A culinary tour of Kent

Kent has been known as the “Garden of England” ever since Henry VIII tucked into a bowl of juicy Kentish cherries and developed a passion for the fruit. The lusty king, who knew a thing or two about good living, was also partial to fresh fish from Hythe and had fruit orchards planted at Teynham in 1533 – sowing the seeds that saw Kent grow into England’s apple capital.

Today, the rich soils, generous coast and friendly climate of the Garden of England continue to grow the most scrumptious produce, providing a natural larder for London and countrywide. So come on a gourmet tour to sample all that’s flavoursome and unique, digging into a deep-rooted heritage that blends sustainable, seasonal living with a true taste of England at its best.

Visit vineyards pioneering the renaissance of English wines, go behind the scenes at England’s oldest brewer, and explore picturesque landscapes dotted with iconic oast houses. There are oysters whose succulent reputation once lured the Romans to invade, cheese that is fit for a prince, and glittering Michelin-starred restaurants whose innovative chefs are cooking up a storm. Enjoy the whole tour of Kent, or pick and choose from the menu!

 

Day 1: Sandling – “Hopping down in Kent”

 

Begin your tour with an introductory dip into Garden of England heritage and discover how London folk in Victorian times came “hopping down in Kent” on working holidays.

Arrival: Set in 28 acres of attractive countryside, Kent Life, Sandling, near Maidstone, showcases a collection of authentic historic buildings that provide a wonderful slice of rural heritage.

According to tradition, Kent grew the first-ever English hop garden, in 1524, and by the 19th century the plants, used to flavour beer, were cultivated across some 46,600 acres in the county – two-thirds of the national acreage. At Kent Life you can tour Britain’s last hand-picked hop garden and see the country’s only working coal-fired oast house (it is in action at the annual Hops ’n’ Harvest Festival, during September). View also the tin and brick hoppers’ huts where Londoners stayed when special trains brought them in September to work in the countryside. Roam apple and cherry orchards that celebrate the bounty of the Garden of England, as well as the Cobnut Platt – coppiced trees where cobnuts, a form of wild hazel nut, are grown.

Lunch/tea: Inspired by a peek into Ma’ Larkins Kitchen – the very kitchen where the Larkin family feasted in the popular TV series The Darling Buds of May – enjoy lunch or delicious homemade cakes and scones in the 1950s-themed surroundings of Dotty’s Tea Room.

Alternatively, indulge in a scrumptious traditional English afternoon tea of dainty sandwiches, scones laden with strawberry jam and clotted cream, and the finest leaf tea, in the lounge of Chilston Park Hotel, Lenham. The luxury country house hotel, former home to eminent politicians, writers, lords and viscounts, offers an exquisite taste of the finer things in life!

 

Day 2: Faversham – Kentish ales and colourful orchards

Share the refreshing secrets of Britain’s oldest brewer and explore orchards overflowing with colourful sights in one of Kent’s famous fruit belts.

Morning: Beer, also known as the “Drink of England”, has been made in the market town of Faversham for more than 850 years and family-run Shepherd Neame Brewery is Britain’s oldest brewer. Where better to go behind the scenes on an 80-minute guided tour to learn a little of the ancient art – and 21st-century techniques – of brewing Kentish ales and speciality lagers. See traditional mash tuns, sample the natural mineral water from the brewery’s well, and sniff the lovely aromas of locally grown hops. Crowning your visit, there’s a tutored tasting, and then browse the brewery shop for tempting souvenirs.

Lunch: Choose from a generous variety of places to eat along Faversham’s charming historic streets. Shepherd Neame’s The Sun Inn, in the heart of the town’s Conservation Area, dates from the 14th century and serves traditional Kentish fare alongside distinctive Kentish cask ales.

Afternoon: Step into the dazzling world of Brogdale Farm, just outside Faversham and, fittingly, not far from the site of Henry VIII’s first orchard that saw Kent grow into England’s apple capital. The home of the National Fruit Collection boasts over 3,500 apple, pear, plum, cherry, bush fruit, vine and cob nut cultivars.

Thanks to the county’s gentle climate, fertile soils and proximity to London, fruit growing has always thrived, especially along the fruit belts between Sittingbourne and Canterbury and in the Low Weald below Maidstone. Guided tours around Brogdale highlight the intriguing history of a range of seasonal offerings – enjoy spectacular blossom time or come at the right moment to savour your favourite fruit. Special events include the irresistible Cherry Festival (July) celebrating the planting of orchards at Brogdale in 1952 and featuring tours, tastings and cooking demonstrations.

