Mouth-watering local produce
Whether you’re just stopping for a quick bite, fancy a long leisurely lunch or are looking for somewhere to celebrate that special occasion, Kent does not disappoint for places to dine out and, as you would expect from the Garden of England, the variety is as diverse as the mouth-watering local produce on offer.
From delicate Whitstable oysters and sea-fresh Dover sole to succulent Romney Marsh lamb and refreshing Solley’s Kentish ice cream, all washed down with one of Kent’s award-winning wines or famous ales, food-lovers are seriously spoilt for choice.
Across the county, Kent’s farmers, fishermen, butchers, grocers, chefs and restaurateurs are keen to help both residents and visitors alike to enjoy fine Kent produce, an attitude that is championed by Produced in Kent and the Kent Farmers Market Association (KFMA), whose patron is none other than Michel Roux Jr. The renowned chef’s affiliation with Kent started from birth (he was born at Pembury Hospital) and he spent his early years in Shipbourne, where his father, Albert, worked as a private chef for the Cazalet family on the Fairlawne Estate. Check out the Produced in Kent and KMFA websites if you want even more ideas of where to head for an authentically-Kent meal.
Thanks to its location near the coast, it’s no surprise that one of Kent’s specialities is its seafood; from the estuaries of the Thames, Medway and Swale in the north, down to Dungeness on Kent’s most southern tip, fishermen have practiced their trade along the county’s extensive coastline for centuries. There are still over 100 licensed fishing vessels and up to 200 fishermen operating from the Kent coast, mainly via the three main fishing ports at Ramsgate, Folkestone and Whitstable (although boats also operate from the beaches at Deal, Hythe and Dungeness) and catch anything from bass, cod and lobster to mussels and whelks.
Two Kent towns are particularly well-known for their marine produce. Dover is, of course, synonymous with sole and, although this delicate animal is fished everywhere from Norway to the Mediterranean, it is named after the Kent port due to its past prominence as the key supplier for London. Meanwhile, Whitstable has been renowned for its native oysters (flat oyster or ostrea edulis) since Roman times. The breeding cycle for native oysters is from May to August so they are only available from September to April or when there is an ‘r’ in the month and Whitstable pays homage to its famous catch each year with the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival at the end of July.
Across the county, Kent’s farmers, fishermen, butchers, grocers, chefs and restaurateurs are keen to help both residents and visitors alike to enjoy fine Kent produce
Landing of the Oysters
The week-long festival, which has been running in the town for over 30 years, is actually a modern revival of an ancient holy fiesta dating way back to Norman times, when local fishermen and dredgers would held annual ceremonies of thanksgiving for the success of the harvest and their survival at sea. It would have included a formal church service with a blessing of the town and its seamen, followed by feasting, dancing and games. The celebrations were always held during the slack period for oyster harvesting, which explains why it is still today held in the summer outside the season for eating native oysters.
Today the festival symbolically recreates the ‘Landing of the Oysters’, which are blessed and presented to the Lord Mayor before being distributed to the town’s inns, bars and restaurants via a colourful parade through the town centre – seven days of food, music and comedy ensue. Consequently, there are plenty of eateries to enjoy this fabulously Kent delicacy in the town – from the aptly-named Whitstable Oyster Company to Wheelers Oyster Bar, the oldest restaurant in town.
Kent is, of course, also known as the Garden of England and, as such, is surrounded by swathes of lush countryside, from which to source a wide range of meat, game, dairy and vegetables. Its famous hops also mean a good ale, with which to wash your meal down, is never far away!
If you want to cook up a meal yourself, then Kent’s farmers’ markets are the best place to start – you’ll find them in most towns or villages at least once a month. However, to guarantee yourself some local produce whenever you are here, head to The Good Shed, near Canterbury West train station. Here stalls of colourful local produce line the triple-height exposed brick building. But, if that doesn’t inspire you to get creative in the kitchen, grab yourself a seat at the mezzanine restaurant and tuck into something prepared by the professionals.
Today the festival symbolically recreates the ‘Landing of the Oysters’, which are blessed and presented to the Lord Mayor before being distributed to the town’s inns, bars and restaurants
Modern gastro pubs
Traditional country pubs and the more modern gastro pubs are also in abundance here in Kent so finding somewhere to refuel after a walk in the beautiful countryside is never a challenge. The Compasses Inn, an 18th-century hostelry hidden above the Downs between Canterbury and Ashford, is indeed part of Kent’s own brewery Shepherd Neame, but is known for its home comfort-style food. Think pasties stuffed with lamb and onion, slow-cooked ox cheek and dripping-basted roast spuds – the perfect post ramble menu.
Situated in the small hamlet of Chiddingstone Causeway, opposite Penshurst Railway Station (Penshurst is in fact two miles down the road), the Little Brown Jug offers a cosy atmosphere with original timber beams and open log fires, as well as an exceptionally warm welcome. Sunday roasts are particularly popular here so make sure you book ahead.
In nearby Penshurst, home to the ancestral home of the Sidney family, you’ll find two equally traditional pubs perched atop Smarts Hill – a small lane off the main road into the village. Turn left at the top of the hill and you’ll find the Spotted Dog, a quaint weatherboarded pub first licensed in 1520. The pub has plenty of signs of age inside, with heavy low beams and timbers and a big inglenook fireplace, accessorised with hops, horsebrasses, mirrors and lots of country pictures.
Turn right at the top and you’ll see the 15th-century Bottlehouse Inn, serving up old favourites including a traditional ploughman’s served with home-made chutney and Rusbridge artisan bread, hearty stews and pies, and slow-cooked belly of pork with crackling and apple and cider sauce. Although the building dates from 1492, its name comes from 1935, when work on an extension unearthed a vast midden of discarded ancient glassware.
