“See anything you recognise?”
Will Devlin is putting me through my paces. As chef and owner of The Small Holding, he’s recently launched Farm and Forage: This exciting day out in the Kent countryside gives diners the opportunity to immerse themselves in the local hedgerows, and learn more about the seasonal produce that’s used on the modern British menu at this award-winning Kilndown restaurant.
It’s perfect for newbies like me – who can barely distinguish a dandelion from a daffodil – as Will most definitely knows his stuff. Having already fed the resident pigs and chickens on a tour of the Small Holding farm, we’re now setting off down Ranters Lane towards the nearby footpath, to discover where the wild things are on a sunny spring morning.
“One of the major things we forage for at this time of year is hogweed,” says Will, holding up a delicate white flower. “It’s part of the sorrel family, so we sauté it for salads, and when it grows up, we use its seeds – which have a zesty flavour, similar to orange peel – for desserts. It’s a versatile perennial plant, so always grows in the same spot annually, and can sustain all year round.”
Already feeling like a fully qualified botanist, I’m quickly hooked by Will’s infectious passion, knowledge and excitement. As we progress through our route, we come across countless edible treasures, from nettles and acorns, to mustard and dandelion leaves. I never thought raw ingredients could make me so hungry, but Will’s descriptions have got me practically salivating.
“Dandelion leaves are lovely and bitter, and available most of the year,” he enthuses. “Springtime’s best for them because they’re nice and young; when they get bigger, they can be too bitter and quite fibrous, but as soon as you cook or blanche them, you balance out that bitterness. Their flowers are a bit more floral and honeylike, and great when cooked simply in a tempura. You can use them in lemonade too, or to make vinegar, pickle, or dandelion wine.”
It’s this level of expertise and innovation that sets The Small Holding apart as the best of Kent. As well as winning Chef of the Year at Kent Life’s Food and Drink Awards, and Produced in Kent’s Restaurant of the Year at the Taste of Kent Awards, they’ve recently been named Kent Restaurant of the Year in the prestigious Muddy Stilettos Awards 2019.
Celebrated for their ‘eat local’ ethos, locally-sourced real food and organic sustainability, everything Will and his kitchen team cook is homegrown, picked or sourced locally. And with their ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone’ approach, they’ve been afforded the freedom to get creative, push boundaries, and think outside the box by making the most of what Mother Nature has to offer.
“It makes you move forward and change things up when certain ingredients aren’t around, while also teaching you to make the most of what’s available when they are,” explains Will. “It’s the best of both worlds, and so exciting when we pick something and aren’t sure what we’re going to do with it – there’s so much potential, and the possibilities are endless.”
For Will, foraging is as much about forward-thinking as it is fresh ideas. I’m astonished to learn that he’s picked around 200kg of wild garlic right on his doorstep, which he’ll preserve and store for future use, or ferment for oils, vinegars and dressings. It’s all about getting the best out of things – and wild garlic in particular is an absolute staple.
“It’s easily recognisable and there’s lots of it, plus it’s easy to cook with,” Will reveals. “For people who haven’t done much foraging, or are unsure of it, it’s a good place to start, as it will give you more confidence once you’ve found that regular patch to return to. People often don’t realise that elderflower and sorrel are also commonly found in their gardens, and taste great.”
Indeed, the element of surprise is half the fun. Each time we stop on our journey, I’m invited to taste and savour whatever we find – following in the footsteps of Will and his chefs, who walk this same path weekly to find the latest and greatest of what’s in season. My tour guide loves nothing more than wandering with his staff, throwing around ideas, and seeing potential recipes take shape.
“You can get a bit lost in your thought processes sometimes, so it’s better when we’re all together,” he insists. “It’s about going out and finding a purpose for something on the menu; to get the best out of a foraged ingredient, you’ve got to treat it like you would any other, which is less romantic, but more practical!”
As we near the end of our trek – baskets full of plants, herbs and flowers, and knives well-used from unearthing our bounty – Will tells me that it’s often the simplest dishes that make the biggest impact when using wild produce. He’s always delighted when a diner is bowled over by something as seemingly straightforward as a salad, which he’s managed to make new, refreshing and exciting.
And that’s just the point of foraging: It’s the joy of food at its most basic and fundamental level. It’s the simple pleasure of slipping your wellies on, stepping outside, smelling the air and getting back to nature – all of which is reflected in every dish that makes it onto the Small Holding menu. No one understands this better than Will, who knows all too well that simplicity truly is a thing of beauty.
“When you work with great produce, you don’t always want to do too much to it,” he concludes. “As soon as we start to cook and change it, we lose some of its vibrancy, which we’ll never get back. Dining has changed, and less is often more now, because we care more about produce, and there are a lot more courses to show it off on a tasting menu, which makes every ingredient stand out.
“The best part of my craft and job is that so much work goes into two or three mouthfuls, but if the customer enjoys it, it’s worth it. As chefs, we can get too caught up in technique, rather than just enjoying what a dish tastes like, and whether it works on the plate. The reality is that technique can be learned, but flavour balance is more of a natural way of standing strong with your ingredients.”
Farm and Forage at The Small Holding runs every Wednesday and Thursday until August 29, priced at £145 per person, including a Half-Acre lunch. Click here to book your place, and don’t forget to sign up to our mailing list below for our latest news and events!
© WILL AND MATT DEVLIN