We managed to steal a few moments from two self-taught brothers who started out cooking at home and didn't stop there. Busy with preparations to reopen soon, they agreed to answer a few questions. Based out of a Victorian glasshouse they are not only seeking the balance for how they cook and source their food but also how the restaurant cares for its keepers. With a mindset of looking to the future for positive change, the staff are on living wage or above. This is all to complete the sustainable circle and create an immersive experience for the guest as well as a place where the staff is as well taken care of as the guests.
Who are you?
We are Matthew and Iain Pennington, brothers, owners and self-taught chefs who set up The Ethicurean back in 2010. Before opening the walled garden site in which we currently sit, we worked on farmers markets for a couple of years in a closed loop, sustainable system. We would buy products from the markets we attended, home-cook what we had purchased and then take it to the next market. Many of the producers we met and purchased from at the markets are still our suppliers and good friends today. The business was founded on a sense of place; the idea that the land around you can provide the most nourishing and sustainable produce. Our food centres around the whole vegetable, with a little dairy, meat and fish added to compliment.
We have always worked with the seasons which meant that very early on we had to learn the art of fermentation. At first this was out of necessity, to enable us to preserve the glut of summer produce to use in the winter months. We then began to learn the great benefits of nourishing our gut with fermented produce to improve overall health and mental wellbeing. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi feature regularly on our menu, and we offer kombuchas and vinegar based shrubs on our drinks lists. We are constantly experimenting with new ferments, not all of which are successful! More recently we have been using koji mould strains to preserve grains, root vegetables and make miso, tamari and shio koji. The shelves are laden with umami-rich ingredients ready for guests to return in the autumn.
What is the origin of The Ethicurean?
The restaurant is based in a Victorian glasshouse, situated within a walled garden. It was a derelict site until the current landlord took it on in the early 1990s and restored it. The site is also home to a number of other small businesses including artists, gardeners and cider makers. Inside the restaurant, we take inspiration from Scandi design. We worked with our good friend and carpenter Liam Rush to create a bar area with Shou Sugi, a Japanese technique of burning wood planks, and brass accents. Bunches of dried herbs cover the walls and dried flower arrangements sit along the windowsills and tables. In the kitchen we have an open fire grill which allows us to be creative when working with whole vegetables or big cuts of meat. It also provides a little theatre for our guests.
Where do you source your produce and products?
We have always sourced as locally and ethically as possible. Vegetables are grown on the walled garden plot by Mark Cox and the majority of our menu begins with what we can get directly from him. Mark switched to a no dig approach in the garden a few years ago with the hope of greatly improving the soil quality and thereby increasing the nutrients in the vegetables. Eggs are sourced from a free range farm in the village and dairy products come from a number of local producers. Our fish and meat comes from trusted sources based in the south west, all of whom we have known and worked with for years. We also like to use local drinks suppliers. Most of our soft drinks are made in house, but a few are bought in from a company close to us, Lovely Drinks. Apple juice is pressed on site by Mike and Isy with fruit from the walled garden orchard and our wines are supplied by small independents who predominantly work with organic vineyards in Europe. We are also lucky enough to have three fantastic vineyards on our doorstep; Aldwick Court, Dunleavy and Limeburn Hill. We know we’re spoilt for choice in this part of the country!
Do you have a signature dish?
We’ve always had so much excitement from our guests for our sticky toffee apple cake. Drenched in double cream in the spring or served hot with clotted cream ice cream in the winter we can certainly see why it has become a signature dish. To its end, it will always be 'our secret recipe’.
What do you do in particular to be sustainable or eco-conscious?
Our team is taught not to waste any part of the produce that comes in. If we receive cabbages, we might use the heart cooked in a dish, the outer leaves can be used as alternatives to vine leaves and the stalks might be fermented to create a sauerkraut. Leftover sourdough can be dehydrated and re-milled into flour which we would use in cakes. When purchasing meat, we like to buy the whole animal and butcher it ourselves. Each part of the animal will be used, and the bones will be turned into stock. If the front of house team are making cordials with fresh fruit, the leftover pulp will then be turned into a shrub. Any open wine that is not suitable for customers to drink is given to the kitchen and cooked down into stocks. As a society we are taught that you don’t need to use the whole ingredient, or that certain parts are more tasty than others. With a little extra thought, we feel it is possible to get close to a zero waste way of working in a kitchen.