Traditional country pubs and the more modern gastro pubs are also in abundance here in Kent so finding somewhere to refuel after a walk in the beautiful countryside is never a challenge
Great local ingredients are also at the heart of The Milkhouse, a village pub situated in the heart of picturesque Sissinghurst. Styled to retain its former 16th century roots, with old timber beams and a Tudor fireplace, the pub prides itself on keeping superb food simple and offers a selection of local beers, cask ales and wines from Kent’s renowned vineyards to enjoy in front of a crackling fire.
Many of Kent’s traditional pubs have been revived in recent years including The Beacon, just outside Royal Tunbridge Wells. It sits above 17 acres of green open space, which in the summer months, is filled with patrons soaking up the sun while listening to local musicians play until sundown. Another pub with a great setting is The Chaser, near Tonbridge. The first thing to admire about this pub is its location, on the edge of the common and beside a pretty church, making the pub a good place from which to start or finish a country ramble.
When it comes to fine dining, Kent is spoilt for choice with hundreds of restaurants catering for the more discerning foodie. For starters there are two Michelin-starred restaurants; The West House, in Biddenden, and The Sportsman in Whitstable. Housed in a 16th century weaver’s cottage on Biddenden high street, in the Weald of Kent, The West House is the Michelin-starred restaurant of rock star-turned chef, Graham Garrett, and his wife Jackie. The restaurant gained a Michelin star in 2008 after its first year, and has held it ever since. With Graham at the stoves, he and his small team have created a favourite secret food destination, and the subject of many a pilgrimage.
Over on the coast is Whitstable’s Michelin-starred gastropub, The Sportsman, which serves up delicious local seafood on blackboard and tasting menus has also held its Michelin star for a decade.
With old timber beams and a Tudor fireplace, the pub prides itself on keeping superb food simple and offers a selection of local beers, cask ales and wines from Kent’s renowned vineyards to enjoy in front of a crackling fire
Another of Kent’s premier dining options is Chapter One, in Locksbottom, Orpington. Loved by locals, yet just as welcoming to those who travel from afar, this stylish restaurant screams luxury but without the price tag – you can get a mid-week three-course meal here for £22.95. It’s no wonder the restaurant has been adorned with local awards; and the chef and owner, Andy McLeish, held a Michelin star for 10 years and continues to wow with his ever-evolving menu of dishes.
Thackeray’s, in Tunbridge Wells, is also worth a visit if it’s a special occasion. Housed in an 18th century, tile-hung villa, which was home to English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, the restaurant’s kitchen is run by head chef Patrick Hill. Tunbridge Wells actually features in a number of Thackeray’s works, notably The Virginians and the essay Tunbridge Toys, in which he recalls his childhood here.
Of course, it’s not just high-end dining that draws the crowds, There are a number of other celebrity chefs and well-known faces who run restaurants in Kent. Gordon Ramsay’s former head chef at Claridges, Mark Sargent, is casting culinary spells in Folkestone by serving up a classy twist on fish ‘n’ chips at The Smokehouse and superb seafood along with harbour views at Rocksalt, while West Malling chef Scott Goss, who appeared on Ramsay’s The F Word in 2009, runs The Twenty Six in Southborough. Here, he creates ‘humble foods’ with locally-sourced produce and you’ll never have the same meal there twice as each day the menu is different.
It’s no wonder the restaurant has been adorned with local awards; and the chef and owner, Andy McLeish, held a Michelin star for 10 years and continues to wow with his ever-evolving menu of dishes
And then, of course, there are the venues where, rather than serving the food, the celebrities are the patrons. If you like a side portion of celebrity spotting with your dinner, then head to The Duke William Pub and Dining Rooms in Ickham – Brad Pitt is rumoured to have downed a few pints when he was staying in the village with ex-wife Angelina and their brood. On the rare occasions Canterbury-born actor Orlando Bloom is in town, he also likes to head to Café des Amis Mexican restaurant, in St Dunstans Street, which he describes as “outstanding”.
When it comes to foreign fare, Kent has more than enough choice to whet your appetite. The choice of cuisines and venues is vast, with everything from Indian and Chinese to Thai and Italian available in all the county’s major towns and villages. Indian cuisine is by far the British favourite but it’s not always easy to find a good one if you’re not familiar with the area.
There are many restaurants in Kent, which offer great food at reasonable prices, but if you’re looking for something a little special, head to Junakhi, in Royal Tunbridge Wells. Situated just outside the main town centre, on London Road, the restaurant is furnished with original, hand-crafted wood and glass tables made by India’s most skilful artisans and filled with artefacts from the region. The menu offers delights, such as Goan Fried Squid and Nawabi Tikka Makhani.
When it comes to foreign fare, Kent has more than enough choice to whet your appetite. The choice of cuisines and venues is vast, with everything from Indian and Chinese to Thai and Italian available in all the county’s major towns and villages
Pizza fans will do themselves a favour by heading to A Casa Mia, in Herne Bay, which is the only English pizza restaurant certified by Naples’ Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. It’s reasonably priced and the wine is as decent as the light-dough pizza, with maps on the menu so you know where in Italy it comes from.
Talking of wine, Kent has its fair share of vineyards, which have led the way in the renaissance of English wine; indeed a sparkling rosé from Chapel Down Winery, in Tenterden, has been given the royal approval – it was reportedly served at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Many of Kent’s restaurants have at least one local option on their wine lists, so make sure you look out for them and, if in doubt, ask the waiter or sommelier if it’s something they offer.
Whatever your favourite foods are, you’re bound to uncover an exciting new eating experience in Kent, as well as plenty of familiar and traditional tastes if that’s what you crave.
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