Looking for restaurants in Herefordshire? Want to know where to eat in Hereford? Food and travel writer Suzy Bennett takes us on a foodie road trip through Herefordshire, stopping off at farmhouse kitchens, rustic chic restaurants and fruit farms.
Lunchtime on a blustery day in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, and forager Liz Knight sips from a steaming pot over a stove in her cosy farmhouse kitchen. The sweet, wintery scent of her latest recipe, a spiced rosehip syrup made from ingredients gathered near her Herefordshire home, fills the air. “That’ll go perfectly in prosecco,” she announces, after a moment’s thought.
The scene is the stuff of English country-living dreams: in Liz’s home, rustic wood floors are scattered with wicker baskets brimming with just-picked quinces and crab apples, wooden trays are lined with magenta-hued heads of drying sumac, and shelves and French dressers are piled high with jam jars full of fruits, berries, syrups, compotes, essences and preserves, all made with ingredients she’s foraged sustainably from hedgerows, trees and meadows.
Liz is one of a small group of progressive, environmentally aware food suppliers who are being brought together for the opening of Pensons, a new restaurant headed by Lee Westcott, former head chef at The Typing Room in Bethnal Green. Filling a culinary void left by the closure of three Michelin-starred restaurants in nearby Ludlow, it’s the most exciting launch the region has seen in a decade. Liz, a highly regarded forager who runs regular courses and sells her products online under the Forage Fine Foods label, has the job of teaching Lee about local wild food.
Pensons is on the edge of Netherwood Estate, (read our full review here) a 1,200-acre swathe of untrammelled, privately owned land between Bromyard and Tenbury Wells, straddling the Herefordshire Worcester border. I am the first journalist to visit, and arrive just as the finishing touches are being installed.
A former threshing barn dating from the 15th century, it’s a study in rustic chic, with a stripped-back interior that sets off the barn’s beautiful bare bones – cruciform brickwork, stone floors and weathered elm boards. Original features have been meticulously restored, including hay-loft hatches and a manger that’s been ingeniously repurposed as a lighting rig.
The textures are as compelling as the visuals: handmade willow lampshades, blue and ecru upholstery woven in a mill on the estate, and walnut-handled steak knives, hand-forged with a hammered finish by a blacksmith just a few hundred yards away.
Industrial-style, floor-to-ceiling doors and windows, built into former wagon entrances, flood the interior with a soft, diffused light, and at each end of the space is a raised mezzanine area. One has widescreen windows, which by day give way to panoramic views of sheep-dotted pastures, and by night to star-filled skies. Outside is a pretty courtyard studded with crab apple and cherry trees, and beyond is a kitchen garden and orchard planted with native, home-grown fruit trees from specialist Frank P Matthews, in Tenbury Wells.
The estate bursts with life: woods and lakes teeming with pheasant, woodcock, partridge and duck; Muntjac bound around meadows; sheep chomp in lush pastures; fields sway with rapeseed; and there are beehives, kitchen gardens, cider apple orchards and endless foraging opportunities. “It’s inspiring to be back in touch with the produce and the seasons,” Lee tells me. “I’d lost touch with that when I was working in London.”
His estate-to-plate menus make use of the bounty on his doorstep, with modern British dishes that include beef tongue with turnip, chestnut and watercress; jerusalem artichoke, celeriac and truffle; and a 72-hour-cooked lamb belly served with gently braised baby turnips, creamy potato terrine and sticky roasted onion. Desserts have a savoury hint – the sweetness of a silky chocolate mousse is balanced by earthy beetroot and a scattering of pickled and dehydrated blackberries that give a deliciously chewy finish.
The other significant driver behind Pensons is Netherwood’s Peta Darnley, who set up the restaurant with a desire to galvanise her community. “For centuries this estate would have been at the heart of the community, but we’ve lost that. I wanted to find a way to re-engage, create jobs and bring people to the area,” she says.
Walking my dog through Netherwood’s grounds the following morning, I meet Matt Prosser, who has been the estate’s gamekeeper since he was 18. To ensure traceability, Matt breeds his own birds, rather than buying them as poults (seven week old chicks), as is the more common practice. “That way you know exactly what you’ve got and you can keep them healthy,” he tells me.
