As last week was English Wine Week, on Tuesday I hopped on the train to Headcorn, just outside Tenterden to join a group of other local food and wine writers at Chapel Down, arguably one of England's most known and enjoyed vineyards (they sell it in Waitrose, and their Rose Brut was served at the Royal Wedding) to sample some of their wines and to enjoy a special English Wine Week tasting menu at their restaurant, The Swan.
The weather was frankly being very British so I decided to save a tour of the vines for another trip to the winery in favour of staying warm and dry, and headed straight to the chefs table in the restaurant. Just off the main serving area, The Swan has a great private room with a nice big table next to the kitchen where the chef can carry your dishes right through with tasting notes, the sommelier or the winemakers can come in a run private tastings, and you can watch the kitchen work on a big screen streaming the kitchen.
First, a bit about my favourite Chapel Down wines. Usually I order a glass of their most common white wines (Bacchus and Flint Dry, look out for both of them) when I see them on the menu in a restaurant, but before leaving to get the train home I just had to get my hands on a bottle of their new Kit's Coty, single estate oak aged chardonnay from their more recent vineyard acquisition just outside Maidstone. It is something you'd not expect from an English wine, but not quite like any other oak aged chardonnay's you may have tasted before. The oak adds another level to, and refines a bit the fragrance of a usual English wine, but that slightly floral, slightly fruity flavour is still detectable. I'm more than a little bit obsessed, to be honest.
I first became aware of Chapel Down for their pretty awesome English Sparkling Wines, and I think a bottle of their classic Brut has to be one of the first English Sparkling's I've ever tasted. With more of a profile of a French champagne than the very floral new number from Barnsole I've been going on about recently, it still has that 'English' flavour and is very drinkable both with food, and on a summer day. For the tasters among you who want to move past the basic, I recommend trying the slightly more complex Three Graces vintage, and a good glass of rose is good to toast any special occasion.
While we were tasting, the kitchen brought through a few canapés along with our bread. The truffle whipped creme fraiche toasts were quite special, as were the little falafel bites (perfectly finished with micro herbs), but the start of the show had to be the crunchy, wafer thin piece of toast topped with fresh, light and juicy local crab, a bit of apple jelly (I think) and a nasturtium leaf - I could have eaten far more of these.
To kick off the meal properly, Head Chef Tom Genty brought out pigs cheek, braised in Chapel Down's own Curious Apple Cider), served with a celeriac remoulade, crisp pieces of local apple, and an apple jelly. The remoulade added a lovely, crisp creaminess to the dish, and the fresh apple cut through the rich pork, that was so tender it just fell apart when you approached it with a fork.
Next up was the local (wherever possible, The Swan try to source all of their ingredients from the surrounding area) Sea Trout, served with asparagus, samphire and Jersey Royal potatoes. Everything that is hyper-seasonal right now, all on one plate with a light butter sauce. As I mentioned when we ordered it at Wyatt & Jones in Broadstairs, sea trout can taste too much of the sea if it is not got right, but the fish were was light, perfectly cooked and with just the whisper of the ocean. However, the start of the show for me was the tender (but still with the right amount of bite) samphire, which really pulled the land and sea elements together.
Now, I don't eat lamb. The only way I ever like lamb is if it is minced up and mixed with a whole load of Greek or Middle Eastern spices, and roast lamb is actually one of my nightmare dishes. However, even with this in mind I polished of the whole of the next dish, because it was simply wonderful, confirming my personal philosophy that with the exception of peanuts (which are just evil) there is no such things as foods I don't like, just cooking techniques I'm unimpressed with. Pieces of Romney Marsh lamb were here cooked perfectly so they were so sweet, pink and tender, and served up with a piece of confit, baby mushrooms, braised baby gem lettuce and broad beans, a flavourful jus, and a brightly flavoured pea puree. Seriously, this dish was simply excellent, and with it I would happily eat lamb again.
To finish, we were presented with a wonderful deconstructed Eton Mess, with brown sugar meringue, local strawberries (that are simply excellent at the moment), a mascarpone mousse, and the wonderful edition of what I think was a mint oil alongside the micro herbs and freeze dried strawberries. The dish was interesting and packed full of flavour by itself, but it was really brightened up paired with a glass of Chapel Down's Vintage Reserve Rose Brut (a little bit more special and I think more effervescent than their everyday sparkling rose).
There was a cheeseboard to finish (with a wonderful goats cheese just for me), but I think we all got too distracted in our conversations that I forgot to take a photograph of it! However, I do need to note Chapel Down's 'Nectar', a simply wonderful (and surprisingly more-ish) dessert wine I had no idea they produced, which would make a great after dinner talking point at a dinner party, or a great hosts gift.
I think a special English Wine Week lunch at The Swan gave me a great taster of their vineyard and winery, which I can't wait to re-visit on a sunnier day for more of a tour of the vines. Chapel Down is a great day out (it is a 20 minute taxi ride from Headcorn station, or you can drive) for a lovely meal, a tour of the vineyard, and a tasting at the winery. You can find out more on their website. Thank you to Chapel Down for having me along, and I'll be back soon!