A route beginning at Liverpool Street station took me quickly into Essex and to the Witham. From there, I jumped into a taxi to Daisy Meadows car park on the water’s edge, nestled within the Heybridge Basin. Osea Island is not signposted, and there was a moment of hesitation when we arrived at the car park and the grumpy cabbie asked, “left or right, mate?” How am I supposed to know? (the answer is left). And then past the Old Ship and The Jolly Sailor to a small, congested jetty.
Native restaurant has enlisted the services of a local seadog called Clint to take guests across the Blackwater estuary to the island. Boarding with five other guests, we departed the jetty and passed Northey Island, bending across the Essex coast, past the red-rusted, semi-sunken Light Vessel 18, famed for broadcasting pirate radio in the 1960s. After about 15 minutes, a figure on the shore soon revealed itself as Imogen Davis, Native’s flame-haired co-founder, waving us in. Clint moored and fixed a small ladder to the bow for us nervy seafarers to disembark, and we stepped onto the crunching shingle, the flat land sliding away into the muddy channel.
Happy chickens clucked, safe from stalking foxes and other mainland threats – don’t tell them about the new restaurant and its clever-wielding chef with a thirst for chicken nuggets
I have long harboured absurdly idealised countryside views, looking forward to the day I can leave the smog-clogged city behind and live and work in wild wifi-ed abandonment. Still, an isolated island such as this is something altogether different. Osea Island is indeed wild. The skerry topography is bleak in late October, the flat island lacking the hills and undulations of larger ones like Anglesey and the Isle of Wight. It’s a decent-sized island, about 380 acres, I’m told. A lot, though, is just circumference decoration and an outer rim of excessive trees, while inland, it’s a lot of overgrown bramble bushes.
They then led us around the Edwardian Manor House and along a muddy trail cutting through flatted hawthorn. Passing a tennis court, we emerged into an allotment, with garden canes dotting the turf and a makeshift larder of natural ingredients. Mushrooms sprouted from the peat bog and fallen apples and pears decayed in the mud. I could smell them on the wind. Happy chickens clucked, safe from stalking foxes and other mainland threats – don’t tell them about the new restaurant and its clever-wielding chef with a thirst for chicken nuggets. From here, it is only moments to the restaurant building, a converted World War I torpedo store brought back to life and lit by twinkling tea lights. Things kicked off, however, around an active fire pit outside over which a Kadai pot hung and something inside bubbled.
Copper flasks containing a pheasant broth were handed around to guests. The pheasant carcasses are roasted with onions, garlic, carrots, fennel and coriander seeds, plus a little white wine, then cooked overnight, strained and simmered before seaweed and smoke-dried eel is added. The stock is seasoned and served with sea lettuce, herb oil and some shredded pheasant leg meat. The steaming mug is a metaphorical hug on a late-winter evening, the sun having now set so that it created an orange hue that bled across the dark estuary waters.
The island has a sustainable source of pheasant, and happy chickens, too. By February next year, chef and co-owner, Ivan Tisdall-Downes, plans to have introduced fawn and salt-marsh deer. A glass of sparkling Nyetimber was also served, the restaurant having partnered with the much-lauded English Sparkling Wine supplier from West Sussex. A fine English fizz indeed.
This is not the first time I have written about Native. Back in 2016, I wrote about their small restaurant in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden. They then moved to a larger building, under the train tracks of London Bridge on Southwark Street, and have now left the capital and the mainland completely. I have always liked them and I like their enthusiasm. They are passionate about wild Britain and native ingredients. Their food is modern enough, always honest and true, and made without snobbery. So I had great expectations for this new island venture.
From the outside crackling conflagration, we, there were about 15 diners on the evening of my visit, are led into the restaurant proper. A large setup and plating area revealed itself, in front of which staff waited to greet us. Everything is smiley and courteous. It is a bit Noma-like, which I think is the idea. To the right, the kitchen is semi-visible through a break in the bricked wall. To the left, they have adorned the dining room like a garden centre spillover with island flora: sprigs of spruce, scented violet-lavender, dried eucalyptus and bunched bladderwrack, all decorated by Imogen’s Mother.
Picking, plucking, pulling, wading the waters and even diving for ingredients have become necessary
The menu is a set 12-course, with seasonal twists that remind you of your island location. A simultaneity of food and context. The first three snacks formed part of the bites and broth outside. There is the pheasant broth and a bulky Mersea oyster with a dash of Nyetimber fizz, followed by a light and airy bombolone doughnut filled with chicken parfait; so light, in fact, I could have eaten several. Other menu items might be familiar to those who have eaten at either or both of Native’s previous locations, like the green apple jelly and the much ‘Grammed’ Marrowel, made with a hollowed marrow bone that is filled with caramel, white chocolate and shortbread before being flame-torched. However, there is no sign of the fermented potato waffle with duck liver parfait or the signature pigeon kebab. Instead, this is a more off-hand menu, continually evolving and dictated by the tides and Mother Earth. So expect a lot of adaptation and experimentation, leaning on the island’s abundance of poultry, oysters, mushrooms, seaweed, apples and wild berries.