Evening: Dine at Read’s restaurant with rooms, set in an elegant Georgian manor house at Faversham. Seasonal dishes marry herbs and vegetables from the manor’s walled kitchen garden with local game and fish fresh from nearby Whitstable and Hythe.

If you visit during Faversham Hop Festival ( September), you might well decide to remain in town for colourful fun that commemorates the golden era of hop picking when workers passed their evenings with music and stories. Faversham is also the start-point for a range of walkers’ Food Trails (5–11 miles) combining orchard scenery, historic sights and great places for refreshments.

 

Day 3: Whitstable to Canterbury – Fruits of the sea and a toast of mead

Combine coastal adventure with seafood platters, and World Heritage with mead and Michelin-starred dining.

Morning: Awaken your senses breathing in the tangy sea air of Whitstable. The delightfully quirky-chic harbour town of weather-boarded cottages, old smugglers’ dwellings and winding lanes is perfect for a leisurely wander, while Whitstable Museum and Gallery reveals a fascinating local history of seafaring, oyster fishing, shipbuilding and diving.

It’s said that Julius Caesar was enticed to invade England after he heard about Whitstable’s reputation for succulent oysters. True or not, the local fishing industry flourished and is celebrated today in lively fashion at Whitstable Oyster Festival (July). Coincide your visit to witness the symbolic Landing of the Catch, vibrant Oyster Parade and annual Blessing of the Waters ceremony.

Lunch: Needless to say, a major allure of this coastal town is its award-winning restaurants serving seafood so fresh and local that you can watch it being caught. Maybe lunch on “grilled fillet of the moment” at the tastily named Crab & Winkle Restaurant overlooking the working harbour. Or experience world-famous Wheelers Oyster Bar, which has been treating customers to all manner of seafood for over 150 years. Pearson’s Arms combines pub friendliness with sophistication and tastebud-tickling fish and “thrice cooked chips”.

Afternoon: Now, head back inland to the cobbled streets and World Heritage of Canterbury. Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval story of pilgrims who visited the shrine of Thomas Becket at the cathedral is boisterously brought to life at The Canterbury Tales attraction and, just like his rollicking characters, you’ve a chance to tipple some traditional mead. The honey-based drink has been quaffed in Britain since Celtic times and in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale the merry priest woos his love with the best mead he can buy. In The Canterbury Tales shop you will find a range of meads on offer, from a traditional sweet variety to whisky and mead liqueur.

Evening: Relax at Deeson’s British restaurant, Canterbury, dining on Kentish free-range chicken or locally caught sausage. Or take a short jaunt to coastal Seasalter and Michelin-starred The Sportsman where a menu is chalked up daily to feature the latest mouthwatering ingredients from local farms, boats and game dealers.

If you want to spend more than an afternoon in Canterbury, why not make a date to come for Kent Beer Festival (July) or the epicurean extravaganza that is Canterbury Food and Drink Festival ( September). In fact, anytime the city is a food-lover’s heaven thanks to unique venues like The Goods Shed, Canterbury’s permanent farmers’ market with onsite restaurant whose seasonal menu changes twice a day.

 

Day 4: Birchington to Dover or Folkestone – Farmers’ markets and fish and chips

Enjoy Kent producers’ passion for seasonal, sustainable fare from local farming and fishing, while uncovering tales of the traditional English sandwich and secret gardens along the way.

Morning: There are more than 40 farmers’ markets across Kent, bursting with fresh flavours, and at Quex Barn, Birchington, you will find top-quality local produce in the butchery, deli and wet fish stall. Start the day with an epic Quex breakfast in the restaurant: featuring free-range eggs, freshly baked bread, sizzling bacon, sausage, black pudding and any other goodies that take your fancy. Quex Park farms a range of cattle and crops including potatoes that go into the crispiest Kent Crisps – look out for crunchy Oyster and Vinegar or Roast Beef and Spitfire Ale made with premium ale from Shepherd Neame.

Linger longer to tour Quex House and the acclaimed Powell-Cotton Museum of exotic natural history specimens. Or continue on for a sweeping drive along the Thanet coast so beloved of Charles Dickens and the artist JMW Turner. Perhaps pause in Broadstairs at Morelli’s ice cream parlour, where the soda fountain, juke box and pink leatherette booths add a uniquely nostalgic flavour to silky scoops of salted caramel, truffle or chocolate gelato.

