By Sean Wrest (Chef De partie at The Black Swan Oldstead)
For me, The Black Swan is completely unique. A restaurant situated in the village of Oldstead, with around 10 houses and a long windy road (I’m convinced it even has its own climate!) It relies heavily on its two- acre garden and the natural elements that surround it. Growing, foraging and relying on the seasons is what makes working here completely different and more exciting than anywhere I feel I’m ever likely to work.
August last year I arrived for dinner with Sam and Ryan to be greeted by Tommy, who enthusiastically bellowed, “want to have a look around?” I vividly remember his excitement as he plucked tomatoes in the poly tunnel and told us to try them. Unbelievable! Following an amazing meal and a quick five-minute discussion with the other half, Sam, we both knew that we wanted to be a part of The Black Swan family. That may sound cheesy, but for me it really is a family; we work long hours together, we brainstorm and go foraging together, we sit, we talk and we drink beer together. And now almost twelve months on I’ve almost completed four ever-changing seasons, lots of growing, lots of harvesting, lots of foraging and one big learning curve!
So…what is it really like working somewhere that the garden dictates what goes on the menu so strongly?
Well firstly, it’s hugely rewarding. The produce is at its optimum and is unbelievably fresh. This can also have its drawbacks, but not necessarily all negative. As a lot of the produce has to be used straight away, it pushes us to be even more creative having to develop ways to use everything the garden gives us, or ways to preserve what the garden gives us, to use all year round. We have to be more creative and forward thinking.
Preservation methods such as, pickling, fermenting and clamping ensure that produce is not wasted. But also creates a different dimension to the ingredient. Fermented turnips in particular have been a huge success over the past few months. June saw us harvesting these deliciously sweet turnip, with the large ones being fermented and used for purees, whilst smaller ones have been clamped in dark cupboards which forces them to grow tender shoots which are picked before service and used as garnish. Wild garlic capers and elderberry capers have been another, with everybody getting involved to pick and process as many as possible, so many they could easily see us through until next year! I also get involved in regular foraging trips that produce all sorts such as spruce tips, wood sorrel, woodruff, meadowsweet, primroses, wild garlic, and the list goes on! These have been used in a variety of ways from jams to pickles and even vinegars.
Working here has really taught me that the land around us is amazing. I have learned so much about ingredients such as spruce and primrose, which had it not been for Tommy and the Black Swan, I would have walked straight past and neglected it’s existence.
Tommy and his team’s enthusiasm is carried through everything The Black Swan is creating. There’s been many a time, I’ve been driving to work for breakfast service with fellow chef Heath who’s suddenly demanded I stop the car as he’s seen something he can forage and use later that day. This enthusiasm is also transferred to the garden, where Alan and TB show huge respect and excitement for the produce that they grow. For me as a chef it’s great to have people who are so excited and passionate about the produce they are putting in front of us. That love and respect is what makes our vegetables, our fruit, actually, all of our produce so amazing and as chefs, it makes it so much more important that we show just as much attention and respect when we’re preparing, cooking and serving a dish for the customer.
The turn of the New Year brought a redesigned of the dining room; the installation of a front kitchen. This really changed the dynamic of how service runs. Both Tommy and James were keen for the chefs to have more interaction with the guests. It gives us a great opportunity to talk to the customers about the techniques and processes we’ve used, or maybe just a great story that’s behind a dish. The dish I love to take out the most has to be the crapaudine beetroot, as the story behind it truly showcases The Black Swan’s identity. Harvested last October, we’ve used a Victorian storage method known as clamping. Stored in hay, we pick out enough for each day and roast them slowly for 6 hours in beef fat. Pickled beetroot is placed on top an emulsion of cod roe and horseradish, finished with a cracker made from linseed from the farm. It’s such a ridiculously simple dish, yet its complexities lie in the growing, the harvesting and the storage of the produce and how we so carefully treat it whilst cooking it.
As the summer months draw in, the autumnal produce is starting to take form. It’s a reminder of how much, almost 12 months later, I have learnt and continue to learn. It also gives me time to reflect on just how much The Black Swan has evolved in that time. That’s what makes working here so exciting and humbling, because just like the seasons that we so heavily rely on, it’s forever changing, they will never stand still.