Let me rearrange my facial features into a convincing simulacrum of Bill Bryson (not quite as hard as it used to be, frankly) and tell you about Fordwich, a town which claims to be smallest in Britain… along with, it should be noted (thank you, Wikipedia) Broughton in Furness, Stockbridge (Hants), Manningtree and Llanwrtyd Wells.
Either way, Fordwich lays claim to the very sexy statistic of being the smallest community by population in the UK with its own town council – which I think settles things. It is on the banks of the Stour, a couple of miles north-east of Canterbury, and has a lovely little church, two pubs and lots of gorgeous houses.
At which point, pulling into the car park of The Fordwich Arms, my friend Mazza rearranges her features into a convincing simulacrum of Kirstie Allsopp and, within moments, has identified a number of delightful family homes at various tempting price points, helpfully pointing out that Canterbury West is on the HS1 line, making the journey time to St Pancras just over an hour.
The Arms is a delightfully welcoming, arts-and-craftsy pub. There are two roaring fires and an open, uncluttered bar. A country chap with a suitably devoted working dog is knocking back a pint at the bar. Mazz – who very sadly lost her beloved labrador a week ago – is now looking for her mortgage broker’s number.
I, on the other hand, have recently read a local newspaper interview with Dan Smith, the chef, in which he said: “We want people to come and sit at the bar and drink a pint with their dog while others enjoy restaurant-quality food in the dining room.” Goodness! And here is the very man, with his extremely attractive dog! If I were terribly cynical I would say it looked as though this had been staged, though presumably for the benefit of someone far more important than us.
Anyway, because of the light and the comfy-looking banquettes and twin crackling fires, the separate, empty, dining-room looks like the poor relation. So we ask if we can eat here, grabbing the big corner table. At which point a woman with a camera comes over and says, politely: “Hello, I am photographing the room for the Guardian Weekend magazine and I wonder if I could possibly take your picture?” Tempting though it is to gate-crash Grace Dent’s review (her first, we think, after decamping from the London Evening Standard), I demur – although sadly (from the photographer’s perspective) we are definitely sitting in the best-lit and most attractive part of the room. Oh, and the dog’s random lunchtime presence has now also been accounted for.
To the food, then – for (cynical) me, selections from the set lunch menu (£35 for three courses), for my guest, choices from the à la carte. The food, let us be clear, is not pub food but pukka bells-and-whistles ambitious modern British, which is also somewhat at odds with the easy-going dogs-and-pints-at-the-bar vibe. The bits around the edges include warm pillowy breads, some rinky-dink amuses (which rock up, amusingly, in what looks like a branded cigar box lined with grains of spelt) and a bowl of pickled fennel, endive, onions and cucumber (Mazza has a pickle fetish; she’s welcome).
Our starters proper were gorgeous to look at; my generous portion of local crab, pickled cuke, brown crab and sea herbs was punchy and briny; and Mazza’s Stour Valley pheasant dumplings, roasted onion and herb broth were “unexpected – I thought they would be suet – but delicious”.
When it came to the mains she pronounced the smoked trout, onion and cockles “outstanding”; meanwhile, my roast local haunch of venison with plum and pumpkin was about 30 seconds too pink and the accompanying fruit and veg combo a slightly unnecessary double-whammy of sweetness, while the side of braised venison shoulder – a sort of pulled-deer – in a kind of muesli crumble left me wanting less.
Desserts were very good: my stem ginger ice cream with poached quince and buttermilk mousse was a winner simply for including quince. And Mazza’s tigernut (a trendy root veg superfood) cake with rosemary and blood orange may have looked like a brownie but came over like an airy, cheery carrot cake.
Overall, presentation was never less than perfect, albeit at the fiddly end of the spectrum, and the service was warm but a bit too hover-y; I (and you, and basically everybody) hate being constantly interrupted and asked how I’m enjoying my meal when I’m talking, so do – please – stop doing it.
So, the Fordwich is a brave, ambitious move by the young chef-proprietor Smith, award-winning former sous chef at London’s Michelin-starred The Clove Club, who took over the Fordwich last year and re-opened on Dec 1 – because, HS1 aside, he is, in every respect, now quite some way from Shoreditch Town Hall. Though still in a town. Sort of.
And if Fordwich's other pub does a decent pie and chips for when the locals are just not feeling it for pickles, snort-makingly-displayed amuses and trendy super-root puds at a venue where main courses are anywhere upwards of 16 quid, then Fordwich may very well prove the perfect mini-faux-town – for Mazza, if not me.
King St, Fordwich, Canterbury, CT2 0DB
01227 710444; fordwicharms.co.uk