Our friend, Rosie, was coming to stay with us in the British countryside, and I couldn’t think where to take her as a treat for her birthday. She loves delicious food, and unlike some guests, she doesn’t have a long list of allergies or intolerances. However, she lives in New Zealand where she grows much of her own produce, and has a real concern for sustainability in all aspects of gastronomy. She also hates a fuss. Any hint of pretentiousness and her shackles go up.
Although Kent, where we live, is often called ’the garden of England,’ on account of its plentiful orchards, vineyards, and hop gardens, I could not think of a single pub or restaurant that served the kind of self-sustaining, fun fine-dining which I knew Rosie would love.
And then I remembered a place we’d taken my father, before lockdown, where a local chef had acquired a smallholding with an acre of land to grow his own salads and vegetables, keep pigs, ducks and chickens – and opened a rustic restaurant serving delectable, tapas-size dishes to showcase his produce. My dad had hated it. He’s slimmed down quite a bit since then, but at the time, my father preferred his servings large, and so long as it was tasty, he didn’t care where in the world the ingredients come from. I knew this place, if it was still open after lockdown, would be exactly the kind of dining experience Rosie would love.
Not only had The Small Holding survived the pandemic. It was clear from the first click on its website, it was thriving. Will Devlin, the chef-patron who runs the restaurant with his affable brother Matt, has been named the “one to watch” by the good food guide, and the 26-cover restaurant has been named as the best restaurant in Kent at the Taste of Kent Awards. What’s more, the Small Holding now has a Michelin Green Star, awarded to restaurants that show real concern for sustainability in all aspects of gastronomy. “Rustic British meets Nordic cooking on the surprise tasting menu and dishes have bold, well-balanced flavours and lots of personality," says the guide.
With all the Small Holding’s new-found success, it wasn’t that easy to book a table for three at lunchtime on a Saturday, and when we arrived, excited diners waiting for their tables on the shaded terrace.
It’s a former village pub in the Kentish hamlet of Kilndown which the brothers have imbued with a rustic-farmhouse meets Boho-loft kind of vibe. The lighting is industrial style, but mercifully dim, and old farm implements hang on the plastered walls. And did I mention, there’s no menu. What they serve changes daily, depending on what's available on their 40-acre farm, as well as from local producers.
As a standard there will always be a mixture of fish, meat, and vegetable dishes, but they are clear about being unable to cater for a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian diet. “If you like, we can adapt our menu by removing any meat elements from the dishes,” Matt helpfully explained.
The absence of a menu means you need to put your faith in Will’s cooking skills. I could tell Rosie was already thrilling to the experience.
Our lunch began with impossibly light snacks of quail egg, oyster cracker, and mushroom choux bun. The next dish was a delectation of peas, pureed, and smoked over charcoal. This was followed by pork belly, with apple and onion. And for pudding, the most delectable raspberry lemon balm.
Will Devlin’s formula is simple: an instinctive feel for food, a down-to-earth approach, and emphasis on seasonality and quality. From dandelions and wild garlic in Spring to elderflower and wild strawberries in early Summer through to damsons, sloe berries, chanterelles and cobnuts in Autumn.
More than 180 varieties of vegetables and fruits are grown on site, including Broccoli ‘Red Blaze’, Cauliflower ‘Graffiti’, Cucumber ‘Passandra’, Radish ‘Viola’, Runner Beans ‘Scarlet Emperor’ and Courgette ‘Midnight’. Native breed Large Black pigs, chickens and ducks roam the farm and sheep for hogget and mutton graze less than half a mile away, while The Small Holding’s bees pollinate the wildflower beds.
If you’re going out to eat, food is important, of course it is, but so is the ambience. How many delicious meals have been spoiled by over-attentive staff interrupting your conversation every ten minutes to ask, “is everything OK?” So, while it’s understandable chefs should be celebrated, it seems to me that Maitre’ D’s, administrators, and other front of house managers are the unsung heroes of the restaurant business. They set the tone for any establishment. Matt is in charge of hiring and training the servers to help create the ambience which makes the Small Holding feel so unique. Like Matt and Will, the Small Holding is warm, but not intrusive, well-intentioned but not worthy; the food is special, and very original, but not precious or pretentious.
Rosie loved every minute and every mouthful. And so did I.