I haven’t been to Rye since I was a small girl. During the long summer holidays my parents would often get my brothers, sister and me up early for a day out to the coast, usually the Kent or Sussex coast and we’d pack into the car with a humungous pic-nic, usually with a couple of my mum’s famous giant Cornish pasties, salad and sandwiches, with plates and cutlery. We’d stop on the way for a cooked breakfast; the real deal of fried egg and bacon with tomatoes and fried bread, all washed down with a flask of tea. The coast around Rye, often Dymchurch, Camber Sands, Margaret’s Bay and Hythe, were favourite destinations. I remember Rye only distantly, as a Cinque port with narrow, cobbled streets, ancient arches and pretty houses and shops. This weekend I’m here again, staying in a quaint, clapperboard extended cabin in the woods with a view across a huge hay field from behind a pretty white picket fence. A tractor purrs up and down all day until the light fades. The only other sound is birds, the swish of the tall trees between our picket fence and the very distant roar of motorbikes.
The Barrister, dog Red and I set off from London on a very hot late lunchtime, his relatively tiny car boot packed to the gunnels with food and kit. We had the roof down, Red snuggled down in the back and off we set, munching on doorsteps of Hedone brown sourdough loaded with thinly sliced leftover veal chops with very snappy rocket from the garden. We happily dodged most of the worst traffic thanks to waze, the taxi-drivers app, arriving to a warm, sultry evening. The ‘cabin’ sprawls within its own fenced quarters, almost private but over a taller, gated picket fence we can see the owners equally tasteful wood and white-painted house. We instantly fall in love with our little home and soon have a chicken in their Aga-inspired Everhot oven. We fell on the moist, tender meat (1 ½ hours at 200C, rest 10 minutes) with marmalade-flavoured gravy (highly recommended; just a spoonful stirred in towards the end) and bread sauce made without cloves because I forgot to pack them. I also forgot to pack the tender young French beans I’d assiduously picked from the front garden, so helped myself to yellow courgettes, as invited in the letting brochure, growing in a raised bed behind the cabin. Sliced diagonally in big pieces and fried with garlic and chopped parsley, they were a good accompaniment.
We awake to bright sunshine and eat fruit salad of seasonal berries with thick creamy yoghurt in the garden. The highlight, as far as I’m concerned, is a couple of swollen, sweet figs, which I did remember to bring (picked from the pot-bound tree in my garden, variety the incongruously named Brown Turkey). First stop is the farm shop, where we buy runner beans and Kent potatoes to eat with the grouse I’d brought from London. So many so-called farm shops are a disgrace but www.saltsfarmshop.co.uk at East Guldeford, Rye, is a joy.
On our bank holiday visit there was the most wonderful display of home-made cakes just inside the door, then local veg and cheeses, a good range of dried, canned and packet foods and condiments, with an outstanding selection of uncooked frozen foods and best of all, fat, proper sausages and other local meats, particularly Romney Marsh lamb. In Rye itself, the Barrister buys a beautiful old French double magnum-size glass cider flagon and we wander into the posh wine shop, Beaucatcher Wines for wine to put in it. It’s an impressive little shop, all the wines individually hand-labelled and lined up on a classy bit of shelving. I wait on a central cushioned bench with Red, while the Barrister choses some special Burgundy to go with our grouse treat tonight. I become fascinated by a long refectory-style polished wood table with drawers, providing the epicenter of the shop. It was, I discover from Mr Beaucatcher, an inheritance from a recently sold family home in the south of France. We head for home and I make a green salad to go with smoked salmon and a big, blousy pork pie the Barrister had popped in our bag at the Salts Farm Shop. Later, the grouse, liberally larded with smoked streaky bacon, was roasted at 220C for 15 minutes, left to rest for a few minutes while thinly sliced Kent new potatoes finished roasting into game chips. Boy it was good, the gamey grouse so tender and moist with a quickly made white wine gravy, my first runner beans of the season and quite excellent game chips. This favourite treat of a meal was marginally marred by rather dull bread sauce (still no cloves, they are essential).
Stripped the chicken for salad lunch and made stock with the bones. Today we attempted a local walk advertised in a recent copy of the Times. The postcode was wrong for the start of the walk (next to the Rye Harbour master’s base and a route onto the Rye golf course) but it did mean we could get onto Camber Sands without facing parking issues and enjoyed a lovely walk with Red. Back home for another fridge raid leftovers salad and Cheddar with Fortnum’s very good piccalilli. Dinner (cooked by the Barrister as I sit outside sipping white wine and writing this, listening to the throaty roar of the property owners Great Dane) is a rack of Romney Marsh lamb from Salts Farm Shop with tinned French peas. Yum.
