Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Small Holding, Kent

The rise of the rural farm/gastropub has been one of the more notable food stories from the last few years. When once it would have been enough to namecheck your butcher or fishmonger, or make some vague promise to "work with local suppliers", perhaps growing a handful of herbs in a windowpot if you felt particularly Felicity Kendall about things, these days if you're not raising your own chickens, keeping your own honeybees and up at dawn foraging for wood sorrel and wild garlic then you really need to pull your socks up. You mean you buy in your edible flowers? Must do better, darling.

The Small Holding in Kent, then, is right on the cutting edge of this do-everything, holistic approach to fine dining (I'm not sure how they feel about the fine dining label, but I think anywhere serving a 9+ course tasting menu, albeit at the relatively barganous £50/pop, is fine dining) and the sheer effort to which they've gone to produce absolutely as much as they possibly can, is pretty impressive. In a relatively small patch of land are squeezed polytunnels of tomato plants, sweetcorn and strawberries, raised beds of fennel, carrots and radish, cauliflower, cabbages and chives, neat rows of broad beans and garden peas growing up bamboo supports and alongside all the vegetables a large chicken and duck enclosure, and a pig pen occupied by half a dozen rare breed Berkshire pigs. On top of this, we were taken just outside the grounds of the restaurant itself to see where wild strawberries, edible thistles, and a dozen other bits and pieces that would find their way into our lunch, grew in hedgerows on the edge of a small wood.

It's an idyylic spot, of course, lush and green and absolutely ideal for an operation like this, and it's tempting to think that you could just pull stuff out of the ground, shake off the soil and serve it and you'd win a couple of AA rosettes by default. But though this stripped-back approach may have some fans amongst chefs with regard to prep time, fortunately Will Devlin the head chef at the Small Holding has done his time at Michelin-starred central London hotel restaurants and with the Gordon Ramsey group at Pétrus, and knows exactly the best way of presenting the bounty on his doorstep.

Lunch began with a few nibbles on the terrace, including a couple of radishes that we literally saw being pulled out of the ground a few moments before they arrived trimmed and washed and sat in a little herb mayonnaise. So perhaps there is a place for the ultra-stripped-back approach after all. They were lovely little things - crunchy and with a sweet, cucumber-y flavour in place of the usual pepperiness.

Pork gyoza were nicely crisp and dry, and contained a good amount of pork. Something stopped me from asking if this was from one of the same pigs we could see happily truffling through the mud at the end of the allotments. Perhaps just in that moment I'd rather not have known.

And these were incredible - a citrussy, fluffy goat's cheese inside a delicate beetroot meringue casing, which dissolved in the mouth and released a beautiful hit of vegetable and dairy all in one go. I know beetroot and goat's cheese is a pretty tried and tested combination, but there's no point denying yourself such treats just because they're familiar. I mean I'm quite familiar with cheese on toast, too, but I'm not about to get bored of it any time soon.

Normally when running through a tasting menu like this I try and point out which elements are grown by the restaurant and which are bought-in, but at the Small Holding it's easier to do the opposite. So from this mini hot dog of caramelised carrot and kimchi, I assume only the miso was sourced elsewhere. But who knows, given their attention to detail elsewhere it wouldn't surprise me at all if they fermented their own soy beans. Very good it was anyway, meaty and rich with a nice note of chilli.

Asparagus from a farm up the road came pressed inbetween punchy slices of a local Camembert-style cheese, and were draped in translucent slivers of lardo. Very fine ingredients indeed, and topped with some wild garlic flowers, sweet and allium-y rather than overwhelmingly garlicky.

The next course was a bit of an experiment, and I don't think was part of the usual menu. This was not, as it first appeared, a slab of foie gras but something called "Foie Royale", developed in Amsterdam to be a cruelty-free alternative to foie. It still contains real goose, but the fat and normal (ie. non-artificially fattened) liver are pressed together under high pressure to create something if not quite exactly like the real thing then close enough to perform as a perfectly adequate cruelty-free option. I think Will just had some in and wanted to know what we thought of it, and it was nice enough although I think if I wanted an alternative to foie gras I'd be more inclined to go down the chicken liver parfait route. Still, it was interesting, and the beetroot purée and fresh yoghurt it came with were both excellent.