“I suppose you might call it a salt and soil approach”, says Ivan, referring to the shift from mostly mainland sourcing to harnessing the Essex estuary and coastal wetlands of the south-east. Extensive marshes here run along major estuaries, protecting coastal areas from erosion by acting as a buffer against the moving ocean and rainwater. Between land and sea, they are the ecological guardians of the coast, soaking in up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater, the equivalent of 2.25 Olympic-size swimming pools. Ivan clearly loves all this stuff and speaks with a bubbling enthusiasm. “Now we walk the circumference and forage daily, turning to the land and sea”.
And so they do. So they must. Picking, plucking, pulling, wading the waters and even diving for ingredients have become necessary, as and when the tides permit. Ivan, though, remains faithful to his calling. His approach has always been hyper-localised. In addition, he and Imogen have installed an already bountiful series of allotments, planting carrots, leeks, squash and chard, revelling in the return of the island’s salty soil. Imogen informs me they are close to installing poly-tunnels, too, and creating a foraged seed bank to preserve and cultivate the island’s wild plants.
Having trained under Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Gelf Anderson at River Cottage, Ivan is all too familiar with sourcing the land for produce and inspiration. “Because of where we are, our food has a sense of time and place,” he tells me. “The diner can feel the link between nature to the plate.” This uncompromising seasonal, ethically produced food has stood him in good stead, and what better philosophy for such an isolated island project: moving with the seasons and with the tide. “It’s all about the tide,” he says. “Staff travel to the island on a Wednesday and stay until Sunday morning, when the boat delivers them back to Heybridge Basin, or if the tide is low enough, then we can drive across an ancient Roman causeway connecting Osea to the land. We’ll spend the days planting, hunting, foraging and exploring the shoreline – the estuary is the lifeblood of the area.”
Back to dinner and my second course is a beautifully poached halibut with a miso caramel mussel broth and sea purslane, followed by a crescent curl of squash, dotted with foraged weeds and seeds. Then, an old favourite from the London Bridge restaurant – fish toast with English linseed and Bramley apple gel. Ivan uses leftover fish, halibut in this case, to elevate the classic prawn toast, a dish promoting their zero waste and sustainability philosophy. It is simultaneously soft and crunchy, fishy in all the right ways. The apple gel gives a needed acidic hit that helps to cut through the crisped, oil-absorbent toast and the sweetness of the fish.
Saltmarsh lamb from nearby, community-owned Lauriston Farm on the Blackwater Estuary is plump and suitably pink within, served with sea beets and a tempura Malden oyster. There is also an entire course dedicated to more pheasant; a trio of dishes arriving together and including a pheasant and duck fat sausage encased within a deboned chicken wing that is brilliantly executed; pheasant breast glazed in waste coffee kombucha with a pheasant custard and a mushroom compote, plus a terrific pheasant skin granola with buttermilk pheasant thigh brushed with a spicy sauce and pickled brine gel. It is all thoroughly and impressively pulled off, with no part of the bird wasted.
Puddings include foraged sea buckthorn gathered from the shore that morning and wild, late-season berries plucked from the bushes. They paired this with Kingston Black apple liqueur, a blend of Cider Brandy and vintage cider apples, plus the aforementioned Marrowel, one of the greatest-ever desserts. They also have a rather good range of organic, biodynamic and low-intervention wines, many funky plonks by the glass, including picks from the Côtes du Rhône and a terrific Xarel-lo Vermell with low-skin contact that produces a soft orange wine with notes of white fruits and strawberry, that paired well with the pheasant, so I ordered another glass.
Leaving Native and the island reminds you of exactly where you are. Night encompasses more out here, a bruising purple for 360 degrees, the silhouettes of people outside highlighted by the flaming ribbons of the now reducing bonfire. There is more than a touch of the Nordic night about it, a crackling warmth out of the darkness, and food without the finicky fuss and pretension of those boring mainland restaurants. But wait, the tide is low, and there is no boat waiting, no Clint in his chariot, ready to whisk us back to the jetty. Instead, the ancient muddy causeway is revealed. A young member of the kitchen team offers to drive me and a couple back to the train station, across the rutted, sludge terrain and off the island. I left feeling a burbling pride for Ivan and Imogen and what they have achieved out here and departed the island happy, full of the spirit of adventure. C
Native Osea Island, Maldon, Essex CM9 8UH UK
*Native have since obtained their own boat to take guests from the mainland to the island.