In a competitive market it's hard to stand out in the crowd when it comes to running a pub. One place near Canterbury has created a unique menu to do just that and KentOnline's Jack Dyson went to find out more.
As I drive through a narrow sequence of winding, country roads blotched with murky puddles, my mind is occupied by what I will be eating for dinner. I’m travelling to The Red Lion in Stodmarsh, where I will be sampling a number of dishes from its menu.
The pub’s unassuming exterior belies the fact it produces a litany of unusual dishes containing foraged plants, garlic cooked for eight weeks uninterrupted, fermented fruit, wood ants and squirrel.
In an earlier exchange over the phone, its general manager Morgan Lewis promised to put my claims that I would eat absolutely anything to the test. And, as I approach the pub’s umber door, I do not know whether to be concerned or excited.
I’m welcomed by Morgan, who is bespectacled and dressed in a dark-blue apron. After seating me next to a window facing Stodmarsh Road, he dashes to the kitchen to add the finishing touches to the meal. Opposite me are shelves of jars containing homemade gins, vodkas, rums and whiskys.
Shortly afterwards, the distinct smell of Kentucky-fried chicken hits my nostrils before Morgan returns to my table flanked by head chef John Young.
They lay a series of dishes in front of me and, pointing to one with a cylindrical piece of dark meat covered in bright-white skin, Morgan insists I eat a slice.
“We use a culture through the sausage, which stops bacteria from propagating, and then cover it in a penicillin mould, which we grow on the outside of it,” he says. “In there are Alexander seeds, which grow all over – we got these in Highstead – and taste strongly of green peppercorns.
“We were also given a sack of garlic that someone grew in the village and turned it into black garlic by cooking it continuously at 55 degrees for eight weeks.
"It was done in a slow cooker that you wrap and leave. It tastes of caramel and molasses – not like garlic at all. That’s also in there.”
Morgan adds that the meat is Mangalitsa pork bought from a farmer in Wales, who kills just one pig each week and sends a cut to the pub as well as a number of other high-end restaurants.
While chewing the meat, I’m struck by the mildness of the flavours – the initial peppercorn and tangy undercurrent.
A plate containing a fillet of uncooked fish, bloated berries and what looked like a green-leafed shoot is the next to be placed in front of me.
Morgan explains it is raw trout that has been pickled for 24 hours accompanied by fermented blackberries and a blackthorn shoot, which apparently tastes “more like almonds than almonds”. It’s a heady combination as my taste buds are instantly hit by the fruit's salty punch, before the mouthful is rounded off by the creamy fish.
“Then we’ve got the squirrel,” Morgan says plainly. “There’s really not much to say about it – it sounds more exciting than it is. It tastes like a cross-between rabbit and quail – you get a chicken texture and gamey taste.”
On the dish were deep-fried legs, served with an onion puree. The Kentucky-fried squirrel is served as a £6.50 snack. After spreading the puree – described as a “tomato-less barbecue sauce” by Morgan – onto the leg, I take a bite, exposing the grey meat underneath the crumbly brown topping. It is succulent, falls off the bone and tastes like a richer form of chicken.
“The squirrel comes in as a whole animal and we skin it, gut it and break it down and slow cook it for about 24 hours,” John says. “Some of the squirrels are from our game dealer and also from landowners who are trying to control them. Grey squirrels usually go to landfill and get composted. It’s a lovely meat, so why waste it?”
Morgan adds: “We push the kitchen far beyond what it’s capable of. But it’s a small country pub and my view of country food is what this is – homefare. Everything is done in-house and in season.”
Morgan and John nip once more to the kitchen and return with two new plates. The redolence of melted dark chocolate immediately fills the air.
“This bit here is a savoury cake made from brown butter and cobnuts,” Morgan explains. “On top you’ve got fermented cherries, a dark chocolate sauce and rare venison haunch. It’s a jokey take on black-forest gateau.”
Wow. My mouth was in total confusion, believing this should not work. But each of the textures and flavours complemented the other.
To my right, is a pile of leaves, decorated with foraged crab apples, bilberries, sea buckthorns and more than a dozen other ingredients. But upon closer inspection, I see dark specks among the salad – wood ants.
Morgan presents me with a small mound of the insects to dip my finger into and as my teeth bite down on them, out bursts a sharp, acidic, citrusy flavour.
“We’ve got an amazing forager who brings in a lot of the wild plants, seeds and berries,” Morgan says. “We were reading his price list and saw ants. We weren’t expecting to like them because I’ve had insects before and they’ve tended to be mealy and crispy. John and I tried them at the same time and were like ‘what the hell is that?’ It’s crazy.
"They’ve been on the menu ever since and don’t see them going anywhere.
“Both of us are into foraging and game. We sometimes go on day’s excursions to go foraging or even will walk out onto the green outside the pub and pick ingredients.
"We were using ribwort that grows there and in the spine of the flower it has a mushroom that grows parasitically and tastes really strongly of chestnut – we were chopping that through our bread.”
Throughout the evening, with the chefs’ expectant eyes on me, I picked at each of the dishes, not wanting to appear gluttonous. But, as they start to clear the table, I abandon my inhibitions and wolf down the remainder of the venison and sponge. With accumulations of the chocolate sauce in the corners of my mouth, I say my goodbyes.
As I tentatively navigate my way home through the slender country roads, which by this time are enveloped in darkness, I contentedly conjure up the memories and tastes of the last couple of hours. With the memory of each extraordinary dish replaying in my mind, I decide this is a pub I must visit again.