Lunch: Enjoy great harbour views and best view in Ramsgate at Royal Harbour Brasserie, offering fresh, locally sourced food through-out the day (closed Mondays).

Afternoon: Glide a short distance further south along the coast to Sandwich, a genteel picture-book of medieval and listed historic buildings. In the 18th century the 4th Earl of Sandwich (although his family had little to do with the town) gave his name to what would become one of our most popular snacks – anxious not to interrupt his gambling, he called for some meat sandwiched between two pieces of bread.

The must-discover is The Secret Gardens of Sandwich, restored after 25 years of neglect. Renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens built a manor house here in 1912 and with the help of the equally renowned Gertrude Jekyll designed three-and-a-half acres of ornamental gardens. Join a captivating audio tour around the White and Yellow Gardens and elegant Bowling Lawn, as well as the more modern Tropical Border and tranquil Lake Patricia Island.

Round off your visit in delightfully Edwardian mood in the Jekyll and Lutyens tea rooms, relaxing on the wooden terrace as you sip leaf or herbal teas and graze on luxury cakes and pastries.

Evening: Slip further south again to Dover for dinner at Cullins Yard bistro-style restaurant, on the yachting marina in the harbour. Menus specialise in luscious seafood dishes but also cater for all tastes. Alternatively, keep going to Folkestone for dinner at the superb Rocksalt restaurant whose floor-to-ceiling glass wall and sweeping terrace offer stunning harbour views. Fish from the bobbing day boats moored nearby and meat from the surrounding countryside and marshlands offer a blissful end to your day on the coast.

 

Day 5: Romney Marsh to Ashford – Smuggled marsh sheep and cheese fit for a prince

From haunting marsh landscapes dotted with curious churches and inns, to Champagne tea in a country manor and a nibble on a royal treat – today is full of magical surprises.

Morning: Escape to the mysterious landscape of Romney Marsh, where pastures reclaimed from the sea became the habitat of the squat ancient breed of sheep known as “Romneys” that you can still see grazing today. In the 13th century when exports of wool were massively taxed, local folk made fat profits smuggling the coveted fleeces to weavers on the Continent. Tour the medieval churches and old pubs that dot the wide expanse of levels beneath sweeping Marsh skies to uncover curious stories of contrabandists and maritime saints.

Lunch: Choose from numerous inns and look out especially for succulent Romney Marsh lamb, maybe a slowly braised shank at The Royal Oak, Brookland, for example.

Afternoon: See how flour was made in the 19th century at Willesborough Windmill, near Ashford, a fully operational white smock mill built onto a two-storey red brick base in 1869. There’s something reassuringly therapeutic about watching the slowly turning sails – or “sweeps” as they are known in this part of the country – while wholesome strong wholemeal bread flour is being produced.

Then perhaps the Afternoon Tea Menu at handsome Eastwell Manor, Boughton Lees, Ashford, will entice you for an hour or so. In addition to moistly more-ish sandwiches, cakes and scones oozing with preserves and clotted cream, there are classic teas like Earl Grey and Eastwell’s own blend of Darjeeling and Milima, all sorts of specialities like a Berry Fruit Cocktail tisane, or a seductive glass of Champagne.

Evening: You might feel so deeply relaxed that you stay to dine at Eastwell Manor – inventive, creative French and modern English cuisine is on the menu in the wood-panelled dining room. The Secret Garden, Ashford, also provides a wonderful sanctuary for an evening meal. There’s even a “shabby chic” Glass House seating up to 26 guests. Seasonal ingredients come from the likes of Appledore Salads and Winterdale Cheesemakers – “marvellous cheese” according to the Prince of Wales. The gardens, lost for a generation, are being lovingly restored, and there’s a cookery school, too (small groups up to 15 people).

 

Day 6: Tenterden to Royal Tunbridge Wells – Royal wines and a royal spa town

Tour the winery that supplied refreshment at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and soak up the chic atmosphere of a town where fashionable society came to “take the waters.”

Morning: Cleanse your palates and get ready for a tour of international award-winning Chapel Down Winery and Vineyard at Tenterden – their wines were specially chosen for the royal wedding celebrations of Prince William and Kate Middleton last year. The south of England shares near-identical geology and soils with the Champagne region, and the winery at Tenterden accepts only the pick of the crops – top accolades include being first English producer to win a gold medal for sparkling wine at the prestigious International Wine Challenge. 

