“I Love Transitions”

So. The Sportsman, self-styled “grotty rundown pub by the sea”.

It is traditional, it seems, to begin any review of this Michelin-starred Kentish institution with a lengthy description of the bleak Whitstable coast, the windswept seaweed, the desolate, unforgiving car park. Well, we arrived for lunch on a sunny April day and it was beautiful, lambs playing in the Monkshill fields, windfarms turning lazily in the distance. We weren’t here to look at the landscape, anyway; we were here to eat it.

The other leitmotif in reviews of the Sportsman is the focus on terroire, on the sourcing and creation of ingredient, a fetishisation of produce that often comes at the expense of the quite remarkable range of technique on display. This is, I suppose, quite understandable; ingredients are easier to understand, to quantify, than craftsmanship, and at any rate, those used at the Sportsman are worthy of comment. I went into all this in my last blog post so won’t rehash it here, but they make their own salt, for God’s sake, a commitment to the handmade and to the local which puts most other restaurants to shame.

Happily, though, they wear all this lightly. I was half-expecting a lengthy spiel about localism, a tediously didactic recitation of ingredient and providence, with each one of our 13 courses; it never came, either from the succession of cheerfully knowledgeable waitresses, or from the printed menu we were given at the end. They point up their “home-churned butter with Seasalter salt” – but that, I think, is fair enough – and they mention their Monkshill lamb, and that’s all. Remarkable restraint, considering the vast majority of their ingredients are grown or foraged in the immediate vicinity of the pub.

Anyway, the food. Never having eaten a tasting menu or any other Michelin-approved meal, I was both excited and almost nervous at the prospect of so much food, but our first few bites were so tiny, so playful and approachable. We started with a little cheese and onion biscuit, and a cocktail stick of pickled herring, rhubarb cream, and something that may have been flapjack; I forget exactly, and these little bites aren’t listed on the menu. Both just-so, biscuits that seemed mostly butter sandwiching a cheesy goo, a neat square of sweet, tangy fish, these sharpened the appetite and were gone, as they should be. Next was a pretty impressive piece, consisting of a poached egg yolk, smoked eel, and parsley sauce, housed within an eggshell and topped with a light whipped layer of something. Everything was at a different temperature, warm yolk, cool cream, the rich eel somewhere in between, sharpened with a violently green parsley puree; a lot of technique for two bites.

The next course was quite a contrast – two oysters, one of the Whitstable natives and one plain old rock, almost unadorned. The native was raw, topped with a still-warm disc of their own (of course) chorizo, the other poached, sprinkled with dried seaweed and crystals of a rhubarb granita. Again, both offered a nice little contrast of texture and temperature, but here the emphasis was firmly on the ingredient. I heard Stephen Harris chatting to another customer about the oysters, and got the impression that he didn’t think much of rock oysters, hence the amount of dressing they received; the native, with its crispy, spicy hat, was far nicer anyway. The menu continued in this vein, with ingredient and technique switching the lead, each reasserting their dominance in turn. Some crab followed the oysters, tender (but not overcooked – the first time I’ve really enjoyed crab) strands of white meat sitting atop carrot of an identical texture, the whole dressed with hollandaise, plain, buttery, apparently simple; this was followed by a salmagundi of, well, all sorts of stuff – the waitress started listing ingredients and concluded with “…and whatever else you find”. I found another poached egg yolk, ribbons of carrot and courgette, crisps of parsnip of beetroot, roasted beetroot, a celeriac (I think) puree, more of that parsley sauce, and some pellets of cauliflower that may have been inspired by Jamie Oliver, although I hope not.

After this confusing, if delicious, plate, a riot of craft and texture (and a lot of fun for a salad), we were presented with a slip sole each, grilled with seaweed butter. Back to the ingredient. This is one of Harris’ signature dishes, local fish, extremely local seaweed, and my first thought was that it was extremely, almost perversely, underseasoned. Relaxing into the simple ritual of eating, teasing the delicate flesh away from the bones, and letting the gentle umami of the fish and seaweed wash over my tongue, it made sense, a moment of calm, a chance for some breathing room before the main courses (if a tasting menu can be said to have such things). Each of these – fish and meat – was preceded by a little deep-fried nibble from the same animal. So we were presented first with battered turbot skirt, juicy and ridiculously tender, accompanied by wild garlic mayonnaise, before a bowl of braised turbot with sea vegetables and a sauce of smoked roe. I’m not a massive fish fan, but if forced to choose a favourite dish from this menu, I think this would be it. The rich, saline hit of the roe was astonishingly powerful, especially after the soothing grace of the sole, the fish itself meaty and tender, and the vegetables – sea purslane and sea beet – a welcome and vivid splash of iron green.

