Every now and then we are going to hang out with some of the cool foodie folk we get to work with or who we have bumped into along the way to find out a little bit more about what makes them tick, both on the ‘shop floor’ and in life more generally.
We call the series “5 Food Minutes with …“
Matthew Pennington is the co-owner (with his brother, Iain) and chef at award-winning restaurant, The Ethicurean, near Bristol. The restaurant is hidden away in a Victorian walled garden, with quite astonishing views of the Mendip Hills. The Ethicurean serves artisan food which ties together the brothers’ philosophy of seasonal, local and sustainable.
We were delighted to catch up with Matthew for ‘5 Foodie Minutes‘.
Hi, who are you and what foodie mischief do you get up to in your day job?
Ohh Hii! I’m Matthew Pennington, my brother Iain and I steer the Ethicurean restaurant and its many components. We have delved headlong into the native food and drink scene, self-taught and with no set limitations on curiosity while trying to meet some self-imposed challenges. It has led to plenty of fun, exploratory mischief and some rather enchanting food experiences. We’ve been responsible for pagan Wassail celebrations, pop-ups at festivals, a three month pop-up on the rooftop garden at John Lewis Oxford Street, a unique British Vermouth (stocked in The High Street Delicatessen), a legendary toffee apple cake and research into mycology, the ‘gut biome’, foraging and soil health. We’ve been visited last year by Michel Roux Junior & Country File, which only encourages us to explore curiosity.
What inspires you?
Nature and the science of its understanding is what inspires us both on a daily basis.
Where in the world do you get to hang out doing your foodie thing? Can you tell us a little of what is so special to you about ‘place’?
For a couple of years before we took on our beautiful walled garden venue we were on the road, travelling all over the South West taking our concept of a sustainable food offering to farmers’ markets. We would buy produce from the growers, artisans and drinks makers, then in our home kitchen turn these into dishes, food to be reheated or eaten by market goers at the next market with a view to closing a loop and supporting the West-Country artisan food scene. On this journey, we were talking with one of the apple juice producers, Miles Bradley, who told us of an opportunity, “a cafe by the airport” which couldn’t have sounded less enthusing except for the fact he said “it’s nestled in an orchard“. Within the space of a month we had taken on the venue we have proudly called home for eight years now.
We have an idyllic Mendip restaurant, in a potting shed, in a hugely productive garden focusing on heirloom and ‘no dig system‘ fruit & vegetables that make their way onto a twice-daily changing menu. The orchard supplies cider and apple juice from eighty varieties of heritage apple and the restaurant team regularly forages and gathers for feasts served with views of the weather rolling across the Mendips. From Day One, we promised ourselves we would use the food that was as close to the restaurant as we could find and only in season. This limitation meant we would have to be frugal and get food hidden away for the typical UK ‘hungry gap’ of February/March/April and we learnt every available method of preservation and specifically focused on fermentation and live food bacteria preservation techniques. Never wanting to ‘preach’ we have focused on deliciousness of dishes and delivering a relaxed and friendly customer experience. We are now incredibly well supported by those whom know of this truly special place.
Which 3 food (or drink) producers should the foodie world know more about?
Pipers Farm, our supplier of pasture reared meat, is a shining beacon of excellent practice, they are fast becoming well known in local food circles. Peter and Henri Creig’s early experience in farming, which they inherited, began in a much darker place than how they practice farming now. They were producing incredibly quickly reared chicken for supermarkets, with high in antibiotic use and industrial volume. They became disillusioned by working in this way and chose to change their farming method to a very traditional and somewhat ‘backwards’, more ancient approach. Now all their animals are entirely pasture reared, antibiotic free and of the kind of quality that serious chefs covet. They talk passionately and truthfully about health of soil, the health of their animals and ultimately how proud they are to have their own children taking over their methods in the coming years.