Tour with an experienced guide and learn about the long history and modern renaissance of English wine, the specific grapes grown at Tenterden and methods of wine making. Bacchus vines, for example, typically express the terroir of the Weald clay soils at Tenterden. In the winery the processes behind production of Chapel Down’s still and sparkling wines are explained, and you are invited to taste a selection.

Lunch: Newly opened, The Swan at Chapel Down presents a great value, locally sourced English menu full of homemade treats, sharing boards and savouries – and, of course, the bar is well stocked with the best of British drink, while the terrace looks out on beautiful views.

Afternoon: Continue west through gentle landscapes to Royal Tunbridge Wells, which became a fashionable spa after the iron-rich waters of the Chalybeate Spring were discovered here in 1606. The rich and the royal all visited, and in 1909 King Edward VII bestowed the town with its “Royal” title. You can usually take a tipple of the renowned spring water – served by costumed “dippers” in summer – but due to current drought conditions they are holding back supplies. However, there are plentiful open-air cafés, pubs and wine bars for refreshment along the elegantly colonnaded walkway known as the Pantiles where the gentry used to promenade. Browse the tempting antiques shops and specialist boutiques, too!

Evening: Step into the typically Kentish weather-boarded, tile-hung villa that is home to Thackeray’s, Royal Tunbridge Wells, and sit down to meticulously crafted modern French dishes that simply explode with flavours.

 

Day 7: Biddenden and around – Vineyards and a host of foodie favourites

Biddenden Vineyards is the perfect partner to a choice of foodie attractions – combine a visit with a trip to cheesemakers, a hop farm, a brewery, or a jaunt on a steam train with cream tea.

Morning/afternoon: Kent has been at the forefront of the modern English wine industry that is now reaping international acclaim, and today’s visit takes in the county’s oldest commercial vineyard. Established in 1969, Biddenden Vineyards produces white, red, rosé and quality sparkling wines, as well as traditional Kentish ciders and farm-pressed apple juices.

Stroll on a guided tour around the vineyard, tucked into its peaceful, sheltered valley, and enjoy a chat and a glass of wine with the experts in the winery.

Biddenden Vineyards has also teamed up with several other foodie attractions, to offer you a feast of a whole day out. Choose Kentish Cheese & Wine for a vineyard tour and tastings, followed by lunch of a Ploughman’s Platter featuring Winterdale cheese, local ham and wine. Then set off for a guided tour of the dairy and cave at Winterdale Cheesemakers – the Betts family has been farming since 1495! Yummy cheese tastings and a Kentish cream tea round off the visit.

Other combined tours include: Oasts & Toasts, exploring the vineyard and then The Hop Farm Family Park, where the interactive museum and recreation of a bygone village evoke the heydays of hop picking. There’s a lip-smacking cream tea, too! Alternatively, Vines, Wines & Railway Lines takes you on a vineyard tour and then a delicious trip back in time on a steam train with Kent & East Sussex Railway – plus Kentish cream tea, naturally. Or, maybe on Day 2 of your itinerary at Faversham, you might like to begin with a tour and tasting at Shepherd Neame Brewery and then toddle on down to Biddenden for a day of Beers, Wines, Brewery & Vines.

The Lake & the Grape, Narrow Lines & Wines, and Garden Delights & Vineyard Sights all add to the splendid choices – see the website for further details.

Evening: Apicius was both a Roman gourmet and the name of a collection of early Roman recipes, and Michelin-starred Apicius in Cranbrook truly lives up to epicurean heritage. Relish passionate British modern cooking of local ingredients such as delicacies from Weald Smokery, slow roast shoulder of Kentish pork, mouthwatering strawberry sable´, and other seasonal offerings.

 

Day 8: Leeds Castle to Penshurst Place –  Gardens flourishing with flowers and fruit

From romantic scenes that have delighted lords and ladies for centuries, to traditional village dining or Michelin cuisine beside the heath – today is a day to relax and savour good living.

Morning: Immerse yourself in 900 years of captivating heritage at Leeds Castle, near Maidstone. The royal residence of six medieval queens, it is a vision of pure fairytale rising from the lake in 500 acres of parkland. A vineyard was mentioned here in the famous 11th-century Domesday record of property throughout England and although the modern vineyard has recently ceased you can still buy bottles of the sparkling wine that it produced in the castle shops. Also feast your senses on the beautiful gardens, including the so-very-English Culpeper Garden rich with roses, lupins and poppies.

