Plot to plate

Pea Por­ridge owner Justin Sharp grows his own at Rush­brook

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

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

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