The Sportsman: rescuing the larder of Archbishops

Seasalter, Kent: July 2021

The lands around Seasalter, from at least as far as records go in the Domesday Book, belonged to the kitchens of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Chicken, lamb, duck, pork, cod, mackerel, sea bass, turbot, slip sole, oysters or cockles would be bred, fished or picked for the Primate of All England. At The Sportsman, chef Stephen Harris – a former historian – has taken on this narrative to shape his cuisine and his menu. Times have changed, but the landscape in Seasalter hasn’t and Harris is determined to rescue this magnificent larder.

Harris famously started as a self-taught chef. In the 90s, he would attend the most reputed restaurants in London (Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffmann’s or Ladenis’), buy their cookbooks and methodically attempt to replicate those flavours that he had just tasted. As those attempts became increasingly successful, he gathered enough confidence to take over the operations of a pub near his hometown.

Although recreating London’s greatest dishes seemed to attract an audience to this remote pub during the first few years, travelling around the world inspired him to develop a more personal style. Perhaps the biggest influence was Michel Bras’ ideas of a gastronomy with a connection to nature and to a landscape. One could use a setting to create a narrative and conceive a menu that makes sense in that setting. The idea of a Kentish terroir became more compelling, a terroir that would become Harris’ larder. 

This brought pioneering concepts to the UK as farm-to-table or self-sustainability. Nowadays, most of the vegetables are grown in-house. Some of the ingredients are self-made, such as their own churned butter or their own salt. The cream for the butter is the best in the region whereas salt has been made in Seasalter since Roman times. Their quality might not be significantly better, but it makes his food reflect the history and landscape of Seasalter. Bras2 would be proud. Funnily enough, in the restaurant’s orangery one can find Bras’ Essential Cuisine book next to Marco Pierre White’s, Mugaritz, Josh Niland’s The Whole Fish Cookbook or Magnus Nilsson’s The Nordic Baking Book. A bookshelf can be a window into a chef’s vision.

In 2021 Stephen Harris’s food is clean, with a style of cooking that praises purity. In his own words, to let the terroir shine, “simplicity and minimalism allow you to taste more of what you are eating”. One can start to understand this landscape on the drive through the secluded narrow roads of Seasalter to The Sportsman. An old fishing village on one side and vast farmland on the other. Away from the village, just before the road turns sharply inland, the picturesque old pub appears before you. Right next to the sea, and surrounded by far-reaching meadows filled with roaming sheep. A beautiful orangery is attached to the house. The pub framework allows The Sportsman to present a more casual image and the design is indeed very homely. Most of the furniture is made of wood, the walls are decorated with numerous pictures on the walls and lovely meadow flowers here and there. There are no tablecloths, nor a sommelier or a maître de salle. 

Landscape, climate and people also shine in The Sportsman’s wine selection too, in the most rigorous definition of terroir. Dominated by classic Old World wines, the list offers great value options chosen by a savvy wine enthusiast. There might not be a sommelier in the house, but Stephen knows his wines.

The tasting menu offers four options for each of the starters, first courses, mains and desserts. Being two, we chose two different options for each and ordered a bottle of Vajra Barolo Albe 2016 to go along with it. Shortly after, a board of starters arrived at the table. Harris intends for the snacks to deliver strong and concentrated flavours, a call to bring attention to what will be coming next. The wow factor makes food more memorable. 

Going from left to right, the Tomato and cheese bite consisted of a brittle cheese cracker topped  with a concentrated and umami-packed tomato purée. In the middle lay a soda bread canapé with a classic flavour combination of mackerel paté and pickled gooseberry. The pickled gooseberry was a good alternative to pickled cucumber, as that is what we would have usually expected to be served with smoked mackerel. The last hors d’oeuvre was probably the best, a Poached oyster, pickled cucumber, caviar, beurre blanc. In one of our previous posts, we wrote about the varieties of the oysters available in the UK. The area around Seasalter is famous for its good quality native oysters, which are meant to be eaten raw. The Sportsman serves rock oysters here, and those can take more layers of flavour and cooking. In this case, the lightly poached oyster under a generous spoonful of beurre blanc was a real treat. It was balanced by the acidity of julienned pickled cucumber and garnished with a saline touch of caviar. Perhaps the caviar was not the best we have tried, but it still did its job.

