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Fork to fire to fork

Welcome to a Wiltshire restaurant where food supplies arrive by wheelbarrow. RUPERT BATES forages, feeds and sleeps at Pythouse Kitchen Garden

 Rupert Bates   Spring 2022

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There’s Wiltshire game sausage, chalk stream trout and haunch of venison – all from the fire; friends we recognise.

But the plate that perhaps best tells the Pythouse Kitchen Garden story is the sticky toffee and parsnip pudding. You read that right – the carrot’s cream-coloured cousin has sneaked onto the dessert menu.

When it comes to root vegetables the parsnip rules my patch of earth and Pythouse clearly got the memo as there was parsnip hash brown on the bill of fare too.

The parsnip may indeed have literally sneaked onto the plate. After all it didn’t have far to travel. Turn your back for a second and head chef Darren Broom (above), plotting with head gardener Annie Shutt, will have infused yet another dish with local produce. When I say local produce, I mean yards not miles. I may have dreamt it while sleeping off lunch in the shepherd’s hut, a Peter Rabbit hop from where I dined, but I swear celeriac knocked on the conservatory restaurant window demanding to be chargrilled and hey presto sat elegantly amid burnt apple, marmite butter, sage and hazelnuts.

Garden meets flame – a marriage made in heaven or more specifically just outside the south Wiltshire village of Tisbury in the Nadder Valley.

Some of the country’s finest food critics have already waxed lyrical about Pythouse. Giles Coren in The Times doesn’t believe there has been ‘food this pure and lovely in a garden so perfect since...’ and proceeded to quote Milton. William Sitwell of The Daily Telegraph called it ‘a bucolic paradise deserving of global fame’. My go-to poet is Rabelais, not Milton. Nothing – ok maybe a little – to do with his bawdy jokes, but of his bon vivant celebration of huge appetites.

However, Rabelais’s Gargantua, the giant king, wouldn’t want to dine here; not enough choice and all the better for it. If you have utter confidence in your seasons and the provenance of your produce keep it simple – sublime, but simple.

When you can’t decide on the sides in a standard restaurant you’re invariably offered ‘a selection of vegetables for the table’ too often labelled amorphous, anodyne and anonymous. Pythouse lists three plates of ‘Garden Gatherings’ and you don’t get to choose; you get them all. The fire is the hero of the restaurant and the vegetables are the finest of squires, attending to the meat’s every need.

Before I meet owner Piers Milburn and head chef Darren Broom, I tour the 18th-century walled garden with head gardener Annie Shutt. Talking of poets, it is no wonder I have already personalised the vegetables. Flip over the menu and Shutt treats you to a seasonal, indeed monthly, guide to the garden: ‘The rhubarb crowns have awoken from deep slumber and blushing a healthy pink’ while ‘the broad beans have stretched out already a foot high and I shall be tucking them in soon in their prepped beds.’

We frequently hear about nose-to-tail when it comes to meat; well think stem-to-tip vegetables, plants, fruits and flowers too, with crop rotation dictating and inspiring the Pythouse plates.

Piers Milburn has food and drink in his genes with his parents behind Milburns, catering for the likes of the V&A, the Imperial War Museum and the Globe Theatre, while his brother Oz Milburn co-founded London restaurants Kitty Fisher’s and Cora Pearl.

 

 

But, in between a career in graphic design and website creation, fire was his fuel and over the years Piers Milburn, moving down to Wiltshire 20 years ago, has cooked at weddings, festivals and glamping sites, once converting a tractor bucket into a barbecue – as you do.

Milburn and his wife, Sophia, bought Pythouse Kitchen Garden six years ago. Back in the day it was a café and farm shop, part of the wider Pythouse estate, but the couple wanted to do so much more than tea and cake, especially with a three-acre Victorian walled garden groaning with local produce. It is here that Milburn pays tribute to the former head gardener Frank Hatton, who started in his teens weighing and selling the fruit and veg amid the potting sheds and greenhouses, right through until he hung up his gloves in his 90s.

Vitally for both the provenance of the food and the authenticity of the atmosphere the garden has not been dressed up, its hair brushed, nails manicured, or boots polished. For all his wood-fired passion and skills, Milburn realised it needed somebody to fuse field and flame and run with the seasons.

“Darren Broom is the most fantastic chef. He was immediately inspired by the garden. Everything we grow gets eaten; it all goes on the menu. And what we can’t get from the garden we source locally,” says Milburn. And what you can’t eat in the garden is turned into lotions and potions.

Broom’s journey is a compelling one. His first job was in a fish and chip shop, where the owner commended him for his ability to absorb systems and processes when prepping, cooking and serving food.

Broom was the victim of a knife attack returning from a rugby match in Exeter as a schoolboy and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder failed to complete his A levels. The plan was to become a sports psychologist, then Broom remembered what the boss of the chippy had said about his strengths and that quickly evolved into becoming a professional chef.

Fire was his thing too and, as well as high-end private dining curated from the land, he took cooking equipment to weddings in fields, with ‘collapsible menus’ ensuring he could cook everything in the open air and then pack up and go home.

He became head chef at Nancarrow Farm in Cornwall, with whole animal cookery and butchery; sustainability soon becoming Broom’s signature as master of the firepit and the feast night.

 “I furthered my knowledge, developing my food through growing vegetables in the garden, foraging from the hedgerows, pasture and woodlands. This allowed me to cook food that truly felt of the moment.”

He took that ethos and authenticity to the kitchen at the Belmont country estate near Bristol and on to Pythouse in the summer of 2020, armed with knowledge of wood-fired techniques from around the world.

When Broom cooked a sensational meal for his family, Milburn knew he had found his muse, with values aligned and a touch of Argentine chef Francis Mallmann about Broom’s honesty and understanding of terroir.

This is ‘whole animal, whole plant’ cooking, but also whole fire. Using different stages of the fire to cook different foods and find different flavours. “Move the fire not the meat,” says Broom, who, despite his talent and experience, learns something new every day, foraging in the seasonal larder outside the kitchen door.

It is time to introduce PKG to BBQ beer, this magazine’s Rye IPA from Powder Monkey Brewing. They both enjoy it and Broom’s recipe brain is whirring about how to use it in cooking as well as a liquid accompaniment to great fire food.

In return, Milburn hands me a bottle of Sprigster, Pythouse’s own botanical non-alcoholic mash, packed with the flavours of the garden – hops, fennel, rhubarb, ginger and apple among the ingredients.

I vow to come back with the family to stay in the glamping village at the foot of the three-acre garden – a delightful collection of six bell tents. You can barbecue your own food at the site, but that would be like painting your own ceiling when Michelangelo lives next door.

Pythouse Kitchen Garden is indeed ‘a bucolic paradise worthy of global fame’. But please don’t tell anybody.

 


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