Next a beautiful slab of halibut we'd seen be delivered earlier that day, with a lovely golden crust, surrounded by various peas and herbs. All I ask with dishes like this is that the fish is seasoned properly and not overcooked, and that's not always a given. This was immaculately treated.

The next course kept up the high standard of raw product, but there's part of me wishes the chicken had been as warm as the egg yolk on top, rather than quite chilly. Still, it all had a great flavour, and I loved the wild garlic pesto.

Spelt bread belied its rather unassuming appearance to have a quite brilliant texture and taste - "spongey" isn't often used as a positive adjective but I mean it as a compliment here, as the crumb had a structure at once dense and supremely easy to eat. With it were chicken skin butter, and if you can eat chicken skin butter without enjoying it there's something wrong with you, and - somehow even more impressive - a wild garlic version which was, like the flowers on the asparagus course, sweet and vegetal instead of overtly garlicky.

Well into the main courses now, and I could see what they were trying to do with this slow-cooked pork jowl and white beans, it just didn't have quite the depth of flavour to lift it above merely "decent". There was nothing particularly wrong with any part of it - the pork was nice and moist, the beans soft and pleasant, but the sauce was a bit thin and it needed a more concentrated stock to really make it shine.

But we were soon back on track with this hogget, presented as a pink fillet and braised shoulder (I think, or leg) which had all of the concentration of flavour missing from the pork, and then some. This dish made the most of a clearly wonderful main ingredient (from a farm down the road, as if you even had to ask) by treating it to one of those lovely split sauces the best restaurants do so well, and some foraged cabbage-style plant (your guess is as good as mine) for iron. Absolutely brilliant, every bit of it.

Desserts began with a beetroot ice cream topped with ants, and in case you're one of those people still on the fence on the whole issue of edible insects, let me assure you that these made a very positive case. The acid (formic, I believe) in their abdomens provides an acid hit somewhere between lemon juice and the stuff that makes Haribo's sour, and if you've ever polished off a whole pack of those in one afternoon (don't deny it), you'll know how addictive that can be.

The main dessert was a strawberry sorbet with some macerated strawberries. All fresh out of the garden, all very lovely, but the way they'd done the sorbet deserves a special mention, as it was studded with some kind of wheat or oat that meant every mouthful turned into a kind of strawberry-flavoured paste in the mouth. I thought the effect was quite enjoyable, but in the interests of balance I should point out that my lunch companion really didn't get on with this texture experiment at all. Full marks for trying something new, though.

After some local blue cheese and a selection of petits fours, that was it, and even if you remove the foie gras dish from the above which as I said I think was extra, that's still a huge amount of incredibly good food for £50 a head. Even the cheese is included in that, which seems more than generous to me. In fact we were enjoying ourselves so much that despite the restaurant very kindly covering the cost of the food, and taking the time to give us a tour of the gardens and foraging routes (they do a foraging course/lunch experience for £145/person), we still managed to rack up a booze bill of £100/head. But hey, you know, no regrets.

On the train back to London, as the effects of the glass of local brandy wore off, I tried to think objectively about where the Small Holding fits in amongst the many kitchen gardens and gastropubs that are springing up around the country, each striving to offer a more intensely local, strictly seasonal experience. The idea of starting a farm just to supply one restaurant is possibly not new, and of course there have always been the Manoirs and Moor Halls with millions to throw at a walled garden with team of full-time gardeners to keep it all running, but the ambition and attitude of the Small Holding does genuinely feel like something new, a self-contained virtuous circle of excellent produce turning into top-quality dishes, all organic and self-sustaining, with wild plants and herbs growing alongside cultivated vegetables, with nothing to decide what makes it onto the menu other than what's the absolute best on the day. I wonder if one day there'll be a backlash against all this, and the trendiest new opening of 2021 will be a city-centre gilded palace serving nothing but tinned Spam, but until then it's places like the Small Holding I'm going to look for inspiration, the true future of regenerative agriculture and farm-to-table eating, and a bloody good feed into the bargain.


We were invited to the Small Holding and didn't pay for the food, but covered drinks ourselves.


Alex C said...

Wow. This looks great. Will try to fit in a visit to this on the next Glyndebourne outing.

Unknown said...

I'd be very interested to know how this compares to The Sportsman. Or even if it is possible to compare?

Graham said...

Wow, this looks absolutely lovely!

William Leigh said...

Citric and malic acid are the ones you're after