Shortly after we finished the flight of appetizers, a friendly waitress brought us a basket of bread and home churned butter on the side. The selection of bread was very similar to what we had tried before in Noble Rot. In fact, Harris helped Dan and Mark set up the kitchen when they just opened their restaurant in London. The bread basket consisted of focaccia with red onion, their house sourdough and soda bread. Surprisingly, we enjoyed the most soda bread. Irish style soda bread has a cake-like texture with a distinct sweetness, probably from the black treacle. It is a fairly simple bread preparation, yet it yields a very rewarding loaf. The focaccia was likewise decently executed with ample alveoli and a crispy crust, but a little too greasy for our liking. Regarding the sourdough, our opinions were slightly divided. It is always a difficult one for us as we have had many very good sourdoughs. Their sourdough is certainly a good bread, with a slightly close crumb and a flat taste.

The starters

This Summer Vegetable and Goat’s Curd Tart with Black Truffle is a pretty tart filled with a goat’s curd reminiscent of ricotta, a splash of olive oil and topped with an assortment of vegetables from the restaurant’s own polytunnels. Most of these vegetables were sliced in a mandoline (carrot, courgette, fine beans, radish), yet one also finds wedges of tomato or baby potatoes and courgette flowers. Shavings of black truffles crown it all. The shell is not the thinnest, but it is still light and brittle. In fact, with its high butter content it can almost enter a pâte sablée territory. All in all, it makes for a delightful container for everything good the summer season treats us with.  

 The Courgette Gratin was served in a little cast iron skillet with a brioche on the side. Thinly sliced courgettes were neatly arranged in turns with layers of a rich bechamel-like sauce. The brioche was quite dense, resembling a scone in texture. In spite of this, a side of bread was a good idea to soak the delicious sauce from the skillet. This starter was quite heavy, entirely opposite to the other one, but comforting and hearty.

The first courses

The Slip Sole Grilled in Seaweed Butter is a classic from Harris, tuned and refined over the years until perfection. It could even be seen as the best example of his more mature style, showing a true connection to his Kentish larder. Seaweed foraged from the beaches of Seasalter, the house butter and a slip sole, a neglected fish in British restaurants until The Sportsman popularised it. The presentation might seem intentionally simple, and indeed that’s the point. The preparation, following Harris’ cookbook, requires skinning the fish, trimming all its fins and removing its head before simply grilling it under a salamander for a few minutes, smeared generously with seaweed butter.

Thus, the taster must focus here on the quality of the produce that the Kentish terroir can give. The flesh detaches cleanly from the bone with ease, leaving a lonely spine that is perhaps the only thing left to remove in this exercise of minimalism. The fish is perfectly cooked, juicy and with the tender, but firm bite of sole. Meanwhile, the seaweed butter accentuates those savoury and saline fish flavours. 

The Roast Monkfish with Thousand Island Sauce sparked some nostalgic memories. The thousand island sauce seems almost mythical, and it hasn’t been seen regularly on restaurant’s menus since the 90s. A particularly successful reinterpretation of this retro condiment was one of the highlights of the dinner. The recipe was certainly not very authentic, but there was absolutely nothing wrong about that. Smooth and slightly aerated, which is a rather modern quality, this thousand island sauce seemed to be based on red peppers with tomato and pickles. The tail of the monkfish was perfectly tender and caramelized, providing a good contrast to the sauce. A raw brunoise of the same vegetables that were used in the sauce added a hint of freshness. Simple and flavourful. 