Lamb was next, first in the form of tender chunks of neck, breaded and deep-fried, with a mint sauce seemingly inspired by nuoc cham and the like – thin, sweet, sharp, aromatic – and then as a plate of roast rump and shoulder. Although this dish (lamb, some sweetly tender cabbage, a thin gravy) showed off its ingredients with a grace and a pride in simplicity that was almost Italian, it was also a bravura display of technique from the kitchen, a masterpiece of meat cookery. The rump was beautifully, perfectly rare, evenly pink and tender, with an outside layer of crisply crackled fat; the shoulder a crisp, even nugget which collapsed into shreds when poked, slow-roasted to perfection, powerfully savoury and delicious.

Desserts. A rhubarb ice-lolly, sitting in a shot glass of cornflake milk – pinched, I think it’s fair to say, from Momofuku – was pretty and fun, some comic relief after all that cooking. Both components were spot on but I’m not sure they had much to do with each other. Next, a buttermilk mousse, sprinkled with buckwheat, drizzled with raw honey, and accompanied by a buttered slice of madeira cake and a shot of cold camomile tea, was a rather more serious proposition, and one which the kitchen was rather unsure about, judging by the waitress’ questions. Desserts aren’t exactly my thing, but this was well judged as the end of such a big meal, sweetly indulgent but still – thanks to the buttermilk and camomile – refreshing, clean. Coffee and a pair of miniature tarts – salt caramel and chocolate, custard and nutmeg – rounded off an incredibly impressive meal.

One of the most impressive things, I think, about the Sportsman, is that the food remains dominant. Jay Rayner remarked, in his Observer review, that the menu read like a “greatest hits” of modern classics, but it doesn’t, in the eating, come across like that at all – apart from that glass of cornflake milk. Stephen Harris has managed to subsume his influences and his cornucopia of produce into what he calls “a narrative, a story almost of this area” but which seems to me more like an edible landscape, a snapshot of his domain, caught between the sea and the land.

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Location, Location

I’m going for a meal next week at The Sportsman, in Seasalter, and have been researching it avidly, scanning old reviews to get some idea of what we can expect from the (rather large, pre-booked) tasting menu. Although a few dishes pop up frequently (oyster and chorizo, some kind of arrangement of lamb and seaweed), it is not individual dishes as such which form the focus of most reviews. It is the Sportsman’s location that really holds the interest – its position as a “grotty rundown pub by the sea”, as their Twitter profile has it – and the astonishing range of ingredients they wring from that location, their fierce commitment to localism.

Localism, in the world of food, comes in two main forms – localism of recipe, and localism of ingredient. Long since used to getting our spices, our fruit and our vegetables, from various colonies and allies, it is the former, I think, which is more prevalent in Britain today. Cornish pasties, Bakewell tarts, Melton Mowbray pies – all are very much a part of our everyday food culture. Localism of ingredient, on the other hand, has become privileged in Britain, a treat for the foodie classes. Although supermarkets are happy to tell you that your asparagus was grown by Dave in Lanarkshire, genuinely local produce is confined to the farmers market, and requires time and money that many are unwilling or unable to spend.

And why not? Local produce is not necessarily better. Ethically, perhaps; although the whole subject of ‘food miles’ has turned out to be more complicated than everyone thought (cf. Jay Rayner’s latest book), it’s still nice to support local businesses, maybe. Maybe not, if they charge twice as much, offer terrible service, and are in any case wealthy hobbyists with no real need to do well.

It’s different, I think, elsewhere, where local produce is still affordable and attainable, and necessary for making the local recipes. This is why the French have a word for terroire and we don’t. The best dishes from what we are pleased to call ‘peasant cuisines’ are the ones which combine a long human tradition with fine native ingredients, a powerful expression of social and natural history, heavy with a sense of place – bouillabaisse, caponata, fabada.

The closest we seem to come to this in Britain, fittingly enough, is with booze. The rolling hills of Kent, the fuzzy warmth of the West Country, find their perfect expression in the local ales and ciders (when Keats asked for a “beaker full of the warm south”, he was not talking about Biddingdon’s, though he might as well have been), while the multitudinous whiskies of Scotland, peat and smoke and ozone and brine, might be the landscape bottled.

Stephen Harris, along with Simon Rogan and perhaps a few others, seem to be trying for something similar in their cuisine. Although untethered from local culinary tradition (Harris applies techniques from French to Japanese to his ingredients), their food, foraged, farmed, boiled from the sea, is an attempt to offer up an expression or an excretion of the landscape itself, where localism is not an ethical or economic but an aesthetic choice, one seen through to its logical conclusion. I’ll let you know how lunch goes.