England’s Culinary Wild West
THOREAU observed that humans are happily designed in such a way that the distance they can cover in a day’s walking means that were they to spend every day hiking in a different direction from their homestead, it would take a lifetime to get to know every corner of their surroundings.
There’s something analogous in the distance that meat and vegetables can cover in an ox cart — in the old formula of market towns gathering and redistributing the produce of a region. It’s like concocting a meal with what you have in the kitchen, rather than shopping to suit a previously planned meal. These often turn out the most satisfying dinners, settling a craving in us not for parsimony but for good economy.
There’s a rightness about working with what we have, rather than giving in to the screaming pasha within who’s never satisfied, always craves more, and doesn’t care how far it has to travel to get to him. If there’s anything spiritual to be found in the kitchen, it surely has to do with settling this inner tyrant.
Any region can use a patron saint, and in England’s West Country, that saint is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (a k a Hugh Fearlessly Eats-It-All). One of Britain’s top TV chefs, Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall is on a near-holy mission to return to the land. He had his first success with a show called “A Cook on the Wild Side,” in which he traveled around cooking up game and wild plants on his camping stove.
Then he settled in Dorset and moved into growing his own food — saddleback pigs, old breeds of chicken — and reviving many old techniques for curing and preserving the food. His larder is permanently hung with sausages, salamis, hams and varieties of smoked fish.
What he advocates goes far beyond organic. His philosophy is “plow to plate”: ideally, the consumer is the grower, or failing that, the grower’s neighbor. He calls it “food integrity.”
At his new restaurant, the River Cottage Canteen, in the market town of Axminster, even the wine is as local as possible, all of it from England except for a few French organic and biodynamic labels. Almost nothing solid comes from farther afield than the West Country. There’s no bottled water — an abomination of wastefulness.
A truly organic restaurant today needs a field of local suppliers. What good is an organic carrot or blueberry with a giant carbon footprint? Just as farmers’ markets are spreading in both Britain and America, so too is local-mindedness in restaurants. It’s not just about carbon, but a deeper connectedness between people and land.
It’s a connectedness I fantasized about as a child: When I was 10, my favorite book was “Survival for Young People.” It told you about bivouac bags and collecting rainwater with a plastic sheet. But what electrified me were the pages on eating wild — the leaves and roots you could get by on, how to trap a rabbit, how you should always have a fishing line in your pack.
Go into the woods with Pages 54 to 83 cracked open, and you could hide out forever. Be nothing but a forager, with no purpose on this earth other than to find the sustenance to keep going. That was true freedom.
If this all sounds somewhat medieval, it is. The kind of self-reliance a household would have known before the advent of processed and packaged foods, when good husbandry included knowledge of how to process food oneself, is precisely what Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall is trying to revive.
The Canteen’s décor reflects this. I find myself eating at a table of reclaimed wood in a wood-rich, loftlike space.
The first thing I try is crispy pig’s head. (I’ve never been observant but this is ridiculous.) The plate consists of a fried slice of something like a pâté — in fact a version of headcheese, or brawn — with applesauce and Le Puy lentils. Not only do the sweet apple and rich brawn go together well, but there’s an automatic burst of self-congratulation in even daring to take a mouthful.
There’s an austerity about the place, but the food is stunning: sea bass in a lemon and herb sauce, with braised fennel and sautéed Highland Burgundy potatoes, ruddy and smothered in oil; and two kinds of lamb on one plate, slices of dense, melting, pink roast tenderloin and dark glistening shreds of braised shoulder. With sautéed potatoes cooked in cream, both are glorious.
My friend Dave Swann and I end with rhubarb jelly — a wobbly mound of luminous red jelly, a dab of whipped cream on a shortbread biscuit, and a heap of cooked rhubarb. Another British standard, rhubarb is a favorite of public and backyard vegetable patches.
Our other dessert is yogurt-based pink gooseberry ice cream, and when the waitress presses liqueurs of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company on us, we accept: Kingston Black Apple Aperitif makes for a rich after-dinner sip, in spite of its name.
According to his publicists, Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall doesn’t exactly think of himself as a great chef. His mission is changing peoples’ relationship to food production. Even a window box of herbs in central London is better than nothing, he contends: food-blindness is part of our postindustrial alienation; we’re alienated from our very plates.
At the River Cottage HQ, a 65-acre farm on the border with Dorset where Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV shows are filmed, all the tools to teach people how to become more involved in supplying their own larders have been set up. There are grazing pigs and chickens; clay ovens in different stages of construction; smokers made of old barrels and gas canisters; and hams, salamis and sausages hanging from rafters.
The clay ovens bake bread in five minutes, cook scallops on the shell in seconds, pizza in a minute. And as the heat dissipates over 24 hours, you can slow-cook whole shoulders of lamb, ending up with meat so tender you spoon it off the bone.
In a converted 16th-century barn with a gleaming professional kitchen, participants in Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s workshops are given a local banquet at the end of their day’s education. Green Champagne bottles hang from the rafters, converted into lamps. Sixty guests can be seated at two long baronial tables. There’s a Saxon feel to the whole venture.
When I visited, at the end of one table stood a black casserole of beef shin from local Devon ruby red cattle, with big orange-hued rings of marrowbone, the meat melting off them. Part of the mission is to rehabilitate undervalued cuts, like shins, and the so-called fifth quarter of a carcass (the offal).
Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall hasn’t gone so far as to use blood as a flooring ingredient, but almost nothing goes to waste. In the kitchen, sheep’s intestines are soaking in cold water for making sausage, and the fridge is a Chaucerian chamber of innards.
Local food has become a focus throughout the rural West Country, with its many small farms. At the Masons Arms in the seaside village of Branscombe on the South Devon coast, the soft and tasty Branoc Ale is brewed a quarter of a mile from the village at the Branscombe Vale Brewery. The spit in the fireplace — gently turned by customers seated with pints at the open fire — was forged at the blacksmith’s half a mile the other way.
They even smoke the fish in the fireplace, hanging from the saw-teeth from which the spit is suspended. The fireback is a tarry glistening black — not from the fire but from the fat of all the meat that has cooked there.
The stonewalled bar has been there since 1350, when masons from the local quarry would stop in to ease their dusty throats. The bar top still has a brass slot where thirsty horsemen would (allegedly) ride right up to the counter and drop in a penny to have a pint of cider pulled.
At a small pub table, a plain white bowl of pea and ham soup is a soft green, like the turf above the cliffs. Slender sweet juliennes of pepper are just right against the smooth texture of the soup. The fresh beer-battered haddock caught off the coast is succulent and chunky, and the leek, salmon, mussel and haddock stew, in its own pot with a lid of Cheddar-smothered mashed potatoes, is as heartwarming as seafood can be.
Upstairs, above the original horsehair ceilings, which sag like an old mattress between black, octagonal ships’ beams, there are 21 bedrooms with deeply uneven floors, where you can sleep off your time at the bar.
THE other end of the West Country, southwest Gloucestershire, has its local food movement, too. Stroud has a history of independent-mindedness, being one of the first English towns to set up its own currency. It was also one of the first to have an active farmers’ market (the 2008 National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association’s Market of the Year), which spills out from Cornhill Market, a stone-columned square in the middle of town.
Just down the hill, the Star Anise Art Cafe specializes in vegetarian food with a local emphasis. It’s a good place to hang out, and like so many buildings in this corner of the West Country, it’s built of the lovely Cotswold stone, a soft yellow that blends into the rolling hills.
In nearby Nailsworth, the chef at Wild Garlic, Matthew Beardshall, will pull his car over on the way to work, and stroll into the woods to pick the restaurant’s eponymous herb. It grows in abundance in the Cotswold hills.
“It likes shade,” he says. “The sun brings out the smell, so it’s easy to find.” He likes to stuff the long dark-green leaves under the skin of chicken.
But it’s only one of many items the surrounding woods and farms supply. He’ll plan the week’s meals according to what the farmers tell him they have.
“If I hear, say, the purple sprouting’s good but there’s only one more week of it, then I go with that,” he says. “It’s insane to import organic stuff from Chile.”
“I’ll buy a whole piece of meat, not cuts,” Mr. Beardshall says. “Then I can render down the fat for roasting potatoes, and use the trimmings for sauce. Or the butcher goes out shooting, and comes back with pigeon and rabbit. We’ll take what he bags. Unprepped pigeons don’t look pretty, but they taste great.”
In his restaurant, which has spare wood floors and stone walls, the local poet Jay Ramsay and I start with ramekins of smooth chicken liver parfait covered with a lid of pure butter — a traditional English method of sealing. The livers are from local organic chickens, mixed with rendered pork fat. With a shot glass of fig and honey compote on the side, and slices of thick white toast, the smooth pâté is superb.
As are his thick pappardelle with tender slow-braised rabbit in sage, and chicken with bok choy, potatoes and wild garlic leaves. Between courses, Mr. Beardshall serves a little granita of caramelized apple and thyme.
Over all, an evening at Wild Garlic is a perfect marriage of the modern and the medieval. It’s as if the industrial era has been neatly leapfrogged. And you can stay the night, too, in the spacious 16-century rooms of the Heavens Above guesthouse upstairs.
At River Cottage Canteen (Trinity Square, Axminster, Devon; 44-1297-631-862; www.rivercottage.net) a three-course dinner runs £20 to £30 a person, about $30 to $45 at $1.48 to the pound. Highlights: Local line-caught sea bass with citrus salsa, slow-roast saddleback pork shoulder.
River Cottage HQ, the project’s farm (Trinity Hill Road, Axminster; 44-1297-630-300) runs daylong courses and special food events, like mushroom foraging, or how to butcher a pig and use all the parts. They cost £80 to £125.
Masons Arms (Branscombe; 44-1297-680-300; www.masonsarms.co.uk) charges £29.95 for the three-course dinner menu. Highlights: Seared local scallops, confit of aromatic duck leg with truffle oil mash. In the bar, meals cost £10 to £15. Highlights: steamed venison and mushroom pudding, West Country lobster with spring onion risotto.
At Wild Garlic (3 Cossack Square, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire; 44-1453-832-615; www.wild-garlic.co.uk) two courses run £20 to £25. Highlights: Seared partridge breast with honey-pickled parsnips, poached and roasted poussin with black pudding stuffing.
Star Anise Art Cafe (Old Painswick Inn, Gloucester Street, Stroud; 44-1453-840-021); main courses are £5 to £10, and it has pastries and great coffee and teas.