Brrrr

Happy 2015 and cor isn’t it chilly! Whilst lots of people head for their juicers, ‘dry’ Januarys and plates of kale I am afraid I need comfort food and hearty sustenance,not to mention a large glass of something red, to get me through the second half of winter. Alongside that I always find myself booking a summer holiday so that there’s something to look forward to and lots of yummy Mediterranean food fills my thoughts – well there’s always food on my mind!

In amongst all this dreaming and  planning I have also found time to fix dates for a couple of supperclubs so that you are well warned and get them in your diaries. Remember if you want to be first to hear what the menu is and when the booking is opened then you need to be on my list. Enter your details here and I promise I’ll keep them safe and not share them. The suppers usually sell out in 24 hours, so it’s well worth being ahead of the game.

So Saturday 28th February at Macknade in Faversham and Saturday 27th June also at Macknade are your key dates for now. There’ll be a special angle to the Feb date with the lovely Gusbourne Estate’s CEO Ben joining us (and there’s rumour he’ll have some of their delicious wine with him…..) something to look forward to if you’ve been giving booze a miss this month.

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.

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?

Menu finalised for 4th May

The weather finally seems to be making an attempt at Spring and there has certainly been some rapid growth in the garden so hopefully the fresh, fabulous produce we are all waiting for will soon appear. I had hoped to be able to include asparagus on the menu but there is very little sign of it so far. If some does pop up over the next fortnight then I may well tweak the menu, but for now our greenery will come in the form of a vivid nettle and wild garlic soup which has become a favourite of mine and of which there is plenty! To follow, a rich crab tart based on a recipe that one of the chefs at Quaglinos gave me years ago when I worked there. I used to do a twelve hour shift on Fridays and Saturdays, starting at lunchtime and getting home early enough to pick up the next day’s papers as I drove through Camden. Often wrapped up in a piece of greaseproof paper in my bag would be a hastily (and cheekily..) grabbed slice of crab tart from the kitchen. I hope to recreate the flavours for you and memories for me, wonderfully crisp pastry and warm filling using the freshest crabs from West Whelks in Whitstable. The main course will be lamb, dainty cutlets with new potatoes and purple sprouting. To round it all off a rich chocolate pot and gorgeous chewy Amaretti biscuit an Ottolenghi favourite of mine.

I hope to see you there, booking will open on Sunday.

Tasting and testing and Twitter

One of the may wonderful things about Twitter is the people I have met who share my love for food, both locally sourced and from farther afield. I can no longer just pop in to the Goods Shed and grab things quickly as I always want to stop and say hello to the stall holders who have become my friends. Lee who runs Murray’s Stores, Dianne who works for Lee and is also an expert butcher for Carl at Canterbury Butchers, Clive Barlow and his tempting wines, Johnny Sandwich, Patrick’s Kitchen and Rafa who is responsible for the fabulous restaurant there.

For those who have been following this blog and the supperclub since the beginning you will know that it was a fantastic dinner at Rafa’s restaurant at the Good’s Shed organised by Helen (who blogs as A Kentish Kitchen and who set up Eat Drink Kent to celebrate all that is great about food in the county) that gave me the kick start I needed. At the dinner I met Adelina who has too many blogs to keep track of, and over the past year we have become friends and enjoying sharing meals and tales of meals, recommendations and plotting where to go next. Her latest venture is as a partner in a new business Quimet, launching next weekend in London, importing Catalan specialities and I was delighted to be asked to come and taste and test the samples, well you know, it’s a hard life but someone has to….

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And so here is a brief write up of what we tried from the future Quimet range, and I can heartily recommend Ratafia, Cava and dessert wine before 11.30am on a Friday to set you up for the weekend.

And elsewhere this week I met a whole other group of Twitter friends at the wonderful Gizzi Erskine feast which took place at the Drapers Arms to celebrate the publication of her new book. What an extraordinary meal that was.

March menu shaping up

It’s at this sort of time a few weeks before the supperclub that I have to try and narrow down my list of possibles into a coherent menu so that guests can see what they might be getting and start to get excited. March is tricky though with the ‘hungry gap’, familiar to people who buy their veg locally rather than cellophane wrapped from the supermarket and flown in from Israel, Kenya, Morocco….It really isn’t asparagus season yet despite the Valentine’s promotions in supermarkets all last week.

It takes imagination and a whole lot of willpower to look at the kale, swedes, parsnips or leeks yet again and decide that yes indeed you wouldn’t prefer a bundle of fine French beans tossed with butter, garlic and black pepper. But as you know, my supperclub ethos is to celebrate the best of what there is locally and seasonally and so I will persevere.

My long list so far includes:
Cullen skink
Savoury Pumpkin tart with hazelnuts and mustard greens
Orange curd tart
Steamed pudding
Chicken liver parfait with rhubarb pickle
Chocolate tarts with whisky caviar
Beetroot soup shots
Risotto, roasted squash and deep fried sage leaves
Spelt stuffed cabbage leaves with roasted tomato sauce
Honey pannacotta with star anise
Wild boar with polenta and kale
Pavlova with rhubarb, rose and pistachio
Cauliflower velouté with scallops or spiced roasted cauliflower
Wild boar ragu with pappardelle
Game pie
Panacotta with blood orange confit

As you can see I still need to work on editing….it is only a four course dinner, however choice is a good thing and I will work hard over the next week to hone it down and my family will be your guinea pigs.

