CURATING LUXURY FOR THE DISCERNING TRAVELLER

Eat Native in London – Native Restaurant

Eat Native in London – Native Restaurant

Elizabeth Finney meets Native co-founder Imogen Davis to find out more about foraging, wild cooking and mixing countryside values with city life

“We’re chalk and cheese – he’s the town mouse and I’m the country mouse,” says Native director and co-founder Imogen Davis of her partner, chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes. I’m sitting with Davis in a cosy corner of the new Native space in London Bridge, which moved from Neal’s Yard at the end of last year. The high ceilings, wood-panelled walls, homemade tables and sheepskins draped over the benches remind me of a farmhouse kitchen, the perfect blend of curated and cobbled together. I sip a Negroni, made with homemade vermouth. “I grew up in the countryside as one of six children. My mum and dad were really conscious eaters so they had an organic farm and always tried to make sure that our diet was as natural and as fresh as it could be. Ivan was the opposite – he always ate loads of chicken nuggets! At university, we bonded over eating.”

Jun 5th 2019
Elizabeth Finney
Dining

The duo never set out to open a restaurant. It started while they were studying in Brighton, where they began experimenting with flavour combinations, making jams and chutneys to sell at local farmers’ markets. This evolved into pop-ups and supper clubs, using plenty of game and a nose-to-tail, stem-to-root mentality. “It doesn’t feel good to throw anything away,” Davis says. “It means that we can get creative and have a bit of fun.” A noticeable staple perched at the top of the menu is Ivan’s Chefs Wasting Snacks – an ever-changing selection of bites using the bits and bobs that would otherwise be thrown away.

I’ve opted for the full tasting menu (on Davis’ recommendation) that, today, features no less than 12 extraordinary courses. While wine pairings are an option, I just sample a glass or two of 2017 Ravens Hill, an English red from Three Choirs Vineyards – all the wines on the list are either English, organic, natural or biodynamic. I start with salt cod brandade with crispy potato skins and squid ink caviar followed by a slab of juicy Cornish cod, complete with parsnip purée and sea purslane. “We work with really small suppliers, just one fishing boat that goes out from Lyme Bay. If they don’t get any fish, then we don’t have fish on the menu,” Davis says. “In the beginning that scared the life out of me, but it’s part of the Native experience. If our boat doesn’t go out because it’s really stormy, the sea doesn’t have anything for us to eat that day.”

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Next on the tasting agenda is a wooden bowl loaded with delicious potato risotto, topped with potato crisps, Lincolnshire Poacher cheese and whey foam. Smoked ham hock croquettes with burnt apple béarnaise follow, which are a complete showstopper. Rich and flavoursome, this dish taps into that moreish balance of salty and sweet. Next, what looks like a vast green bulb nestled in hay arrives, alongside seasoned flatbread. Memories of Blackadder the Third flourish as Zac, the charming waiter, explains that it’s kohlrabi, or a German turnip. Grabbing its leaves, he lifts off the top to reveal a hollowed interior filled with the signature Native mole. This is a traditional Mexican stew, where a ‘mother sauce’ continually gets added to with a variety of offcuts over a long period of time to improve the flavour.

I am surprised to see such a huge range of indigenous and non-native ingredients cropping up all over the menu, though everything I’m consuming is strictly seasonal. Is the limitation of seasonality a struggle? “Of course, at different times of the year you’ve got a different amount of availability,” Davis explains. “It’s about thinking ahead. The best thing about being seasonal to the day is that having less ingredients to choose from filters out all the white noise. This is what we’ve got so we have to make them work.” Preservation is key – every dish seems to feature something that’s dehydrated, pickled, dried or fermented.

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“It’s exciting to see what you can do during a more barren time of the year; it pushes you into creativity rather than traditional serving combinations. I guess that feeds back into the fact that neither of us trained in the industry. We’ve had to use that to our benefit because we can’t pretend otherwise!” Davis laughs. Her bubbly ‘get on and do’ personality is so familiar to me, reminding me of home and the handful of countryside types I’ve met peppered around London, for whom not wasting perfectly good food seems ingrained. I think my own grandma, a farmer’s wife and former shepherd, would be both baffled and enraged to discover the true extent of how much food is thrown away in this city. According to food waste app Too Good to Go, more than 900,000 perfectly edible, freshly prepared meals are binned every day in the UK, while more than 320 million are chucked away by British food establishments every year. “We’ve been talking to different people about how to be more self-sufficient in the city,” Davis says. “My dream is to have a vertical farm [a space in which crops are grown in multiple layers, or shelves] where we can grow ingredients and make an education hub for the community. We all need to learn – I’m still learning every day.”

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Served on a polished tree slice, the deer stalker mini pie, complete with yeasted onion and bone marrow crumb, renders me momentarily speechless. Densely packed with voluptuous game and beans, it is ridiculously hearty. The venison tartare comes with a miso sauce base topped with fried reindeer moss, which I’m told is used to add more surface area to take on the seasoning. The idea of eating raw meat is understandably too much for some, but I find this take far superior to traditional steak tartare – the miso and off-kilter seasoning sees this dish gallop far away from the usual uncooked flavours and aromas. I’m treated to another cut of sumptuous South Downs venison, this time served medium-rare with burnt cauliflower, heritage carrots and their tops. “I’ve always used a lot of game, really because it’s more affordable,” Davis says. “When you’ve got a big family like I do, we’d probably have meat once a week. Either that or my dad would come with some roadkill venison and we’d all groan, ‘Oh God, we’re having venison for the next two weeks.’ That was just how it was.”

Ingredient traceability is important to the Native crew – they only work with small suppliers who they deem to be ‘the real deal’. One example is their wild venison supplier and professional hunter, Jack Smallman, who shoots and delivers the meat himself. “Food should never be pretentious; it should always be accessible to everyone,” says Davis. “But game has a little bit of a stigma attached to it. For example, pheasant can be so cheap but you rarely get oven-ready pheasant in a format that everyone is familiar with using. I just think that it’s an opportunity to get our protein from a readily available source that we have in the UK.”

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The wild and foraged elements don’t stop for dessert. I enjoy a literal spoonful of deconstructed Chegworth Valley pear tart, with foraged and dehydrated meadowsweet in a custard and honeycomb with petals on top. While the chocolate and beetroot cake with cream cheese and sage that follows is divine, the kitchen has saved the best until last: the Native signature dish of white chocolate and caramelised bone marrow. It’s like a tough crème brûlée cradled in a bone slice and it is so delicious I need extra time to excavate it with my spoon like a crazed archaeologist.

The food is unbelievable, but the Native experience goes far beyond that. Throughout the meal I have learnt a little bit about where everything has come from, and what has been done to it between being in the wild and hitting my plate. Davis is passionate about what she calls “common-sense eating” and her energy is infectious. “We’re so used to walking into a supermarket and having everything available all year round, so seasonality and being as sustainable as possible makes you appreciate things more,” she says. Native is proof that being conscientious about sourcing and preserving quality ingredients doesn’t mean a boring or limited diet. “All it comes down to is people enjoying their food,” she says happily. “There’s no greater compliment that you can get than when people have a good meal.”

Photos courtesy of Horst Friedrichs & Native

Native, 32 Southwark Street, SE1 1TU | 07507 861 570 | eatnative.co.uk

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