APPLEDORE TO NEW ROMNEY: Microgreens, Farm Stands, and Fish 'n' Chips
Before we left New York, we'd contacted Frances Smith, a plucky, accomplished gardener and the co-founder of Appledore Salads. Smith's modest 18th-century farmstead just a half-hour's drive south from Read's has revolutionized fresh greens in the U.K. during the past decade. In the eighties, Smith was selling quail eggs to restaurants when her enthusiasm for vibrant salad greens caught fire with the chefs. "They were all serving the same tired romaine from Holland," she told us as we nibbled on five varieties of nasturtium blossoms. These days, her cosseted greens, like red orache, cocarde, Moroccan tea mint, and English mace, are picked at 6 a.m. and delivered to London's top chefs by dinnertime. Smith's customer list, as tough to crack as a courtside box at Wimbledon, includes pioneers such as Stephen Bull and Alastair Little, whose namesake restaurants changed the culinary landscape in England. And while what she grows at Appledore is enough to supply only a thin sliver of the London restaurant market, her influence reaches far beyond her own accounts: "The twenty different leaves I offer are provocative!" she trilled. "Once chefs taste what I'm growing, they put pressure on all their mainstream suppliers to follow suit."
After a quick "nibbling safari" in the greenhouses (they're called polytunnels here), Smith treated us to the kind of rustic shepherd's breakfast we had only dreamt about—delicious, slightly gamy lamb kidneys on toast, roasted tomato, streaky bacon with fried eggs—and chatted about the rise of "gastropubs" around England. But, she warned, many charming-looking pubs still serve frozen entrées (liver and onions, creamed chicken and rice) made by a company called Brakes (formerly Brakes Brothers). How to tell which ones do?"Just ask the barman, 'Is there a Brakes Brother in the kitchen?'" she advised.
Smith packed us off with addresses for a few gastropubs, a farmers' market, and a supermarket that represents Britain's new food world order. We hopped into the Morry and headed out but didn't get very far. A few miles down the road, we saw a sign—GIBBETT OAK FARM SHOP—that seemed promising. At the end of a driveway was a brick building with a stunning selection, not just of the farm's range of midsummer produce but also of fresh farmer cheeses with the creamy, crumbly texture of cheesecake; honeys and jams; and lusty, unfiltered apple juices, labeled by varietal: Falstaff, Red Pippin, and Cox/Bramley. If we'd visited in June, we would have been able to taste the Elsanta strawberries that are the pride of the farm.
The next farm shop we visited had deliciously tart currants and strawberries with an intense, melon-like flavor, but we couldn't ask what variety they were because there wasn't a soul in sight, only a yapping terrier which, we presumed, was the strict enforcer of the honor jar. As we drove on, it became quite clear that if we stopped at every farm shop we passed, we wouldn't make it to Tenterden for a week: farm shops are southern England's convenience stores. But instead of garish neon signage, farm shops, tucked away down narrow lanes, are marked with hand-painted wooden placards that inform you from the road what's in season. Many are so sleepy, you feel as if you've stepped into the farmer's living room. In a few cases, you have.
In Tenterden there was a brisk trade at the farmers' market. Twenty or so stalls with green-and-white-striped canopies sold bunches of heathery wildflowers, cuts of fresh, grass-fed lamb, Pentland Javelin potatoes, enormous demilune bread loaves, several piles of apples and their ciders, glistening slabs of huss (a kind of shark), sole, and plaice (a flounder look-alike) from a Rye fisherman, and scones baked that morning by someone called Lesley. We retreated across the street to Waitrose, the supermarket Smith had recommended. From the parking lot, it could have been in Cleveland or Rochester. Inside, it was a different story: here were Premiere new potatoes grown by a farmer named Darren Searle and Chantenay carrots raised by one Max Howard. The farmers' photos—all rosy and earnest—were attached to the bins. It was as though Alice Waters had swept through and hypnotized the townsfolk.