It’s a tough life for some.

Good Food Guide competition

Back in the autumn last year I spotted a call out from the Good Food Guide to enter a competition for wannabe restaurant critics/food writers. The challenge was to write a review of a restaurant in 250 words. Ever the enthusiast I gave it a go and wrote the following about one of my favourite places The Goods Shed in Canterbury. I was amazed and delighted to get an email in late November to say that I had been selected as one of the finalists and so this Saturday I am off to the Waitrose Cookery School in London for a day with the Elizabeth Carter editor of GFG, plus writer and editor William Sitwell. We will be given tasks to do and be put through our paces and at the end of the day a winner announced. Of course I would be over the moon to win but to have got this far seems like a great prize already. I will blog again about what we get up to and of course, as it’s me, it’s bound to be on Twitter @emwilco.

‘No-one visiting The Goods Shed, a permanent indoor farmers market just beyond the centre of Canterbury, ever leaves empty handed. The bright, vaulted space brims with produce. Laughter and chatter, the buzz and clatter of chefs, butchers, fishmonger and coffee machine blends with the sound of customers taking in the array of gloriously presented and freshly picked vegetables.
With a wonderfully eclectic range of stalls joyfully celebrating the food of the locality you can pick up ingredients to take away or graze on morsels as they catch your eye; slow-proved bread and baked savouries from Enzo, an array of dishes from ‘Patrick’s kitchen’, an English ‘traiteur’ and artisan beers at the Bottle Shop.
And then there is the restaurant, set on a raised platform running the length of this unpolished, industrial space with bright open kitchen at the far end. A high rail draped in richly coloured blankets, scrubbed pine tables, mismatched chairs, dainty stems of wildflowers and a welcoming brigade of smiling staff set a relaxed tone. A vast blackboard sets out their stall, with a menu changing twice daily sourced from the traders each day and telling a tale of all that is great about food from this corner of Kent. Head chef Rafa sends out perfect plates; pumpkin tart with cobnuts and peppery leaves followed by glistening sea trout with foraged samphire and sea beet, or saltmarsh lamb cutlets crisp and pink with wilted greens. Two courses can easily be had for £20…but you will want three!’

And just in case you want to see how a review should really be written, here is the inimitable Marina O’Loughlin in a recent Guardian review of the very same place.
Guardian review

A rather lovely blog from a guest

I first met Adelina at a wonderful foodies’ banquet held earlier this year at The Goods Shed and organised by Helen (who at the time I knew only by her Twitter monicker of @forkful). It was that event and noting the ease with which more than 20 strangers sat down to a meal together, that gave me the confidence to start my supperclub. So I was delighted when I finally managed to set a date that Adelina could make. She always writes beautifully and her pictures capture the atmosphere brilliantly.

Canterbury food love story

One week to go

This time next week I will be loading the car with all of the goodies for the diners at supperclub no.2.

As part of my (ahem) selfless ongoing research for brilliant local food and drink I loaded up my basket at Macknade today with a range of cheeses to taste and select for next week. One which I have seen often and never bought before is Ellie’s Goat, a wonderful fresh cheese, similar in consistency to the cheese I learnt to make at River Cottage and very mild – a goat’s cheese perhaps for people who don’t think they like it? I had hoped to make some cheese for next week but time has run away from me. Anyhow with such a lovely product made a couple of miles away it’s not at all necessary.

I discovered the Ellie’s Dairy blog where I then found that the Kelly’s goat which featured on the menu in May is made with their milk too – no wonder it’s so good!

Menu coming together – or is it? Choices, choices.

I thought I had fixed the menu in my head but today when I went out shopping there were so many yummy things that caught my eye; plump pigeon breasts, home-cured rollmops at Bluey’s, wonderful looking duck at Barkaways. So will it be rabbit terrine to start, or perhaps duck rillettes? On the other hand a warm pigeon salad has never been known to fail to please and how about a salad Liegoise with waxy new potatoes and slices of those great looking pickled herrings?

Excitingly the first of the cherries have appeared. There is a wonderful character “Terry”, who you can find just off the Whitstable road coming out of Faversham – there a signs which lead you into a field along a bumpy track, through an apple orchard and then deep into the shade of vast old cherry trees. Somewhere in the canopy, up one those wonderful ancient tapering ladders, you can often spy a man and a bucket and then at ground level, amongst the trees a small stall with “sound horn for attention” and “Terry’s Cherries”. At £2.50 per pound despite the terrible harvest this year, first the late frosts, then the wind and endless rain, this is a labour of love because it surely can’t be a money spinner!

So there will be cherries in there too for sure. I am thinking about a twist on the Spanish classic churros with hot chocolate so maybe they can sit alongside to cut through the richness.

Lots of choices and the main course to figure out, but you can be assured I will have fun tasting and testing for you.