciding with the increasing demands of Edwardian and Victorian kitchens for the delicate pink stems of forced rhubarb, the tunnels were built. Four brick lined tunnels, two long and two short, with a small coal fired boiler heating water which travelled around cast iron pipes, were cut into a bank near the farmhouse.

Growing rhubarb in this way is costly and immensely labour intensive requiring the crowns to be grown out in the fields for two years before being unearthed over winter in their dormant state and left on the surface to be frosted. In January they were packed into the tunnels, well manured and the gentle steady heat applied until in March the first crop of pale slender and straight stems would be harvested. The tunnels needed to be kept at a steady 50 degrees and totally dark, as they do still in Yorkshire, the rhubarb would be harvested by candle light. No other light can be allowed to come in if the perfect pink stems are to remain that way. However demand for this expensive delicacy fell away by the 1940s and rhubarb production and the intense labour costs made it uneconomical. The tunnels were re-purposed and used briefly for mushrooms and then during the war and afterwards as chicken sheds for egg production, but ultimately their true purpose was no longer viable. To quote Michael Austen “they lie empty, a monument to Victorian ingenuity and taste”. Not a folly as I first thought they might be but a monument. I wonder whether our growing interest in food production might ever bring them back into use, their current owner has certainly been keeping them well maintained. The boiler has gone but perhaps new technology could be brought to use, or shall we just leave it to the Yorkshire men and women and their hard won Designation of Origin?

Faversham Food Festival

Other exciting news for Kentish foodies, the newly launched Faversham Food Festival, a wonderful idea brought to life by a small and passionate group who are aiming to deliver the first fully fledged Festival in 2016 and will work towards that goal with series of events between now and then. 

2014 supperclubs are go!

It seems like an absolute age since the last supper in early November with Christmas festivities followed by appalling and seemingly endless rain. So I am really looking forward to the first supper of 2014 at Macknade on Saturday 22nd Feb. The menu is now set and booking will open on Sunday. Tickets are £35 per person for four courses and BYO. I can’t wait to greet old friends and meet new guests.