We sped along route 259, toward the southeastern corner of England and the cluster of beachside fishing villages just south of Romney Marsh, an area with such prime lamb-grazing territory that its breed of lamb is named Romney Marsh, or Romney for short. In recent years, it has become the main source for grass-fed, organic lamb, but as we drove toward the water and the verdant farmland gradually gave way to broad, treeless plains and marshes, we saw no lambs—only tufts of lamb's wool blowing across the road. A light drizzle began to fall, and at the very edge of Britain, within cannon's range of France, the land became as desolate as tundra, the water wind-whipped and steely gray. Fish smokeries seemed to be the coast's answer to the farm shop. We stopped at one in Dungeness, aptly named the Smokery, where buoys and old boots were strewn about the yard. It was no bigger than a broom closet, but its array of smoked fish would thrill any self-respecting New Yorker. Jim Moate, his long silver hair tucked up under a panama hat, emerged from the house next door and helped us through the selection: mackerel, haddock, and various types of salmon, all cured and smoked over oak, without dyes, chemicals, or preservatives. What's the biggest seller?"Hot-smoked salmon," he said. "Piece of 'at and a jacket-potato's dinner, innit?" Unfortunately, we had two dinners scheduled for that night, so we ate a quarter-pound of smoke-streaked, peaty mackerel on the spot and stashed a slab of salmon in our cooler for a later picnic.
A mile from the Smokery, we found the Pilot, a fish-and-chips pub Frances Smith had insisted we visit. We'd been toying with the idea of skipping fish-and-chips—it seemed so Olde England—but she'd said the Pilot was not to be missed, and advised us to order the small plate, nothing else. When the fish arrived, tail and teeth were hanging over each end of a large oval platter. It was piping hot, cleanly fried, with flaky, sweet flesh and the kind of light crust that lulls you into thinking you could eat fried food all day long. The waitresses wore floppy blue hats that made them seem as if they'd stepped off of a Fairport Convention album cover, circa 1971.
Outside, the sky was roiling with rain, so we drove a few miles farther up the coast road and found our lodging for the night, Romney Bay House—an Italianate manse that rises from the dunes of New Romney, overlooking the Strait of Dover. Built in the twenties for the Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the house is now inhabited by a German hairstylist, his wife, two boxer dogs, and two cats. It was smartly furnished with bright chintzes and a well-stocked honor bar, and had a fire burning in the fireplace. Our rooms looked out over the golden-sand beach, neatly meted into parcels by jetties that extend far into the sea. After a short siesta, we reconvened for dinner number two, in the greenhouse adjacent to the living room, where tables were set for us and a dozen other guests. An inspired salad of lobster, smoked salmon, and prawns was followed by a flavorful, if well-done, duck breast and a plank of assorted English and French cheeses. When we lamented the absence of lamb on the menu, we were told that it was too common in these parts. Dessert was a soft meringue drizzled with homemade butterscotch and surrounded by radiant berries. The chef, it appeared, had been to the farm shops as well.
TUNBRIDGE WELLS: Gastropubs and Grass-fed Lamb
We awoke to a sunny, cirrus-streaked blue sky and some fresh anxieties: we'd missed Romney lamb on its home turf and we had not yet had a meal at a gastropub. With renewed resolve, we drove away from the coast along the A262, past Sissinghurst, more farm shops, and a field of hop vines, to Tunbridge Wells, an old spa town on the border of Kent and East Sussex. Tun Wells, as the radio DJ's call it, almost qualifies as a city, with brisk traffic, an Indian restaurant, and a boutique hotel, the Hotel du Vin & Bistro, in a converted sandstone mansion. Our room was small but stylishly decorated with sisal flooring and sage wool upholstery, and it offered a bird's-eye view of the garden and the rooftops of the city. In the park, locals were playing soccer. We dropped our bags and, armed with a map, asked the concierge the quickest route to the village of Rushlake Green.
"Horse and Groom?" he inquired, guessing correctly that we were going to the gastropub there. "I'll phone. You'll need a reservation."
We set out for lunch and soon found ourselves driving along lanes wide enough for no more than a car and a half, lined with tall hedges. Finally, we reached a clearing, a tidy triangular lawn with cottages on each side, dominated by the Horse & Groom and the pileup of diners waiting outside for a table.