How do you define your cuisine style?
Our food and drink is modern British, with a focus on ethically, sustainable and locally sourced produce. We also take inspiration from Scandinavian cuisine and include pickles and ferments in most of our dishes.
Are there others out there, you think are on the right path?
There are some wonderful restaurants that we have been lucky enough to visit. Last year we went to Noma, a restaurant that is at the top of its game in so many ways and one which has inspired us from the beginning. Their knowledge of fermentation and preservation is something that we will always look up to. We are also lucky enough to be based very close to Bristol which in our eyes is the number one city for locally sourcing, sustainable and creative food establishments. We’re spoilt for choice if we ever have an evening spare to go out and grab a bite to eat. Some of our favourites include Berthas, Box-E, Root, Pasta Loco, Wokyko and Wilsons.
Could you share with us a seasonal dish that our viewers/readers could make at home?
Salt-baked Celeriac, Portobello Mushroom & Apple Soup
Celeriac’s close relationship to celery is the reason it is possible to detect hints of celery in what would otherwise be a nutty, earthy taste, common to root vegetables. This knobbly vegetable is not very common outside Europe. We like to regard it as a hidden gem. Its delicate aniseed notes, coupled with a touch of parsley, are intriguing and never disappointing.
In this recipe, we pair it with Portobello mushrooms to enhance the earthiness inherent in the celeriac. Apple and celery are a classic combination and, being surrounded by over 70 different varieties of apples at the Walled Garden, we could not resist this addition. We find that the apple complements the soft citrus hints present in this ugly duckling of the root vegetable world remarkably well.
100g course sea salt
500g onions, sliced
250g Portobello mushrooms
500ml chicken stock (or vegetable)
125g Blenheim Orange (or Bramley) apples
flaky sea salt
Heat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6. Peel the celeriac and cut it into 4-6cm chunks. It can be determined to hold its form, so go easy with your hands around the knife. Scatter the coarse sea salt over a baking tray and place the celeriac chunks on top. Cover the tray with aluminium foil, sealing it well around the edges. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until the celeriac begins to soften. The salt will extract some of the moisture and the flavour will intensify.
In a large saucepan, sweat the onions in a little rapeseed oil and butter until softened. Remove the celeriac from the salt, brushing away any that has stuck to it (the salt can be used again for baking vegetables in the same manner). Add the celeriac, carrots, mushrooms, chicken stock (or vegetable) and 500ml water to the onions and bring to a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are just soft to the point of a knife.
Peel and grate the apple. Ladle the soup into a blender, filling it only half full and blitz until smooth. Pass the blended soup through a sieve into a clean pan, returning anything too coarse to the remaining unblended soup. Blend the remaining soup, adding the grated apple, then strain it into the pain and reheat gently. The apple will remain a fresh flavour if you add it at this point. Season with salt and cracked white pepper, then serve.
Lockdown allowed us the chance to pause for a moment and step back. We had a moment to reflect on what we had created, but also look to where we want to go. There are many flaws with the hospitality industry. Every cafe, bar, pub and restaurant works to incredibly tight margins, and this often sadly filters down to the staff wages. Long hours and short breaks are common in the industry and mental health amongst workers can be directly impacted by this. We’re looking to the future for positive change. We plan to re-open in October as a restaurant with a smaller capacity and just Friday - Sunday services. Guests will be invited to join us for an immersive dining experience, with a real focus on field to table dining. Our staff are on living wage and above, and the reduced number of covers and services means that work life balance will be much more even. By including service charge into the bill and making changes to our work structure, we hope to provide a business that serves and nourishes our guests and staff in equal measure.