Lunch: Re-charge in the oak-beamed 17th-century Fairfax Restaurant while admiring bewitching views over the moat to the castle. Where possible all ingredients are locally sourced, including ales like Spitfire from Shepherd Neame, cheeses produced in Canterbury and Solleys scoop ice cream which is produced on a farm in Ripple, near Deal.

Afternoon: Head next for Penshurst Place, near Tonbridge. Bountiful gardens have encompassed Lord De L’Isle’s enchanting family home over seven centuries and have been variously feted for their fruit, vegetables, herbs and ornament. In the 17th century the writer Ben Jonson memorably celebrated the orchard fruit, from cherry to plum, apricot to peach, in his poem, To Penshurst, and recently a book described the garden as a “homage to the apple tree”.

The gardens continue to evolve and delight, and you will find stunning colour and interest throughout the year in the intimate Tudor walled gardens. Apples still flourish in the orchard, in the Nut Garden and along the newly created Jubilee Walk, and both apples and pears are used in the house or tea room – Lady De L’Isle’s scrumptious apple cake, served in the tea room most of the year, is a genuine treat.

Evening: Plump for a taste of old England and village life at The Bottle House Inn, Penshurst, whose origins stretch back to 1492. Dine below ancient beams or al fresco, on traditional favourites like hearty stew or modern classics like oven-roasted skate wing with lime and coriander butter. Optionally, drive on to Michelin Bib Gourmand holder Chapter One, Farnborough Common, Locksbottom. With splendid views over the heath, this stylish eaterie is especially treasured by gastro-savvy diners for its dishes cooked in the josper – a charcoal grill-cum-oven.

 

Day 9: Chatham or Rochester to Bluewater – from maritime and Dickensian adventures to irresistible retail

Embark on an historic naval odyssey followed by a marina lunch, or wander with Charles Dickens and eat in the places that inspired his books, then explore a retail heaven that caters for all tastes.

Morning, option 1: If you’re drawn by maritime adventure, embark on a morning of thrilling heritage at The Historic Dockyard Chatham. Stroll through 400 years of seafaring history in the world’s most complete dockyard of the Age of Sail, clamber onto three great warships and trawl through enthralling galleries and collections. Incidentally, Charles Dickens knew the dockyard well as a child when his father worked here in the Royal Navy pay office. The Nelson Brewery is also here, with a shop selling cask-conditioned ales with names like Powder Monkey and Nelson’s Blood. (Tours of the brewery may be booked in advance.)

Lunch: Naval heritage meets contemporary style at the Ship & Trades, a welcoming Shepherd Neame pub in the stylish marina of Chatham Maritime. Snack inside or outside on waterfront seating, and of course there’s a good selection of Kentish ales.

Morning, option 2: If a wander with Dickens is more your bag, look up the scenes that fired the author’s imagination in Rochester – as a child, he used to explore here with his father and he returned much later when he was a successful writer, to live at Gad’s Hill. Follow a trail (leaflets from Medway Visitor Information Centre) to spot Eastgate House, transformed into Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers, and many other gems.

Lunch: Eat at Topes restaurant on Rochester’s High Street – the building was the model for the house of Mr Tope the chief verger in Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Modern European dishes – crispy pork and rabbit, roasted cod fillet, apple tatin with coffee ice cream – will tantalise the tastebuds. Or venture five miles to Cobham and the half-timbered Leather Bottle inn that Dickens used to visit from his home on Gad’s Hill. It was here that love-struck Mr Tupman was eventually discovered in The Pickwick Papers. Dig into dishes like homemade chicken pie followed by Kentish ice cream.

Afternoon: Spend your final holiday hours – and pounds – at Bluewater, Europe’s largest and most innovative retail and leisure destination. Shop along three distinctive malls: The Guildhall for premium fashion, lifestyle stores and gourmet restaurants and cafés; The Rose Gallery for family interest and major high street retailers; and The Thames Walk for high street fashions, cafés and entertainment. Whether you’re after a quick cappuccino or candlelit dining, you will find something to suit every whim at more than 50 restaurants, bars and cafés.

 

A Feast of Festivals

There are many food festivals around Kent – here are just a few to put on the calendar for a visit:

 

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