The mains

The Roast Chicken with Truffle Cream Sauce and Black Truffle was a powerful dish, one with a clear intention to impress with the black truffle aroma. The chicken breast was very well cooked, juicy although not the juiciest ever. 60C sous vide would yield better results, but that’s not the style of Stephen Harris’ cuisine. He rather focuses on the purity of flavours and a seemingly effortless elegance through classical techniques. Here, slow roasting is effective, producing a beautifully caramelised skin which reminds of a rotisserie-style chicken. What makes the dish shine is the rich cream-based sauce infused with truffle. Every bite of chicken with the sauce is incredibly indulgent. Its power is only balanced by a gently sautéed spinach hidden under the breast and a small garnish of sautéed courgette strips. 

Sipping our Barolo alongside the chicken was one of the experiences worth the trip here. We ended up taking the bottle back home and finished it the next evening. From a ripe vintage, with a traditionalist winemaking (where Baroli were blended from different vineyards), it was elegant and drinkable at a young age. The earthy notes, already showing well, sang in harmony with the black truffles. 

Vajra – Barolo Albe 2016
Nose:When recently opened, the black fruit characters of raspberry and black cherry dominate. After one day, the profile changes to red cherry and strawberry. Subtle notes of dried roses and truffles appear resulting in a very seductive bouquet.
Palate:The attack starts with strawberry and black cherries. Whereas the midpalate shows tar, cedar and dried herbs. Oozes concentration and elegance. A pleasure to drink at this age. A relative long finish of strawberry and herbs leaves you wanting another sip.
Structure:High acidity, high alcohol, full body and high ripe soft tannins. Long finish.

I was slightly confused when I was served the Confit leg of Aylesbury duck with cherries and pistachio and a potato gratin on the side. The first impression was: are these two mains served at the same time? One of them was the duck dish and the other the gratin. One didn’t have anything to do with the other, and it was the most unexpected ‘pairing’ so far. Nevertheless, I was delighted to be served the best gratin that I’ve ever had. The potatoes were ultra thin, cooked to perfection with a bit of cream. Delicious. In contrast, the duck dish reminded us of a deconstructed, Europeanized version of the Chinese Peking duck. And it was here where we find this element of surprise which Harris tries to incorporate in every dish.The description of the dish in the menu doesn’t suggest anything other than a traditionally executed duck with some fruit and nuts. The duck leg was perhaps too dry for my liking, but the skin compensated for it with its perfect crispiness. A bite of the duck dipped in rich hoisin-like sauce, topped with pickles made me wonder ‘where are my pancakes?’.

The desserts

As a pre-dessert, we were served a Panna cotta infused with garden flowers, blackcurrant and fennel seeds. Look at that jiggle! It’s always a pleasure to find a panna cotta with the perfect texture. It should hold its shape while being as soft as possible and never gummy. Meant to be a palate cleanser, this one is also infused with chamomile. The pairing of flowers and the blackcurrant sauce is phenomenal. That contrast of floral elegance against those intense tart fruit flavours delivers on the wow factor.

Having finished our mains, the desserts arrived swiftly. The Raspberry Soufflé with Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream happens to be a delicious soufflé of textbook execution. Well risen, light and with a perfectly balanced raspberry flavour. However, the ice cream was mediocre, with plenty of large ice crystals and a chewy texture. Serving it at a low temperature did not help either.

As the second dessert, we opted for the Dark Chocolate and Salted Caramel Tart with Raw Crème Fraîche, which seems to be a star among photos from their customers in social media. The pastry wasn’t distinctively different from the one that was served as a starter, but it still worked in dessert. With a rich chocolate ganache and salted caramel, it reminded us of a praline based chocolate from Merci ‘Crocant’. Rich and indulgent, one would probably struggle to finish it off after such a substantial meal. Yet, some freshness is provided by a quenelle of crème fraîche. It was a crowd pleaser, just served very elegantly. 

Macaron with a passion fruit and chocolate ganache, i.e. Mogador by Pierre Hermé’s terminology.

A macaron, which one could have thought that it was Pierre Hermé’s Mogador itself, closed the dinner as a petit four. A final reminder of Harris’s great autodidacticism, perhaps this time from Macarons.

  1. A self-taught chef himself.
  2. A self-taught chef himself.

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