When a restaurant as small as Wheeler's Oyster Bar in the coastal town of Whitstable gets a delivery, even diners feel the pinch. There are just four tables, and barely enough space between them for Delia Fitt, the restaurant's elfin proprietor-waitress, who rushes back and forth to the kitchen chirping lines that sound like poetry: Check for the window table/Prawns for the wall.
Just as we were sitting down for a midsummer lunch, Fitt hoisted a crate of chanterelles over the raw bar and through the tiny dining room to the kitchen, passing so close to our table that we experienced their flame-orange brilliance, the unmistakable scent of the forest floor lingering in her wake, as if we were foraging for mushrooms ourselves. The kitchen door swung open and Fitt breezed past us again, back in the direction of the raw bar. "No room in the kitchen/Is there room at the bar?" We offered to accommodate her precious cargo at our table, but she politely declined.
We'd come to England's southern coast to eat. Jokes about the ghastly dullness of British food were as stale as old ale. England's chefs had been gaining ground on their French and Italian counterparts, and Prince Charles was showing up at British cheese competitions (his Starvall Royal won gold at the British Cheese Awards), boasting about his organic kitchen-garden. Even rural pubs, those bastions of frozen fish sticks, were embracing the country's newfound passion for local, fresh food and giving their microwaves a rest in favor of betoqued chefs grilling day-boat sole to order.
Or so we'd heard. We wanted to chart England's food renaissance, so we planned a journey through the country's breadbasket, the fertile and temperate southern counties of Kent and East Sussex, whose warm soil and long growing season make them among the most productive in the country, yielding everything from potatoes to greens to grapes. This pastoral region is home to England's equivalent of the Appalachian Trail; it's more popular among budget backpackers and retirees with walking sticks than it is with gastronomes. The inauguration of the 90-mile High Weald Landscape Trail has made it an even more compelling hiking destination. But we knew that these counties—just a short drive from London—provide many of the city's markets and restaurants with vegetables, seafood, free-range meats, and cheeses. We arranged to travel at the end of July in order to hit the height of berry season and so that our last dinner in England would be the ne plus ultra in outdoor dining: a black-tie picnic at Glyndebourne, near Lewes, which is often compared to Ascot, but with divas instead of horses.
WHITSTABLE TO FAVERSHAM: Oysters, Berries, and Bentleys
Wheeler's, our first stop, seemed to confirm our hunch that a new age had arrived. Since 1856 the restaurant has served up the bounty of the area waters—creamy oysters, meaty whelks, marble-sized cockles—from its pink stucco storefront. Then, a few years ago, Fitt (the seventh generation of Wheelers) hired a young chef, Mark Stubbs (who had worked at the restaurant as a young boy), to develop a smart, seasonal menu. So, along with the sparkling shellfish selection from the bar, we had buttery gilthead bream with a thin cape of crisp, sea salt-flecked skin and a scattering of fresh English peas and broad beans that were luminous green, sweet, and grassy, and a pleasant departure from the gray-green "mushy peas" that had plagued us on previous trips to England.
Although Stubbs's ingredients were worth venerating—the lardons are from walnut-and-apple-fed Gloucester Old Spot pigs—the atmosphere was blissfully unpretentious. A couple dining at the next table noticed we hadn't ordered the brown shrimp, a Whitstable delicacy, and passed us their own plate of the thumbnail-sized crustaceans, teaching us how to pinch off the heads and pop the rest in our mouths—shell and all. The shells gave only the faintest crunch but the shrimp delivered a mighty dash of sweetness and brine.
Just a few hours earlier, we'd been collecting our baggage at Heathrow, and already we were uncovering a great truth about eating in England now—folks are so food-proud, when you're spotted as an outsider, you get schooled in the foodways of the region. Passing as a native has no dividend here.
To be honest, we were trying hard to pass. We'd rented a 1968 heather-green Morris Minor—a dowdy, lovable workhorse of an English car—from a garage outside London, which we figured would ease our arrival at Glyndebourne. Of course we had packed our tuxedos and tickets, but we'd been told that some patrons bring their butlers and their good silver, and that the important attendees arrive from London by private helicopter. Short of rolling up in a Jaguar, speeding onto the scene in a shapely vintage Morris seemed the best way to downplay our provenance. We soon found ourselves at a dead stop in Whitstable traffic, with little else to do but sing along to Fairport Convention (a late-sixties British folk-rock group—the U.K.'s Grateful Dead) blasting on the stereo. Our performance earned a wink and a smile from a woman with a Catherine Deneuve air driving a sable-hued Bentley.
Later in the day, when we checked into Read's Restaurant with Rooms in Faversham, we were shocked to discover that the woman behind the wheel of the Bentley would be our host for the evening. Rona and David Pitchford had run a Michelin-starred restaurant for 30 years in nearby Painters Forstal when they decided to open an inn. The recently restored Georgian brick manor is the new backdrop for his talents at the stove.
As we strolled through rows of runner beans and baby lettuces growing in the garden, the gravel driveway filled with cars bearing London plates. A couple of Pimm's cups later, we understood what they had all come for: David's cooking is rooted in French technique but with a passion for Kentish ingredients. Our smoked eel-potato terrine was laced with minty chervil from the garden. A four-part riff on Moy raspberries—an early-season variety with a rosewater character—included a feather-light mousse, a vanilla custard tart with fresh berries, an intense sorbet, and a gelée. We were lucky, Rona said. The second week in July was the last of the Moy season. By Friday they'd be gone. Pity the poor weekenders.