Bank Holiday Monday
Yesterday as we sat in a mega traffic jam towards Camber Sands at 10.30am, we saw masses of motorbikes roaring past us. We went the other way today, to Winchelsea, nipping into the highly rated village shop mentioned in our welcome letter here at the chalet in the woods. Sadly, we found it a bit of a let down, although a charmingly old fashioned, hickledy-pickledy shop, the produce was more Happy Shopper and salad cream, than Romney Marsh lamb and mayo. We drove through the pretty town taking a sign for the beach, parking on the coast road with fields of sheep and cows on one side and a steep verge hiding the sea on the other. The deep pebbly beach goes as far as the eye can see in either direction and has no distinguishing features apart from the occasional very worn down groyne. The sun beat down as we walked, first barefoot at the sandy sea edge, forced back to shoes and pebbles. As I tricked my way along, I started to notice tiny, very fresh-looking silvery fish, first a trickle and then gradually the trail grew thicker and thicker, making a wide wavy line on the pebbles. I thought the little fish might be fisherman discard but later, via an instagram post, learned they are escapees from a hungry mackerel shoal. It was described as a boiling silver cloud, obviously a sight worth seeing (and I did via an instragram post from waters down the coast at St Leonards) and if you have a rod and line, time to wade into the water for some mackerel. I knew about this feed chain from Cornwall; the mackerel chase the small fry and sea bass chase the mackerel but I’ve never seen anything like this.
I thought of picking some up to take home and would another time. In fact one of my instagram followers who, it turned out, lived very close by, posted a picture of the whitebait (as they are called down here) collected that morning and deep-fried for lunch. We drove home with all this to discover but pulled up at a roadside shop where we’d noticed signs for dressed crab and oven-ready pheasant (not possible yet, unless frozen and of course they were) and local beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions and plums all enticingly arranged on white platters. We bought crab for lunch which we ate with very fresh farmhouse bread, crisp little gem lettuce and quickly pickled slices of cucumber. I failed dismally to buy ricotta or mozzarella to stuff courgette flowers (picked just before we went out) attached to infantile golden and green courgettes and completely forgot I’d need baking powder to make effective tempura batter. Anyway, needs must and I mashed bobbly cottage cheese with crumbled feta and soft goat’s cheese and set to with the fiddly task of stuffing the flowers. The batter, flour and fizzy water, wasn’t very successful and using the Everhot Aga-substitute, couldn’t get the oil hot enough to ensure a quick, crisp finish. Anyway, they made a delicious little supper. I also made navarin of lamb with diced Romney Marsh lamb bought at our favourite Salts Farm shop and the most eccentric bunch of carrots I’ve ever seen – all with multiple ‘legs’ – to slow cook for tomorrow.
Set off for Dungeness in search of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage and to understand the charms of living next to a nuclear power station and the largest expanse of shingle in Europe. It’s certainly bleak in an end-of-the-world kind of way but has an eerie time-stood-still charm, the original black painted cottages hunker-munker on the shingle. Many date back to the days when the whole area was owned by Southern Railway and train workers converted old carriages into modest homes. There is still a miniature railway with an End of the Line restaurant base. There are also several state-of-the-art modish conversion/new builds (I know there are very strict building regs, having watched a Kevin McCloud Grand Designs programme about one such) that look out of place. As we wandered past the stunning old black and white lighthouse with the vast power station beyond, there is a quiet weirdness and extraordinary light at Dungeness that fires the imagination. The headland is now designated a National Nature Reserve, so no new development is allowed thus protecting its huge variety of unexpectedly beautiful vegetation. We saw frail but robust wild red poppies, stubborn wildflowers and grasses and coloured lichens clinging to the pebbles like splashes of bright paint (I couldn’t better that description from the Rough Guide to Kent, Sussex & Surrey, where you will find more about the area). I loved the minor but flourishing fishing business, boats old and new perched on the edge of the slope down to the sea and container crates full of g.k.w (God knows what; doctor’s shorthand, the daughter of one reliably informed me some years ago and it’s a handy abbreviation that fits everything). I thought I wouldn’t be in a hurry to go back but find myself thinking about the unexpected charm of this surprisingly popular tourist outpost. We bought just-landed mackerel from the fisherman’s hut (which doubles as a Café at the weekend) and barbecued them for supper. It’s always a pleasant surprise to taste the silky, moist flesh of mackerel. It really is one of the best fishes in our waters, with a flavor that goes with everything from lemon to harissa and an easily deciphered bone structure. It is good to know that mackerel is sustainable and prolific and is best eaten very fresh or smoked (with creamed horseradish).
