Chef Simon Rogan is going back to basics. He has acquired Howbarrow organic farm, which he will use to supply his L'enclume and Rogan & Company restaurants, where he aims to serve the ingredients in their natural state. Andy Lynes reports.
It's a short but hair-raising drive from the picture postcard Cumbrian village of Cartmel and Simon Rogan's L'enclume and Rogan & Company restaurants to the chef's recently acquired Howbarrow organic farm. Rogan takes the blind hairpin bends at speed while talking ten to the dozen about his plans for the two acres of land. His enthusiasm is almost infectious enough to take this lily-livered journalist's mind off the oncoming traffic.
"We've been using produce from Howbarrow for about a year at L'enclume," explains Rogan, once we're back on foot and hopping over the mud that will soon be landscaped with gravel to allow restaurant customers to visit the farm without having to don wellies.
"Last spring, I proposed to rent the farm off the owners, who had scaled down their operation, and they jumped at the chance," he says.
Julia Sayburn, one of Howbarrow's founders (and sister of Hotel du Vin director of wine, Ronan Sayburn) has stayed on to tend the farm. She is busy digging over an outdoor bed, ready to plant one of the 50 varieties of vegetables Rogan plans to grow. All the usual roots, including parsnips and turnips, are present and correct, along with the less familiar sounding skirret, similar to sweet potato, and scorzonera, a variety of salsify.
There will also be an extensive range of fruit including apples, plums and Japanese wineberries (a tiny, sweet and juicy berry that's a cross between a raspberry and blackberry) and the unusual flowers and herbs, such as elkhorn fern and buck's horn plantain, that Rogan is famously passionate about. Some will grow in the farm's heated polytunnels while the more delicate and ornamental varieties will be cultivated in the grounds of L'enclume and Rogan's own garden.
"The menu is going to change regularly, but in a good way because we're really going with the seasons," says Rogan. "If a borage plant needs cutting back, for example, I'll devise something to use up the leaves. When Julia says something has to be used or it will be wasted, I'll pull my finger out because this is a commercial operation; it's not just for show."
Although there are upfront costs for seeds, soil and manure, landscaping, Sayburn's salary and £24,000 annual rent for the farm, the potential long term savings are significant.
"The annual veg bill for L'enclume and Rogan & Company is six figures, so if we can get this working right it will be a big saving," says Rogan. "And we'll have our own amazing-tasting organic vegetables, which is the main thing."
It's clear that Rogan sees the acquisition of Howbarrow as a turning point in his culinary development. He's keen to disassociate himself from techniques such as spherification and says he's getting back to serving ingredients as close as possible to their natural state.
"Alain Passard can pick a leek from his farm, take off the leaves, grill it and serve it in a vinaigrette. I'd love to go that simple but I don't think you'd get away with that in London, let alone Cumbria," says Rogan. "So all the techniques we've used in the past will still be there but they'll be hiding behind beautiful, natural produce. We're interested in using the technology to cook an ingredient in its purest form rather than deconstructing it and moulding it into something it isn't; that's what has changed for us now."
And technology is at the heart of Rogan's new research and development facility Aulis, a converted former post office that stands directly opposite L'enclume. Named in memory of Leo Aulis, Rogan's chef de partie who tragically drowned last year aged just 28, its countertops heave with cutting edge kit including an anti-griddle, gastrovac, MyCook induction-heated blender and Pacojet.
"All the ingredients we use in both restaurants are here too so we can have a good play around with them," says Rogan. A recent experiment with vacuum cooking in the gastrovac resulted in the unusual pairing of langoustine and hay.
"We made a hay stock and mixed it with methocel, which gels when it's hot, then soaked the langoustines in it, all using the gastrovac. When you pan fry the langoustine, it activates the methocel so you get minute hay-flavoured gel droplets inside the shellfish, which gives it a really smooth, buttery texture."
