Despite some of the world’s most famous chefs coming from our little island, British cuisine seems to get a bit of a bad rap. Maybe it’s because I’m born and bred here that I love a beige-y meat and carb combo; a shepherd’s pie or toad in the hole is comfort food but I guess it’s the emotional connection I have with those meals that makes me love them. I don’t really want them to be ‘refined’, because truly, if they’re cooked really well, and with love, then they are as worthy of a rave review as any tiny plate of food that’s more Instagram friendly.
And there is nowhere in the world, NOWHERE, that does a roast dinner like the UK. We just get it. It’s made to keep you warm on a drizzly Sunday; the sharing of the side dishes is what British families are built around. We’re a nation of people who will fight about which vegetables should always be included and whether a Yorkshire pudding is essential or not (spoiler: it is, and that is a hill I am willing to die on).
The Fordwich Arms knows the severity of a roast dinner. Based in the UK’s smallest town of Fordwich in Kent, the pub was refurbished and came under new management in December 2018, much to the disdain of some locals who missed the sticky floors of yore. You can still pitch up for a pint in front of the fire, but this is predominantly a place to indulge in local produce cooked with care. A packet of pork scratchings and a pint of ale isn’t the order de jour.
The chef-patron Daniel Smith was recently awarded Observer’s Young Chef of the Year, and in the short time the pub has been re-opened, it’s gained a Michelin star. This kind of accolade often raises a red flag of tiny portions and large prices, but we left practically falling asleep from being so full, and pleasantly surprised at how little our total bill came to.
Sat in front of the fire on a wintery afternoon, we had come for the roast dinner, but weren’t expecting the homely, all-enveloping welcome of the dishes that came as standard before the main course. A beautiful wooden box presented two delicate bites of chalk stream trout with horseradish cream, cucumber and dill, a refreshing and exciting mouthful to showcase something a little more delicate than the roast potatoes I had come for.
I would list fresh bread with slabs of salted butter as one of the base pleasures of my life, but despite that, I try not to overindulge in the stuff before a big meal. The Fordwich Arms practically demanded that I shun that rule of thumb. A basket of fresh sourdough and Irish bread, the chef’s mum’s recipe, was placed in front of us, but with toppings that I would easily walk barefoot to Kent to have again. Whipped pork fat with bacon was like a delicate paté, the hand churned butter with sea salt from nearby Whitstable jostled for pole position on each slice with soft caramelised onions.
As I recovered from the earth shattering realisation that someone had somehow made bread and butter even better than I thought it could be, I started seeing other table’s Sunday lunches come out from the kitchen and my excitement was back in focus. I went for the roast rack and braised shoulder of lamb with roasted capers, the latter giving a salty edge to the deep rosemary of the former. But it wasn’t the meat that has me salivating over my keyboard while writing this – it’s the sides.
A Yorkshire pudding as big as my head and dominating the plate, an in-season selection all carefully and individually prepared, not an over-boiled, colourless vegetable in sight. Buttery cabbage leaves with an al dente crunch, carrots jostling with tenderstem broccoli and roast beetroot for the prize of best looking bowl. In a twist of utter indulgence, we were served molten hot, bubbling cauliflower cheese, before the final and most important dish was served, an overflowing dish of golden roast potatoes. Heaven, it turns out, is this very meal.
Dessert came in the form of nostalgia and it stirred up quite the childlike reaction in both of us. My fiancé had the Fordwich Ferraro Rocher, about double the size of a golf ball, it was a luxurious hazelnut & white chocolate mousse, encased in chocolate, served with a hazelnut crumb and a perfect quenelle of salted caramel ice cream. I had a dessert which conjured memories of school dinners and childhood winters. A rice pudding set cream was smooth and milky, topped with tart stewed apple, an apple jelly and crumble with apple sorbet to lighten the serving. A dessert that is clever but clearly very personal to the chef too.
We settled into a satisfied post-feed slump, a couple of pots of tea to give us the energy to drive all the way back to London. A final flourish arrived in a vintage sweet tin; petits fours, each one catering to a different sweet tooth. Sharp lemon sherbet jellies, melt-in-the-mouth date and cognac fudge, decadent dark chocolate and min bonbons, and my favourite, fluffy, pillow soft rhubarb marshmallows. In the same way as the amuse bouche had kicked off our eating experience, these rounded them off with a quiet and balanced crescendo.
Using the term ‘Sunday lunch’ to describe eating at The Fordwich Arms risks lumbering it into an overused and often poorly executed category, but it feels right when it appreciates the heritage of British food so carefully. It celebrates the beige and the stodge and shows the world that a roast dinner in a pub is, undeniably, a meal we should all herald as a national treasure.