Our penultimate day is cloudy and chilly so we decide to mosey round Rye; bad choice, it’s early closing! The Barrister darted into the Rye Bakery, which was open, for a crusty farmhouse loaf and emerged with two sausage rolls and two little quiches. I popped both in the oven for a few minutes for lunch and everything was delicious; good meaty, highly seasoned sausage meat with a thin, crisp wrapper of puff pastry, the quiches very, very good, one thickly stuffed with spinach and diced, seeded, peeled tomato, the other with slippery, soft caramelized onion, both held in a creamy, soft egg. The sun shone briefly during the afternoon but soon the rain set in, giving us the perfect excuse to light the wood burning stove. How apposite that I had a stew at the ready; big chunks of pale lamb in a thick, slightly sweetened white wine sauce (500g diced lamb tossed in 2 tbsp seasoned flour, browned in 2 tbsp sunflower oil in lidded sauté pan, then 1 large diced onion and 1 garlic clove softened in empty pan, meat returned, 150ml white wine and 200ml chicken stock added, stirred vigorously then covered and simmered 45-60 mins over v low heat, those wonky carrots simmered briefly with pinch sugar and added to stew for last 20 minutes), perfect with leftover tinned French peas.
After a morning glued to our lap top screens, The B and I headed out for food to take back to London and wine for our last night. We bought two more racks of lamb for the freezer, a leg of lamb for a family lunch on Sunday, more runner beans, more carrots and more potatoes. Decided too on half a shoulder of lamb for our last Romney Marsh supper. I cooked it wet roast-style with half a bottle of Tenterden white wine, juice from half a lemon and a head of garlic halved round the middle. With very crusty roast potatoes, runner beans and thick, garlic gravy, this was a fitting finale to a lovely week.
We are packed; frozen chicken stock and grouse carcass in a chill bag with the lamb, the car boot already half filled with bargain kindling for home fires. I want to see if I can find my friend Alastair Hendy’s shop in Hastings Old Town (www.aghendy.com). And there it is, a wonderful restored Tudor house packed with old fashioned home goods, wonderful brushes and enamel ware, ex-hotel china, bowls and buckets; a stylist’s dream. In fact, I am certain that our cabin in the woods owners know Alastair’s shop. We wanted to linger for lunch (Alastair is an accomplished cook, chef and photographer, so his web site is a joy) but had plans to visit www.goatledge.com, a fish hut below Warrior Square in St Leonards run by a friend of one of my sons. You can’t miss it; a series of brightly coloured huts with a giant plaice sculpture on the roof and queues for the menu of local plaice fillets (2) cooked crispy or steamed, served over salad with coleslaw-style pickles (excellent) or in a bap with thin, crispy chips. It’s licensed and there’s an adjoining hut selling ice cream, with seating inside or along the front. Great music, groovy young staff and excellent value. Back home, I find two small Dover soles from Newlyn in the deep freeze. They’re individually packed sous vide-style, so defrost in minutes when slipped into a sink of cold water. They’re skinned and ready for cooking, so a quick pat dry, smear of butter and squeeze of lemon and under a hot grill they go. The fillets ease of the carcass with ease, making delicious mouthfuls with green beans from the still prolific plants in my tiny front garden.
The B is up early and off to work while I shop for a late pic-nic to take with us on our journey to East Hendred and an afternoon wedding at what turns out to be the delightful St Augustine of Canterbury church, first built in the 13th century. As always, when there is a pic-nic in the offing, I head for www.bayley-sage.co.uk for their plain Scotch eggs, which I quarter lengthways and smear with Colman’s English mustard under the egg, reassemble and wrap in foil. I also buy slices of Italian ham for sandwiches with shavings of hard and sharp Cheddar. Yum yum, I love pic-nics. After the wedding, we repair to the family home for Pimms and Prosecco as two giant paella pans fill the air with enticing aromas. I chose the seafood version with mussels and chorizo, with salad on the side. We slide away before the dancing begins.