Aulis also serves as what Rogan calls his "think tank" where he meets with collaborators such as David Harper, head of ceramics at the University of Central Lancashire (who is creating a series of bespoke serving pieces for L'enclume, including a miniature ceramic sack for a dish of Cumberland creamed chicken livers and organic shoots - see page 24) and food historian Ivan Day, best known for his work with Heston Blumenthal.
"Ivan is advising us on local heirloom vegetables with a strong Cumbrian connection, which we can plant at Howbarrow, and helping us research Cumbrian food history," says Rogan. "He has been telling me about a local historic pea festival where they build a big bonfire, get drunk and by the time the fire has gone out the peas have cooked in their pods in the embers. So I'm trying to bring that concept of things cooked in or around a fire to the table."
Rogan might be in a period of transition, but the current version of his 17-course "Menu 3" (he also offers an eight-course "Menu 1" and 12-course "Menu 2") is nevertheless packed with stunning dishes like New Hot Pot, a disassembled Lancashire hotpot, with the cooking liquid reduced and clarified to a consommé and served with lamb tongue, lamb-flavoured tapioca, Parisienne-balled potato, julienne of pickled red cabbage and a quenelle of syphoned lamb and onion mousse.
It would be understandable therefore if Rogan felt disappointed at Michelin's failure to award him a second star this year. The chef is reluctant to comment but when pushed, simply says: "We won't cook for stars, rosettes or upgrades in the Good Food Guide. We just do what we do and hopefully one day they'll recognise that."
Although he admits the £80,000 investment he has put into Howbarrow and Aulis was probably "too much" considering it was made during the recession, Rogan is nevertheless in the happy position of not having to worry too much about what the guides say. Despite the village being under ice for the first two weeks of the year, the restaurant has enjoyed a record January thanks to a flurry of deposits on room bookings and post-thaw weekends packed with big spending customers.
However, it's a different story at Rogan & Company, the middle market bar and restaurant a few yards away from L'enclume in Cartmel's square.
"Rogan's relies on local people and foot traffic from people on a two-night stay for L'enclume, but it hasn't done what we expected it to and business has been seasonal and erratic," Rogan explains.
"We hoped it was going to be a cash cow and fund all the other things we wanted to do, but it has been the other way round - L'enclume has kept Rogan & Company going."
He admits the under-performing restaurant was the major deciding factor in his forthcoming appearances on the BBC's Saturday Kitchen and the Good Food Channel's Market Kitchen (L'enclume will also be the setting for an episode of a new Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan comedy).
"I was asked to do Great British Menu a while back but L'enclume was full so I didn't feel the need to do it," says Rogan.
"Now Rogan & Company deserves to be a lot more busy than it is and I just want to give it a leg up. We have a good settled team; my head chef Mark Birchall has been with me for four years, as has my sous chef, which gives me confidence to go and do other things."
With work at the farm well under way and Aulis up and running, you might imagine that Rogan and his partner Penny Tapsall would view the remainder of 2010 as a chance for some less stressful consolidation, but not a bit of it.
"We're not going to stand still this year; we're going to look at other projects. We like to keep busy and have variety in our lives. We're always reinvesting in the business; that's why I haven't got my Lamborghini yet," he says.
Rogan refuses to give any details about what the new venture might be and will only say that it involves restaurants.
"When the project is announced it might sound shocking; I'm not selling my soul but I will be going back on some things I've said in the past. But whatever happens, L'enclume will always be my baby and my prime focus."
YELLOW TURNIP BAKED IN SALT, SMOKED YOLK, LADY'S SMOCK AND CAPERS
INGREDIENTS (Serves four)
- 4 yellow turnips, approximately 7cm in diameter
- Unrefined grey sea salt
- 35g lady's smock
- 15g parsley
- 10g tarragon
- 10g garlic
- 35g pine nuts
- Rapeseed oil
- 4 organic free range duck eggs
- 4 pieces of tender sea lettuce
- Fine capers
- Sea salt and pepper
Scrub the turnips and place them on a generous bed of salt on a heavy baking sheet, then cover and pack the turnips with more salt so they are completely covered.
