The Sportsman, Kent
We had already devoured four very different appetisers – authentic pork scratchings; cubes of herring on soda bread with apple jelly; and two local oyster dishes, one based on wild oysters – when our waitress approached our table with a smile.
“Steve says you’re having lamb later and he doesn’t like to waste anything,” she explained, laying down two small dishes of devilled lamb’s kidneys in a parsley sauce. Grasping the skewers that pierced these juicy morsels, we proceeded to do justice to these, too.
The Steve in question is chef Stephen Harris who, with his brother Peter, runs The Sportsman pub at Seasalter near Whitstable in Kent, as well as The Granville pub, near Canterbury. The financing for both is provided by another 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 hardworking local farmers and fishermen can generate from what nature provides. Since Harris and his chef Dan Flavell took over The Sportsman in 1999, they have made it their mission to cook only with local ingredients – what the French call cuisine du terroir. But in this particular instance, the kitchen is blessed not only with farmland on three sides, but also the sea, just 200m from its back door.
Indeed, 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) when Harris voiced any qualms about this philosophy 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,” 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 preceding plate of stunning homemade breads – sourdough, soda bread and red onion focaccia, served with butter home-churned with Seasalter salt.
The risotto was followed by a slip sole with seaweed butter; a slice of turbot braised in vin jaune; 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; and finally, two desserts. The first was a 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, displayed on blackboards by an open fire. Watching those at surrounding tables walk over, debate with enthusiasm what they were going to choose and then discuss their orders with the waitress at their tables was a joy. It was particularly pleasing to see a table of five French visitors, whose arms seemed to shoot up in unison when the waitress announced that the warm chocolate mousse with sea salt caramel was her favourite dessert.
Equally joyful was the location. The nearby beach affords views across the water to the Isle of Sheppey, and whichever way you look there is open sky and farmland. And while wilder and more rugged than the landscape glimpsed from René Redzepi’s famous Noma, in Copenhagen, there is a definite empathy between the two restaurants, not least in their aesthetic and in their shared aim of extracting great flavours from local ingredients.
But what was most impressive about our food was that Harris could create such terrific dishes in the bleak British mid-winter. This was exemplified by his team’s approach to the humble apple, using it to create a jelly, a foam, a tangy sauce, and finally in the petits fours. This is the mark not just of a high level of professional execution, but also of thoughtfulness and husbandry.
Equally memorably, all this takes place in an historic pub, where the lavatories are located next to the dartboard, and where the Harrises look so at home behind the bar. My only regret is that, thoughtlessly, Stephen lives upstairs, so doesn’t rent out the rooms. If he did, we could have stayed for dinner.
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Faversham Road, Seasalter Whitstable, Kent 01227 273370; www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk