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Thursday, 7 March 2013

eating in the garden of england

Last weekend, the husband and I celebrated Ten Years Of Not Killing Each Other. For those of you that know either of us, you'll understand that this is no minor achievement- not because either of us are that way inclined in the general sense, just because we both know how to wind each other up (and happen to be rather good at it). To mark the occasion of what since our wedding has been called our 'fake' anniversary, he begrudgingly agreed to arrange something suitably romantic for us to do- on the strict understanding that from this year forward we would limit ourselves solely to the one 'proper' anniversary. I agreed, in the full knowledge that by this time next year I'll have badgered him into conceding another one.

The upshot of this is that we spent last weekend holed up at the Chapel Down Vineyard in Kent. We're both big fans of British wines, for obvious reasons. We're not xenephobic, it's just that people seem to forget that we Brits have been producing the stuff since the Norman conquest- most notably in this little corner of Kent. And we do it very well- the chalk that runs under the Champagne region also lies underneath south-east England's own vineyards, and our cool (cold) and moist (miserable) weather makes the growing conditions for whites and sparkling wines in particular, ideal. We consistently beat French and Italian counterparts in blind taste tests. Arguably in most cases (Chapel Down's Union Red being a notable exception) our reds leave a little to be desired, but this is a work in progress.

As it turns out, Kent isn't called 'the garden of England' for nothing- being happily (ish...) ensconced in leafy Buckinghamshire, I honestly thought Kent would look much the same. But it really is one of those places where you feel a warm, slightly patriotic glow inside- something I normally only experience perched in the shadow of Big Ben by one of the fountains in Trafalgar Square, or else strolling along Embankment. Yes, it really is all rather pretty. It's also quite a trek; being a 25 year old (for another week or so, anyway) non-driver with a poor grasp of regional geography, means I remain resolutely under the impression that everywhere in the UK is but a short hop, skip or a jump away by car. Which, as it turns out, is not the case. So I write this in the full knowledge that most readers of this blog won't find a spare two days any time soon in which to squeeze in a Kent-and-back roadtrip, but if you do, I can heartily recommend it.
A horse. It's sad, because
it doesn't like lasagne.

So, nestled in the picturesque village of Tenterden, sits Chapel Down Vineyard- 23 acres of lush vines. Unless you visit in early March, in which case all you'll see is what appears to be field upon field of dead sticks. Nevertheless, the magic wasn't entirely lost on me. On the edge, sits The Swan English Restaurant.

At the risk of sounding xenephobiconce again, there just aren't enough of these. I love our cultural heritage and the impact it's had on our cuisine as much as (or perhaps more) than the next person- I just think we ought to be buying and eating more of our own local produce. It's not as easy as you'd believe... we live in a culture where it's simply too easy to pick up a couple of steaks, some courgettes and some carrots from our local supermarket, without thinking about their provenance. It's not until you bother checking that it emerges they're from Romania, Morocco and Spain respectively. Our supply chains are now so long that we no longer instinctively know what's in season, and we keep accidentally eating horse. For our wedding back in 2009, my husband and I painstakingly sourced every ingredient from within the UK, with only three exceptions- lemons, pepper and rum. Dear God, was it hard, but that's what we care about, so we did it. Similarly, all of the prime ingredients at The Swan are sourced from within a 25-mile radius- something more restaurants should by trying to do.

Enough of the soap box shenanigans, and more about this restaurant. Because I can almost positively declare it to be the best establishment I have eaten at within this country (or maybe joint first- the Hand and Flowers in Marlow really is rather good, too). Bold claims indeed, eh? Now my menu choices were hampered somewhat by my ridiculous self-imposed bread and potato-free Lent. You'd think the weight would be falling off me, but I seem to have replaced both banned substances with gin. I had to forgo the smoked mackerel with beetroot on the basis that it probably came with bread, and resisted the pan-seared Rye Bay scallops on the basis that my good friend (and talented chef) Billy cooks them for me an indecent amount, so I opted for the salad of poached native lobster with pomegranate vinaigrette. Which, as it turns out, also has potato in it. I exercised saintly levels self control and proceeded to pick through it with a fork, which was a shame as it a) looked rather pretty, and b) made me look like a complete arse. However, this did nothing to dampen my spirits. The sweet, barely-poached hunks of lobster came stacked atop a bed of nutty, ripe avocado and the aforementioned (but very nice, I'm sure...) potato, doused liberally with the refreshingly tart vinaigrette and a smattering of pomegranate seeds. It was so thoughtfully balanced, and visually stunning. Sadly I have no photographic evidence, as I'd dropped my phone in a glass (of water, not gin), two days before...

One of various stock images of Chapel Down, to make up
for the fact that I don't have any appropriate ones of my own.
Husband opted for the devilled lamb's kidneys on soda bread, which were stupendous. I'm a great lover of all things offal, so was tempted to order it myself in spite of the noted (and significant) bread content. Instead I decided to pout petulantly until I was afforded half of his. The kidneys were cooked to retain their rosy, velevety inner flesh, without veering on rubbery as they often can. The flavour of kidneys certainly packs a punch, and they aren't for everyone- I find devilling is the best way of dealing with them, as not much else will stand up to their earthiness otherwise. It was executed beautifully.

Seeing as I'd started with fish, I felt tempted by the honey-roast pork belly, smoked bacon white pudding and wholegrain mustard, but the crab mousse-stuffed Dover Sole with leek gratin was screaming at me from the page. The fish was so sweet, and so delicate, the leek gratin adding a welcome salty crunch and splash of colour to the dish. The Husband had wild-mushroom stuffed Guinea Fowl and creamed spinach- something I was dubious about, given that I'm yet to try a version of the bird in a restaurant that isn't dry as chaff. It wasn't- it was both rich and moist, and the gaminess of the flesh was complimented by the nuttiness of the mushroom stuffing. We probably didn't need to order two sides to accompany our meals, but we did anyway. Hell, we were celebrating! And what better way to do it than with braised red cabbage and lobster macaroni cheese. Yes, lobster. In mac and cheese. I don't mind admitting that until this moment, I was a macaroni virgin. It's nothing to be ashamed of, and I'm fairly certain I haven't missed out on much, because it probably doesn't taste like this anywhere else. So rich, so indulgent, and so very, very wrong-sounding. But I can tentatively say that this, washed down with a chilled glass of Chapel Down's Bacchus, could justify the 200 mile round trip on its own.

It's worth mentioning that the
restaurant interior is probably one
of the best I've seen. If you care.
And so, to the pudding- after a sizeable period of rest, during which I thought my heart might give up on me (it's worth bearing in mind that we were eating in a vineyard, and it's safe to say grossly irresponsible quantities of wine were consumed). We had the orange frangipane. It was good, Very good, in fact. The only problem is, when you also have a dark chocolate parfait with roasted peanuts, salted caramel and popping candy, all else pales in comparison. To put it quite simply, this pudding was the greatest I have ever consumed, and words simply won't do it justice. I care nothing for how 'faddy' or 'overdone' people might argue salted caramel now is, because to me it's nothing short of alchemical genius, and the best thing since sliced bread.

I'm sorry for the hefty post. I hadn't, until now, delved into the world of blogging reviews, and it seems glaringly obvious why- the lack of editorially-imposed word limit means it's rather easy to get carried away. But there you have it- that was The Swan at Chapel Down. I implore all of you to start considering buying British not just for your food (I think I got that message across already), but for your wine too. They're a friendly bunch in this corner of the world, and I'm sure they'd be glad to see you. However, if you don't feel like making quite such an arduous journey, their wines are now stocked at M&S and Waitrose.

Bottoms up,
mrs hunt.x

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