Place in an oven at 195°C for 45 minutes and then leave in the salt outside for another 30 minutes.
Place the duck eggs in a water bath and cook at 65°C for 30 minutes.
Emulsify the lady's smock, parsley, tarragon, garlic, pine nuts and rapeseed oil to the required consistency and season.
Remove the eggs from their shells and carefully separate the yolks from the whites.
Place on a tray and smoke in a cool smoker for 45 minutes.
To serve, smear some of the lady's smock pesto on to a plate. Break the turnips from the salt crust, top and tail them, dress in a little rapeseed oil and put on top of the pesto.
Place over the sea lettuce, a warm smoked yolk, a little sea salt, some fine capers and decorate with leaves of lady's smock and lesser celandine.
Finally, place a cloche over the dish and pump in some smoke before serving.
CUMBERLAND CREAMED CHICKEN LIVERS AND ORGANIC SHOOTS
INGREDIENTS (Serves four)
- 100g chicken livers
- 50ml hot water
- 50ml milk
- 1 ½ leaves of gelatine, soaked
- 1 small shallot
- 55ml white chicken stock
- 55ml port
- 1tsp Worcester sauce
- 3tsp red wine vinegar
- ½ tsp crushed white pepper
- 50g redcurrant jelly
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- Juice of ½ an orange
- 2tsp black radish dice
- 2tsp smoked eel dice
- Sea salt and pepper
- Selection of young shoots
Place a teaspoon of smoked eel and radish in the bottom of some little moulds, which should be able to hold at least 125ml.
Vacuum and cook the chicken livers in a water bath for 22 minutes at 48°C. Blend the livers with the hot water, milk, 1 leaf of soaked gelatine and seasoning.
Pass through a sieve and carefully pour into the moulds, leaving a gap 1.5cm from the top. Chill for 4 hours.
Put the rest of the ingredients except the ½ leaf of gelatine into a saucepan for the Cumberland sauce and reduce to 100ml. Now add the gelatine and leave to cool.
Just before it sets, top the chicken liver moulds with the Cumberland gel and chill once more.
To serve, top with young shoots such as purslane, radish, beets and mizuna.
HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN KITCHEN GARDEN
Simon Rogan says:
â- Make sure there's good access provided by an adequate amount of clear paths.
â- Consider a water source; you'll need a tap nearby because you should water your garden twice a day.
â- Beds need 20cm of good top soil and should be raised 15-20cm for adequate irrigation.
â- Prepare the beds with well rotted organic matter.
â- Proper digging creates aeration, which in turn promotes beneficial earthworm activity.
â- Remember to keep food trimmings for your compost heap, which will improve the level of nutrients in the soil.
â- Keep weeds down so they won't compete with your crops for the soil's nutrients.
â- Rotating crops ensures disease is minimised and benefits the soil.
â- Consider biological control for pests.
â- Most obviously, look at what you want to grow, think about when the crops will be ready to harvest and what you are going to do with them.
Julia Sayburn says:
â- The Royal Horticultural Society website and printed guides are a good place to start researching and planning your kitchen garden.
â- If you're going to employ a landscape gardener to design your kitchen garden, ensure they are qualified in landscape horticultural design and ideally specialise in vegetable production.
â- Remember that the time of year produce is ready to harvest varies across the country. Early spring in Cumbria is in March but on the south coast it can start in February.
â- For a smaller scale garden, focus on cultivating things that are more difficult and expensive to buy, such as edible flowers, rather than easily obtainable field crops like potatoes, which would require an uneconomical amount of labour and time to grow.
â- If you want a continual supply of salad items like lettuce or pea shoots through the growing season you'll need to plant them continuously, around every two weeks. But if you are growing tomatoes, one plant will produce plenty of fruit that will ripen at various times through the season.
â- However well you plan your garden, you're bound to have things that grow unexpectedly well, so be willing to adapt your menu to use up a glut.
â- Source unusual seed varieties such as purple carrots, asparagus peas and pink turnips.