This article was also published in the Financial Times.
After we had all devoured four very different appetisers – a plate of authentic pork scratchings; cubes of herring on soda bread wedged together by an apple jelly; and two local oysters dishes, one based on wild oysters – our heavily pregnant waitress approached our table with a smile and two more small dishes.
'Steve says you're having lamb later and he doesn't like to waste anything,' she explained, as she lay down the dishes that contained small cubes of devilled lamb's kidneys in a bright, green parsley sauce. Quickly grasping the skewers that pierced these juicy morsels, we four proceeded to do justice to these, too.
The chef in question is Stephen Harris who, with his brother Peter (right of Stephen in the photograph), runs The Sportsman pub at Seasalter close to Whitstable on the north coast of Kent, as well as another pub, The Granville, at Lower Hardes close to Canterbury, with the financing for both provided by their obviously far-sighted brother Damian.
This area of England has long been rich agricultural land, home to orchards of hops, apples, cherries and anything that the hard-working local farmers and fishermen can generate from what Nature provides. Feeding visitors has been a distinct part of the local economy since the murder of Thomas à Becket, 900 years ago, made Canterbury such an attraction for pilgrims.
Today, the pilgrims have been replaced by tourists, but Harris and his chef Dan Flavell have made it their mission, since they took over The Sportsman in 1999, to continue to cook with only what their local region can provide – what the French cleverly encapsulate in the phrase 'cuisine du terroir'. But in this particular instance, the kitchen is blessed with not only farmland on three sides but also the sea 200 metres from its back door.
In fact, the only time during the seven-course tasting menu (which, including appetisers and the excellent petits fours that some of us managed to eat on the train home, is £65 per person) that Harris voiced any qualms about this philosophical approach was when he served the first course, a stunning bowl of creamy crab risotto. 'Obviously, the rice for this dish isn't grown around here. But I like to think that Roman soldiers marched around here a couple of thousand years ago so that makes me feel fine about serving it,' he explained with a grin. My wife's comment that in future she would like all her crab served like this is obviously something I will now have to live up to.
This dish had to be excellent to top the plate of stunning, homemade breads – sourdough, soda bread and red onion focaccia with their own butter churned with Seasalter salt. It had been a struggle not to eat too much them. The exemplary risotto was then followed by a slip sole with seaweed butter; a slice of turbot braised in vin jaune; a slice of goose with apple, hazelnuts and a juicy brussels sprout; lamb served two ways, crisp pieces of belly with a mint sauce, and then, almost nutty, tranches of saddle, fillet and shoulder of salt marsh lamb; and finally, two desserts. The first was a most refreshing old fashioned jasmine tea junket using milk from the local dairy, the second a meringue ice cream in a deep yellow pool of buckthorn juice. Harris admitted it was quite a challenge to provide truly local desserts in the middle of winter.
As befits a pub, his kitchen also serves a simpler menu that is written up on a series of blackboards by an open fire. Watching those at surrounding tables walk over, debate with considerable enthusiasm what they are going to enjoy and then discussing their choices with the waitresses at their tables was a joy to watch. It was particularly pleasing to see a table of five French visitors whose arms seem to shoot up in unison when the waitress announced that the warm chocolate mousse with sea salt caramel was her favourite dessert.
The second was the location itself. The beach nearby affords views across the water to the Isle of Sheppey and, whichever direction one looks, there is open sky and farmland whose hedges are continually blown by the wind. Below is the view behind The Sportsman towards the sea. It is more rugged and wild than the views from the windows of Noma, Copenhagen, which chef Rene Redzepi has made so famous, but there is a definite empathy between the two.
This is most obvious in their aesthetic and in their shared aim of extracting such great flavours from the ingredients that are so close by. What was most impressive about all that we ate was that Harris could create such terrific dishes in the British bleak mid winter when so many of our ingredients are as much in need of sunshine as we are. This was exemplified by all that his brigade did to turn the humble apple into such an array of different flavours as it appeared here as a jelly, a foam, as a tangy sauce, and finally in the petits fours. This was exemplary, the mark not just of a high level of professional execution but also of thoughtfulness and husbandry.
And, equally memorably, all this takes place in an historic pub, where the lavatories are located next to the dartboard, and the Harrises look so at home behind the bar. My only regret is that, thoughtlessly, Stephen lives upstairs rather than rents the rooms out. Then we could have stayed for dinner.
The Sportsman www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk
From London St Pancras a high-speed train to Faversham takes an hour and then it's a 10-minute taxi ride.