Homewood Cheese. Tim and Angela brought me a cheese, back when I was a delicatessen manager over ten years ago, that reminded me how incredible the artisan cheese-making scene in the UK is. Old Demdike, their ewe’s milk offering (akin to a young Manchego) encouraged me to make the leap to a career supporting this burgeoning scene. We see them every week here, most regularly for their ewe’s curd that will always have a place on our menu. They introduced us to some of the Pagan frivolities we celebrate at The Ethicurean, producers entirely in touch with the culture of the land.
Gigha Halibut. This producer is the furthest on our cast net and for good reason. They are a hatchery for sustainably reared halibut on the blisteringly beautiful Gigha Isle on the West coast of Scotland, where the water quality is simply astounding. Though it’s from afar, we continue to support their endeavours and I will forever remember the first taste, the texture and the smoke of this cured fish that I tried a few years ago.
You have £30 in your wallet/purse and an open mind about supper – where do you head to locally and what do you buy?
Most likely in that scenario we head over to Frome Independent Market on the first Sunday of the month, which showcases how good a farmers’ market can get! The entire bucolic hamlet is taken over for a monthly gathering of artisan producers, craft, antique selling and pretty much every shop in town opens up its doors. We’ve barely missed one. We get to catch up with friends Tim & Angela at Homewood Cheeses, the Somerset Charcuterie makers from our village Wrington and we’d give blacksmiths & forgers Alex and Ed from Pole and Hunt what little money we have for entirely British ingredient knives for the knife roll collection. On a more regular occasion, it is over to Brockley Farm shop, Farleigh Farm Shop, Chandos Deli, Ruby and White or The Better Food Company.
If we have less than £12 in this (imaginary) wallet, this is not a limiting factor because we live very close to a pub up the road that originally took some courage for us to walk into; it doesn’t really look like one to be fair, though I am glad we did. The Hunters Inn at Priddy has become a tranquil place of solace for me and my brother after long weeks at the restaurant. Time stops in here; it’s certainly of an era of pub keeping that is becoming scarce and it’s not til you find somewhere like this you realise its value. The septuagenarian landlord would nail your phone to the bar if he caught you using it but herein lies the magic of holding a space. Rather, conversation drifts across all the tables, between different groups and no one is self-absorbed in a phone. There’s a two pint formula; you’ll need the second while you slowly work your way through faggot and peas or beef chili and doorstop buttered white bread for less than a fiver. I’ve never tried a better beer straight from a cask and Wilkins cider has a unique sweet/dry blend just for the Hunters … you’ve to ask for it though as it’s stashed somewhere out the back.
Favourite food writer?
This is a difficult one to narrow down to for me. Both my brother and I taught ourselves to cook and we did this by voraciously reading every influential book we could get our hands on, many of them historical, philosophical, of nature or scientific in approach.
Diana Henry, Elizabeth David, Harold McGee, Hervé This, Heston Blumenthal, Fergus Henderson, Mark Hix, George Monbiot, Gill Mellor, Jenny Chandler, Magnus Nilsson & Sandor Katz (are all writers) we reference a lot. However, I’m also going to say the writer I refer back to in those circumstances when I need a solution for dinner is Felicity Cloake. Cooking is such a vast and broad subject that each of us should certainly be forgiven for not knowing what goes in a Beuof Borguignon at the drop of a hat when a family request comes on at short notice, the digital age can offer solutions. I adore the way she researches professionals very specific recipes and adapts to a concise method for the layman while illustrating some of the factors that make a recipe a classic. Much respect to her for that.
Most comforting ‘comfort food’?
Cast iron cooked oxtail ragu. We’ve got a Shropshire cast ‘Netherton Foundry’ slow cooker at home, so with one day’s planning we can be in dewy-eyed bliss. I really ought to write up this recipe soon.
What a fabulous insight into your ideas and inspirations, Matthew. Well worth every one of the 5 foodie minutes spent delving into your world. Thank you. See you at The Good Life Experience later in the year.