The Winner of the 2018 Fortnum & Mason Cookery Book of the Year is a constant delight, says Christopher Hirst
At an early stage in the 20-odd course tasting menu at The Sportsman at Seasalter in Kent, you encounter a dish that explains why this unassuming pub on the shoreline was declared UK’s Best Restaurant in the 2017 National Restaurant Awards. Not only is the starter of slip sole cooked with memorable precision but its emollient coating of buttery green speckles is the perfect finishing touch. In his revelatory book The Sportsman, F&M’s Cookery Book of the Year 2018, the pub’s gaffer Stephen Harris explains the secrets of this maritime marvel.
The butter is homemade – just chilled double cream churned in a stand mixer – while the green speckles come from gutweed or sea lettuce gathered from the beach. The inspiration came from the seaweed butter sold by the St Malo butter maker Jean-Yves Bordier, Harris recalls his first batch: ‘The butter turns bright green and tasted sensational. It was moreish in the way things that are very unami tend to be.’
Like Harris’s cooking, everything rings right about this book. It has a laudatory foreword by Marina O’Loughlin (‘Stephen’s kitchen now delivers food that tastes quite bracingly of itself… my favourite place to eat in the British Isles’), while Harris’s insistence on Kentish terroir is underlined by an essay on Seasalter from a local archaeologist.
Harris admits, ‘I have never worked under a great chef, and so I have had to figure everything out for myself.’ In consequence, we learn his progress towards salt-baked gurnard: ‘I always liked the idea of gurnard more than the reality. It is nearly always roasted… but I find the skin to be bitter. One day I thought I would try to bake it in a salt crust and the results were extraordinary.’ Not only is the gurnard a local catch but also the salt in which it is baked. ‘Any chef who lives in a place called Seasalter and doesn’t try making his own salt is asleep on the job.’
Harris’s cooking is not wildly experimental (thank God) but it is sound, intelligent and profoundly honest. As you would expect, the book is heavily weighted towards fish: raw scallops (small ones) dressed with walnut oil and apple balsamic and served raw as a starter; pickled herring (the fillets artfully arranged to resemble a starfish); ray or skate with cockles and brown butter; and, of course, oysters. Locally sourced carnivorous temptations include pheasant and bread sauce, a slice of raw venison fillet topped with pickled turnip and crisp cavil Nero and even pork scratchings with a dipping sauce made from equal quantities apple sauce and wholegrain mustard (you could copy for roast pork).
Endowed with an Orwellian clarity, Harris’s prose is a constant delight. Here’s his reaction after discovering the Jersey cream of the White Horse Farm, Biddenden: ‘How could I make anything as beautiful as this product? How could I beat some strawberries picked from a local field, served with the unpasteurised cream from these magnificent beasts? From that moment on, I resolved to create dishes that would allow this exceptional produce to shine, and what’s more, to never allow my ego or technique get in the way.’ I cheered aloud at the modesty and wisdom of this approach. Like his restaurant, Harris’s inspiring book is a nonpareil.
The Sportsman by Stephen Harris is published by Phaidon, £29.95