This commitment to provenance is echoed by many other local producers. Kim Hurst is a Chelsea gold medallist and Royal Horticultural Society judge who runs The Cottage Herbery, near Newnham Bridge. One of the UK’s best herb gardens, with more than 500 varieties grown on a six-acre, Victorian hop and fruit farm, it also hosts occasional open days. Kim’s husband, Rob, developed the UK’s first organic, coir-based, peat-free compost, made from Sri Lankan coconut husks, in which Kim grows all her herbs. Kim gives me a tour of her greenhouses, plucking leaves for me to taste as we go: green ginger rosemary, liquorice-scented agastache, lemon verbena, African blue basil, Vietnamese coriander and lemon rosemary. Pensons’s kitchen garden is brim-full of her creations.
At Neal’s Yard Creamery, set among the folds of the Malvern Hills, with the Wye Valley an ambrosial backdrop, the latest batch of turret-shaped Dorstone goat’s cheeses have just been laid out on trays in fridges by white-hatted makers. Much of the cheese produced in this small outbuilding is destined for stellar British chefs, among them Jamie Oliver, Raymond Blanc, Gordon Ramsay and James Lowe, as well as the country’s best cheese shops. They are also a firm fixture on Pensons’s cheeseboard. According to owner, Charlie Westhead, the success is all down to the quality of milk, which he buys from the Fletcher family farm just down the road.
Drawn by the foodie reputation of the region’s rural towns, I spend the following day in idle exploration. Ludlow, just across the border in Shropshire, was described by poet John Betjeman as “the loveliest town in England”, and doesn’t disappoint. I buy a just-baked pastry and hot chocolate from a market stall and stroll through narrow cobbled streets, ogling the creaky black-and-white half-timbered buildings that lean drunkenly against each other, and peering in at fishing-tackle shops, traditional sweet shops and steamy-windowed coffee houses.
Bromyard, back in Herefordshire, is a dinkier version of Ludlow, with a high street lined by charming antique shops, delis and boutiques. I stop in at Legges to meet owner Anthony Legge, a fifth-generation farmer who took the progressive step of opening his own butcher’s shop and deli so that he could bypass the supermarkets and sell his free-range meat direct to the public. His shelves showcase the bounty of the region, with more than 50 local products, including Chase gin, Peter Cook’s artisanal bread, Wye Valley ales, Myrtle’s Kitchen preserve, locally roasted Method coffee, and natural cider from Little Pomona, which also supplies Pensons.
Surrounded by orchards and rolling pastures, and straddling the River Wye, the cathedral city of Hereford has an old-school, genteel air. But there’s a fresh breeze blowing in. In 2020, Herefordshire’s only university is due to open in the city, bringing with it a wave of young people and a vibrant new food culture. “It feels as if we are on the cusp of a big change,” says Dorian Kirk, who owns two city restaurants, The Burger Shop and The Bookshop, with his brother Edwin. “I can see this area becoming one of the coolest independent quarters in the Midlands.” Dorian’s suppliers list makes impressive reading: high-welfare meat, organic vegetables, free-range chickens, smoked fish, traditional cider, ethical small-batch coffee and Neal’s Yard Creamery cheeses.
On my final day I visit blacksmith Joel Black, who made Pensons’s steak knifes using walnut felled from the estate. Joel’s commitment to recycling goes way beyond the ordinary: he makes knives from the suspensions of vintage Land Rovers and BMWs, and runs two-day knife-making courses for the public.
My final visit is to Daniel Harris, who wove Pensons’ napkins, sofa covers and rugs using wool from Netherwood’s sheep, in a mill he converted from an old pig shed on the estate. “It’s a circular economy,” he tells me over the clackety-clack of his looms. “The sheep live on the estate, are shorn on the estate and the wool will be woven on the estate.” In 2011, Daniel set up the London Cloth Company – the first woollen mill to open in London in a century – and has worked for fashion houses including Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Ben Sherman. Crammed with vintage looms, and smelling of oil and sheep, the Netherwood mill is a living museum – tours can be booked by appointment. Another convert from Hackney to Herefordshire, Daniel, too, is enjoying the artistic freedom of country living: “Being here has brought back my creativity,” he tells me. “I have time to think.”
Words and photographs by Suzy Bennett, March 2019
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