Plot to plate
Pea Porridge owner Justin Sharp grows his own at Rushbrook
JUSTIN’S Jag smells. It smells of fragrant peppery basil, perky mint, of warm sunripened tomatoes, whose smooth skins – some shamelessly, curvaceously scarlet, others plumply ruby-red or green-striped – are still dusty from the earth. It smells intoxicatingly of summer rain, of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, and of jewel-coloured berries just starting to let go of their juice. Were there a discernible scent, you’d smell kohlrabi, prickly gooseberries, courgettes, their velvety, yellow flowers intact, the first of the season’s knobbly Pink Fir Apple potatoes, and carrots with damp, dark earth streaking their free-form shapes. There are armfuls of showy chard, droplets of water rolling like liquid mercury along the deep grooves of their vast leaves, firm sticks of persistent rhubarb, regally coloured beetroot, tufty-tipped pale green baby leeks, and even a posy of fragile, headily scented sweet peas.
Justin Sharp, chef-owner of Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds, can’t get the overflowing crates, balanced on the back seat of his car, back to the kitchen fast enough. He has the evening’s menu to write and, for anyone lucky enough to have a table in a few hours’ time, there’s going to be a veritable vegetal feast of colour and freshness and lightness to enjoy.
The produce was all dug, picked or cut that morning from the red-brick walled garden of the Rusbrooke Estate, just outside Bury St Edmunds and barely three miles from Justin’s restaurant. Ever since Charlie Browne, who bought the estate from the Rothschild family in 2015, popped into Pea Porridge for lunch one day last year and got talking with Justin, this scant acre of kitchen garden has been the restaurant’s primary source of fruit and vegetables. Justin has been driving those few miles every week to collect whatever is ripe and ready. The arrangement, although of course financial, is also little bit ‘gentlemanly’. The trio involved – owner, gardener, chef – agree that things are still at the ‘see how it goes’ stage.
“For a chef, it’s a privilege to have this on the doorstep, and to buy in this way,” Justin says. “The taste of this produce is something else, but it’s about the cleanliness of it, the purity too, because the garden is managed according to organic principles. Why use chemicals if you can work without them? Orders with my regular supplier have gone back to virtually nothing. If only Rushbrooke did butter and cream, that would be that!” Charlie, meanwhile, is glad to see the kitchen garden productive and purposeful, and relishes the variety of fruit and vegetables that the space can produce; it’s a far cry from his day job focused on producing tonnes of rigorously
‘The taste of this produce is something else, but it’s about the cleanliness of it, the purity too, because the garden is managed according to organic principles’
blemish-free, uniform potatoes and onions for major supermarkets, as well as vast acres of wheat, and feed and malting barley.
“When we moved here, it was clear that a lot of what Stephen [Frankland, head gardener] was growing was being wasted,” Charlie says, “so we started talking about possibly supplying a restaurant. It seemed like a natural progression.” Stephen has had the gardening fork in his hand for the past 12 years, working with his wife, Louise, and Ray Orriss, who has been working a day a week in the garden for nearly 20 years. Stephen is delighted with the arrangement.
“It’s really motivated me, knowing that the garden is being used to its full potential. The previous owners used to do veg boxes for friends and family, but a lot would go to waste.” That’s no longer the case.
“I take everything I’m offered,” Justin says. “If Stephen has a few kilos of beetroot we’ll take them, and I’ll use them till they run out. In a restaurant like mine where I change the menu twice a day and nothing is ever set in stone, I can work like that.” Already, he and Stephen are talking about planting more salad crops, peppers, berries and currants.
“I’m not really into the weird or wacky stuff, micro herbs or baby veg,” Justin says, “that’s not my style. My food is about the ingredient, not the technique. I love that I can get heritage carrots, Belle de Fontenay potatoes, outdoorgrown tomatoes, a lot of the commodity stuff I need, but it will be good to experiment with some interesting new varieties too.”
We walk through the glasshouses. A vine drips with still-small grapes, another scrambling tree, trained against a warm wall, is empty of peaches – their time is over – but elsewhere nectarines hang heavy on branches. They still resist to the touch, but we taste one, pale-fleshed and sticky-juiced; Justin decides it’s not yet quite sweet enough, needs a few more days’ sunshine on its back. He mutters something about serving the fruit simply with fresh goat’s curd – his mind is clearly brimming with dish ideas as we walk, he’s thinking out loud. Low down, aubergines ripen shyly under protective leaves, some to become glossy, bulbous dark-purple fruits, others the round creamy-white and violet ‘Rosa Bianca’.
Net cages house gooseberries, raspberries, tayberries (Justin wants more next year), Japanese wineberries (ditto), and all manner of currants. Squash plants are limbering up to conquer another bed come September near some corn that stands poker-straight like a mini patch of pheasant cover. Most of the tomatoes are grown outside, the ones in the sunnier patches – plum ‘San Marzano’ and egg-shaped ‘Purple Russian’ – ripening readily, others still needing more sunshine to redden.
Elsewhere, melons spread their vines in a cold frame, and flashy dahlias brighten beds adjacent to the glasshouses. Rows of cabbage – dark, crinkly ‘Cavolo Nero’, ‘Savoy’, and silveryleaved red cabbage ‘Huzaro’ – are coming into
‘It’s really motivated me, knowing that the garden is being used to its full potential’
their own, while the heritage celeriac ‘Giant Prague’ will be ready to cut come September. Canes are smothered in peas and beans, their tendrils wrapped tightly round supports, while nearer to some outbuildings, globe artichokes stand erect and architectural, looking down on the haphazard mounds of rhubarb that just keeps on coming. A trained fig is pushing out juvenile buds of sweet black figs-to-be, and clusters of apples – eaters and cookers – are already starting to blush.
In its Victorian heyday, the walled garden would have grown produce for the entire estate, family and workers alike, employing, perhaps, half a dozen gardeners full time, and feeding everyone cheaply and healthily. More recently, part of the original kitchen garden has been turned into an ornamental lawned area, the two spaces divided by a row of pleached limes.
THE TASTE TEST
I book a table – in the name of research of course. Heritage carrots, some conventionally orange, some pale cream, have been slowcooked whole. They shine with butter and honey, and are specked with caraway. Still just firm under the knife, Justin serves them with a scoop of feather-light ricotta and some borlotti beans, to create a simple, tasty dish that needs nothing more than homemade bread to clear up any juices. The delicate courgette flowers, stuffed with the same ricotta, have been bundled into a light tempura batter that a lovage-rich salsa verde tempers beautifully, bitterly. A dish of salted translucent slivers of kohlrabi with cucumber, aniseedy dill and sweet crayfish tastes and looks bright, refreshing, healthy.
Thin-skinned heritage tomatoes spill their seed over another plate that includes the last of the white-fleshed peaches, red and golden beetroot, pieces of Pink Fir Apple potatoes, and tiny rounds of fennel. It’s topped with a spring onion whose snappy bite has been tamed by a gentle grilling by Bertha (Justin’s wood fired oven). Lightly-smoked herring balances on a wobbling spoonful of softened gooseberries, the sweet-tart fruit and scattering of dill slicing through the oiliness of the fish. Christian Parra boudin noir is a generous serving of the loose-textured French-style black pudding and comes with a stew of butter beans, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, green beans, topped with squid tentacles and a couple of youthful charred courgettes.
The meal is delicious, the happy endgame of a blossoming relationship.
Justin Sharp at Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds is working with the Rushbrooke Estate to use produce from the estate’s walled garden on his menus. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown