I know Tobyn quite a few years. He is a highly passionate young chef with great knowledge and respect for the produceand a very solid knowledge of cooking techniques. I am following his development ever since and am waiting with great excitement for the realisation of the dream he was working on for quite a few years: a farm, a food lab and a restaurant. While he is working on that big project, he is opening the doors of his home once a month for six people only, inviting them to go foraging with him and then in the evening getting them to sit in his dining room and enjoying his creations for a one-off dinner. Every month he creates a new menu for only six people. That above (photos) was what he was serving in May. But more about this later. First, let’s see how who is Tobyn and why has this young man who gained experiences in some of the top restaurants as well as the Nordic Food Lab decide to start his own farm. He says:
“Working in the cities for some years, using wholesale suppliers was standard practice. The only connection to them being through 1 AM voicemails and perhaps a weekly chat on the phone.
I would call my orders through after service, and the grocer or fishmonger or butcher would pick up the message at 4 am when they start working and they would drive to the big city wholesale markets like Billingsgate, Smithfield or Covent Garden, which are like enormous Costco for ingredients from around the world. They would buy what I asked for and deliver it to me later that morning. This was the norm.
But when you ask agents to work on your behalf in this way, you make them responsible for your standards, your ethics and your ingredients. And as a chef, everything you do starts with ingredients. Everything I did in the kitchen was based on the trust I put into these middlemen. I would ask them “Is this organic/ Free range/fresh from UK waters?….”, “oh yes chef of course”. It sometimes was, and sometimes wasn’t, and I began to realise how deeply ingrained this deliberate obfuscation was in the wholesale food chain. Trust is free and profits are not. I had to get out.
So I left London to open my first restaurant in the Kent countryside, I was really excited to rediscover my home as a chef, and to really get to my roots through daily engagement with nature. Closer to nature, closer to ingredients.
However, I really struggled to find producers I could work with. What I quickly learnt was that it wasn’t that easy. Suppliers were easy to come by, but to find a local producer who shared our values and could cope with the demands of a busy restaurant was almost impossible. They were small local farming families with no online presence, sometimes no phone number. I was in the Garden Of England, and I was still in the wholesale food chain rut.
I had assumed that being close to the farms meant I would be closer to the farmers. But in fact, they usually were part of the same chain, only this time I was now lower within it because all their produce was first sent up to the London markets, and my suppliers would drive to the same markets the same way they did when I was in London, and bring it back.
I had this stupid bucolic vision of local producers turning up at my kitchen door with fresh pulled onions, and shining bright-eyed fish still stiff with rigour, freshly landed on the coast five miles away. How wrong I was. The onions were from Spain. Always. The fish usually came from the other side of the country, or even abroad, as the boats 5 miles away were contracted to the big Billingsgate merchants, so all their fish went to London, and if I wanted local fish it would come back on a van, a few days old and a bit worse for wear. Once I ordered 5kg Kentish black cherries, one of Kent’s finest products. The grocer arrived with US bing cherries, stating that black cherries weren’t available. I immediately went outside, reached over the neighbour’s fence, and picked a handful of ripe black cherries. He just shrugged. How could I have got this so wrong?
I decided then that I had to change everything. And it started with me. I had to educate myself instead of relying on others and work in a way that was best for the landscape around to be able to make the best from it. My next restaurant would live within its landscape, not off it.
My paranoid dislike of wholesalers gave way to a more positive notion, not to begrudgingly or passively aggressively resent their necessity, but to just not work with them. It wasn’t mandatory to use middlemen, it was “just how things are done”. The only reason to do anything for the sake of “how things are done” is because you haven’t bothered to think about it. This blindingly obvious realisation was the first step.
In Kent, there is a man who is a world expert on the subject of food produced outside agriculture. Like most English chefs I had Miles Irving’s “The Forager Handbook” on my shelf, and it had been an influence on my cooking in the past. I liked the idea of using wild food from the landscape in my food, as it made me feel closely connected with my surroundings. However, I was embarrassed to realise that despite growing up surrounded by countryside, I knew nothing about the plants that grew there. I could identify wild garlic and nettles, that was pretty much all of it. Not exactly a woodsman… I needed to produce food or to benefit from the natural food in the landscape, so I needed to learn.
So I called Miles in January 2017 and explained who I was and asked if I could come and learn from him and his team. Thankfully he said yes and asked how long I wanted to be there. I guessed six weeks or so would be enough time to get some knowledge under my belt, and I could afford to intern unpaid for that long if I was learning.
I stayed until December of that year. Every day more of the natural world was revealed to me. I learnt to forage, to scan the roadsides and fields for signs of edible plants. Over the year I learnt the lifecycles of wild plants and fungi so that reading the landscape went from being like the blurred scratchy vision when you first wake up in the morning, to like reading a map. You can feel that this is a good spot for ramsons, or there will be some ants here in the spring. Like reading a menu.
Miles and I established a test kitchen where we spent months researching all manner of wild edibles. Algae, the preservative properties of hogweed, the natural umami of nettles, and a thousand other ideas. I learnt so much about the living landscape I had grown up in, but never really known. I learnt what will feed you, what will kill you, and what will heal you. And the only thing I now know for certain was that in my lifetime I will never know enough. Every day I walk in the woods and fields, tasting and discovering, taking inspiration from the landscape, letting it write my menu. Learning something new.
So how do I run a restaurant without suppliers? How do I use the wilderness as a legitimate food source? I need a farm.
I had no money and no idea about how I would go about finding it, only the absolute conviction that I needed to build a space for people to reconnect with nature through food. I spent 4 years going through fundraising applications, meeting with investor groups, banks and landowners, with several false starts and without getting much closer to realising my ambition.
Until spring of this year 2019. I found a small farmstead on the edge of the village badly in need of repair. It has the most beautiful farm buildings and a heart-stopping view of the Romney Marsh and the English Channel. I discovered it one day walking the dog and foraging for watercress. I found the ruins of a 1000-year-old chapel, named Billerica, an Old English word meaning watercress. I stood there with a bunch of watercress in my hands and realised people had stood in this place a millennium ago doing exactly what I was doing. I walked up to a dirt track to a falling down farmhouse. I just knew that it would be the home of Sæl.
Luckily, growing up in this part of the world I have some friends who I could ask for help. My wife suggested I started by cooking some dinners at our little cottage in the woods, and Sæl Projects’ SixSeats dinners were born. Each month we cook dinner for 6 people in our kitchen serving food based on what is around us, reconnecting people with the land and with each other. It is part test kitchen, part dinner party. And it’s my place to serve an uninhibited illustration of the hospitality and ethos that I aim to offer at Sæl. We work with our neighbours, not wholesalers, and so our produce comes from within walking distance of where we are. Our ducks are from the beekeeper up the hill, our broad beans are from next door.
We’ve welcomed some amazing people who have really understood what we want to do and have agreed to pitch in to realise Sæl.
Sæl is an Old English word with several meanings:
1. season; a good time; the right time; a time of joy; an opportunity
2. Good a) of health b) good, honourable, noble, proper
3. The great hall, feasting hall
4. Season with salt (alt. sél)
Sæl will be the first chapter after a very long prologue. We will be farmers, growing food and husband animals on our experimental farm. We will be ethnobotanists, engaging with the land through harvesting wild plants from the natural landscape. We will be anthropologists, reaching back through time to learn how our ancestors lived within the landscape. We will build a community and invite Kentish producers to join our food network. Instead of being acquiescent to industrial farming processes and environmental damage, we will produce, gather and serve food on our terms, based on the interests of the environment and the community we live in. We will reconnect with the land.”
I can hardly add anything to this wonderful story, except that I deeply admire and respect the work Tobyn is putting into it with lots of passion and ethics and I very much enjoyed the dishes served in the wonderful ambient of his house, creating a pleasant and friendly atmosphere between 6 strangers at the table. It has been an amazing day. To experience Sael follow Sael on instagram – Tobyn publishes there all the news and events: https://www.instagram.com/saelprojects/
Curious how is the food you can taste at the Saeldinners? Photos show it, but you should try it to understand it really, to taste all the simplicity and complexity of it at the same time.
We have tried all the best ingredients Tobyn could collect in May from the farms, forests and the sea in a big lineup of dishes.
It all started with the birch sap soda – a refreshing creamy soda of fermented birch sap, cleavers kombucha and mayweed. This was followed by alexanders juice, fresh Whitstable oysters and douglas fir oil.
Next on the menu was tempura of pepperwort, with asparagus and radishes from a neighbouring farm which was dressed in kelp oil, and an emulsion of ox-eye daisy leaves, garnished with rape flowers.
Hogweed, cuttlefish, sea arrowgrass was another amazing dish. Hogweed was fermented with hawthorn blossoms to yield a spicy and sour bright pink juice with a flavour similar to borscht or tomato gazpacho,.The cuttlefish was briefly cooked for a few seconds in hot caramelised butter, marinated with sea arrowgrass oil which has a coriander flavour, a garnish of pink campion flowers, tricorn leek flowers and rape flowers
Kentish potatoes and mussels were made with potatoes from Morghew Farm in Tenterden that were poached in an emulsion of goats butter, hogweed seeds and mussel juice, served with immature alexanders flowers and the cheeks of the mussel.
For celeriac, seaweeds, autumn olives were the thin sheets of celeriac glazed in dulse oil, served in a dulse, laver and chanterelle broth, with a wild berry named autumn olive.
Next up were duck hearts cured in a bacon brine and then fried like bacon. They were glazed in a “brown sauce” of hawthorn, tansy and rhubarb root, and rolled in dried heath flowers.
A broth of wildlife from the marshes was an articulation of the landscape of Kent. The Romney Marsh is abundant with biodiversity, and Tobyn is fortunate to be exposed to such a variety of delicious potential on his doorstep. He always serves a version of this.
An aged lamb bone broth was blended with wild clam and smoked limpet stock, roast kelp and mushroom stock, and some hogweed juice. The broth was mixed with a sea aster oil and garnished with a paste of seaweeds, fresh wild clams, and reindeer moss. All from the Kent Marshes and surrounding coastline.
For halibut, melilot, ramson we had been enjoying a halibut cured between sheets of dried kelp and then cooked in roast kelp oil, served with melilot (a type of aromatic grass) emulsified with fermented ramson juice, ramson leaves, ramson flowers, pickled ramson fruits.
For the super delicious roast carrot, butterscotch, jack-by-the-hedge, was a carrot from a neighbouring farm slowly roasted for many hours in beef fat, then glazed with butterscotch of beef sauce and rich clotted cream. It was served with a spoonful of sweet and spicy jack-by-the hedge paste (a wild garlic mustard plant).
Muscovy duck, grilled crabapple came up next. This duck was reared by one of Tobyn’s neighbours who was teaching him to keep bees. It is very simply roasted, then glazed with quince jelly and quince vinegar from the quince tree in the back garden. Tobyn added a burnt crab apple and fermented garlic paste, and some honesty flowers, a pretty purple flower from the cabbage family.
What followed was Sussex ox with sea aster and broad beans. Ox tongue from Park Farm in Hawkhurst was brined overnight, then confit in roasted beef fat, before roasting like a scallop in a pan so it developed a chewy caramelized crust and a soft juicy luxurious interior. It was glazed in seaweed. Alongside there was a posy of wild plants such as sea aster, sea arrowgrass, oxeye daisy, borage and forget-me-nots. Tobyn spooned over this some grilled broad beans, roasted walnut oil, quince vinegar and fermented quince and myrtle juice.
For the next dish, acorn squash was soaked in a strong alkaline brine, then braised in fresh squash juice and sea buckthorn juice. The seeds were blended to a squash seed butter. The juice was reduced and mixed with brown butter to finish.
Let’s get to desserts? For sweet vernal hay milk sandwich, chequer berries, roses, the sweet vernal hay and dulse were steeped in fresh raw cows milk, then set into a curd. Tobyn and his team have built a layered sandwich of thin sheets of pastry with the hay milk, chequer berries (an iconic berry of the wild apple family with an almond and crabapple flavour, very particular to Kent), a baked jam of egg yolks and meadowsweet (an incredible sweet almond scented flower from the hedgerows, packed full of coumarin) and dried rose petals from the garden dusted with dried yoghurt.
And then came Pine. Maybe my favourite? The intense flavour of forest shines through it! The pine forests of Kent are centuries old, and a fantastic source of delicious flavours throughout the year. A sorbet of pine nuts was dressed with pine needle oil, fresh pine flowers dipped in pine pollen, and wood ants from beneath the trees.
Ready for such a unique and amazing experience? Contact Tobyn at Sael and get your booking!