Mum doesn’t like the song, or the next one. She’s driving, so I’m responsible for the soundtrack as we navigate tight country lanes to Cranbrook. We’re on the road again for the annual birthday schlep across county byways. More specifically, my birthday. The yearly ritual is because she never knows what to get me, and I’m fussy. Plus, how many pairs of socks can one man own? And I’m a Virgo. Therefore, it was agreed that we’d have dinner each year somewhere local or at least within the boundaries of Kent. Last year, we slipped through a narrow crack in the pandemic lockdown continuum for dinner at the Fordwich Arms; this year, it was The Small Holding.
This place might have a past in pints and pickles, but the restaurant knows precisely what it wants to be today. There’s no flirting with pub snacks here
I can’t pretend to have known anything about the restaurant before visiting. When you make it your business to follow the ebbs and flows of the international dining scene, sometimes those closest to home are overlooked. I can tell you what’s happening in Copenhagen, but not Cranbrook. I usually do my homework before setting off for dinner, scanning the menu online to try and establish a theme; dare I say the word, a ‘concept’, but I decided to forgo such forethought this time.
We pull up to a pub, a country boozer. You can see it from the shape of the building. Pubs have a particular structure and their own unique lines and corners. Many roadside ones in Kent are now defunct, eaten up by the countryside. Town and village ones are disappearing almost as rapidly, transforming into either nail bars or Greggs. According to the real estate advisers Altus Group, during the first half of the year, the total number of pubs dropped below 40,000, a loss of more than 7,000 since 2012. This has resulted in fewer pubs in England than ever before.
Run by brothers Will and Matt Devlin and part of the Kent and East Sussex Acre Group portfolio, this former village pub has been transformed. Six years ago, this was an empty building and the space in front an open field. The two outdoorsmen – both have burly builds and beards – set about installing garden plots and poly-tunnels, year-round installations that would sustain the restaurant within a low-mile supply chain. Along with their farmers and onsite gardeners Jenny Huddart and Alex Cairns, the boys are doing something remarkable: the garden supplies nearly 200 types of fruit, vegetables and herbs. I see late-summer flowers in confident blooms and pumpkins hanging heavy from the vine. Netted plots of kale, sprouts, broccoli and sweetcorn are uniformly lined, and tomatoes and courgettes are begging to be picked. This place might have a past in pints and pickles, but the restaurant knows precisely what it wants to be today. There’s no flirting with pub snacks here.
The menu is fixed at £95.00 per head for what is effectively eight courses, each wide-ranging and leaning heavily on the garden plot. We started with snacks: comforting radishes, freshly pulled and cleaned of silt and soil, with a light green lovage mayonnaise; slices of porky coppa from the shoulder of black pigs and a couple of melon slices for freshness; and a duo of crispy cases concealing a fishy cod roe mousse. Then two dumpy cobs of pesto brioche with whipped ricotta and pickled plum – warm, crusty and quite excellent, the dip a refreshing replacement for butter, made from Hinxden Dairy milk from their farm in Cranbrook.
Dish after dish, vegetables from just metres away are electrified on the plate. Summer squash and courgette had been blackened on the barbecue for that crisp, burnt texture, crucial for a vegetable so that it doesn’t turn mushy in the mouth. With this is a bhaji, kinda. It certainly looks and smells like a bhaji but is, in fact, grated courgette with grain flour and spices, crisped in rapeseed oil – clever, tasty. The skin of the same courgette peeled and puréed into a base sauce. Then a grilled slice of aubergine is basted in a thick, rich mole and finished with spring onions and quinoa. Already I’m spotting a narrative; flavours are manifold, sauces and mousses adding new depths to garden produce, reinventing what you think of as a common vegetable, and jolting my tastebuds.
The decision to forgo chemical fertiliser and pesticides means an authentic tasting product, so a radish tastes as a radish should, and a courgette, well, you get the picture. The only concoction applied is a homemade nettle and comfrey tea sprayed to keep the soil nutrient-rich. There’s also an onsite wormery for composting. The rewards are evident and go beyond the plate, the restaurant having been awarded a Michelin Green Star last year for sustainable practices and winning Kent Restaurant of the Year in May.
Just before the first lockdown, the hiring of Sophie-Claire Jackson steered the wines in a new direction, with a growing appreciation for orange and natural producers. Because mum’s driving, she sticks to non-boozy tipples, going against the committed glugger reputation of the family and leaving me to carry the weight of hundreds of years of committed drinkers on my shoulders. She sips a sparkling non-alcoholic Pentire Seaward from distilled native Cornish plants while I smash a glass of Goriska Brda Blue Label from Slovenia. I text my Slovenian friend Kaja a picture of the label. Her response: “Small producer. Nando is good!” A glass of “Free to Be” Remhoogte Estate from South Africa, 100% Chenin Blanc, follows.
Back to dinner and there’s a strip of mackerel belly, cured and smoked, with cored cucumber balls in gin, plated on a whipped yoghurt and dried pepper powder mousse. Just delicious. Then four Maldon Rock oysters on ice, perfectly shucked, with capers and drops of wild garlic oil, adding dabs of earthy-sweetness against the fleshy mollusc. A fillet of haddock comes with summer peas on a bright roasted garlic mayo sauce, and there’s a fat-rimmed chunk of hogget with barbecued cabbage and a lively chimichurri dressing.
It’s all rather idyllic as I ordered a glass of Austrian Eschenhof Holzer Invader orange wine, just as a birthday card was brought to the table with desserts; signed by the whole team. What a thoroughly lovely bunch! There’s a bowl of brilliantly fresh, piquant blackberry sorbet with miso and milk cream, scattered biscuity-crumble and sunflower petals, then a small frangipane with plum quenelle and cobnut wafer. This is paired with a ripe fortified grenache from Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards in South Australia that unfolds with honeyed aromas and notes of sweet toffee. And then cheese, because why not, but just the one slice: from the award-winning Ashmore in Canterbury, a rich cheddar-style cheese, served with pickled fennel relish, a dollop of musky tomato chutney and a spelt scone using smoked butter and their own honey.
All this must be so much fun, what with their garden and their gardeners and their own bees and whatever the feck an onsite wormery is. And the abundance of produce they have at their disposal. Two young chefs then appear at the table with “Birthday Treats” – cherry and chocolate buns, small, fluffy blueberry muffins and two square flapjacks. So, so good. So colourful, so smart. So high on interlacing flavours. So very Kent. So very Cranbrook. And all this on my doorstep. C
The Small Holding, Ranters Lane, Kilndown, Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2SG
smallholdingrestaurant.com; 01892 890105