Kent’s reputation for supplying some of England’s most delicious food and drink is well deserved. You can dine on everything from freshly shucked oysters and cracking fish and chips to the farm-to-table degustation menus at Michelin-starred restaurants and gastropubs. Hardly a week goes by without some tempting new culinary venture being launched, with specific foodie hotspots being Margate, Faversham, Deal, Folkestone, Tunbridge Wells and Whitstable.
The county has been a centre of horticultural excellence for centuries. Legend has it that it was Henry VIII who first branded the county the ‘Garden of England’, after so enjoying a bowl of Kentish cherries. It was under the same monarch that large-scale growing of fruit in Kent began after Richard Harris, Henry’s fruiterer, established England’s first fruit collection on 105 acres at Teynham, a village between Sittingbourne and Faversham. Today Kent continues to be home to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale.
Kent is also home to 15 traditional fruit orchards managed by local communities – Kent Orchards has details on them all. Visiting these orchards is a wonderful opportunity to learn about Kent’s agricultural heritage, as well as to taste fruits fresh from the trees. There are many other community growing projects across the country to discover, such as Margate’s Windmill Community Gardens, Folkestone’s Locavore Growing Project, the Abbey Physic Community Garden in Faversham and Deal Hop Farm.
Foods that are Kent specialities include the super-sweet gypsy tart, a shortcrust pastry pie with a caramel-like filling made from evaporated milk and brown sugar; Canterbury apple tart with a filling of grated apples and lemon, topped with apple slices; Kentish rarebit, a toasted sandwich of cheese and apple slices popularised by the fruit pickers in Kent’s orchards; and cobnuts, a local type of hazelnut, harvested while green in mid-August and with brown shells and husks by mid-October.
A comprehensive resource on food, drink and craft businesses in Kent is Produced in Kent. One of their projects is Kent Food Trails from which you can download guides to the county’s cherry and apple orchards and berry farms, vineyards, ciders and juices, hops and beer, cheeses and dairy produce, and craft distilleries.
The ancient crafts of beer and cider making are alive and well in Kent. The common hop Humulus lupulus (meaning ‘wolf of the woods’ in Latin) was imported from Belgium and first planted in Kent sometime in the 16th century. In his Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1724, Daniel Defoe described east Kent as the ‘mother of all hop grounds’. Kent’s chalky soils are particularly suited to growing hops and hop gardens, as they were known, were a feature of every parish of the county by the middle of 19th century.
There are over 40 breweries in the county, ranging from Britain’s oldest, Shepherd Neame, based in Faversham since 1573, and Curious Brewery in Ashford, established as a micro-brewery in 2011 but now so successful it has a huge, state-of-the-art facility with taproom and restaurant, to small-scale operations like Breakwater Brewery in Dover and Tenterden’s Old Dairy Brewery.
Kent’s combination of free-draining chalky soil and a mild climate with sufficient sunlight and cooling coastal breezes means its ‘terroir’ is also particularly suited to the production of sparkling wines – so much so that the Champagne house Taittinger has invested in a 69-acre plot of land on a former apple farm near Chilham to plant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes to produce English bubbly. This French-British venture, titled Domaine Evremond, planted its first vines in 2017 and so it will be a few more years before their wines debut on the market. In the meantime, they are collaborating with six other major local wineries (Balfour, Biddenden, Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Simpsons and Squerryes) to promote Kent-produced wines through Wine Garden of England.