My annual trip to The Sportsman at Seasalter came early this year. I always look forward to lunch in this self-styled “grotty pub” in an out of the way location on the North Kent coast, which serves what for me is a tasting menu that hasn’t yet been surpassed anywhere I’ve eaten in the UK. The creativity in the kitchen, coupled with the quality of the ingredients, almost all sourced locally, is astonishing. It takes me more than three hours to get there, and usually longer to get home, probably not aided by a couple of bottles of wine, but it is wholly worth it.
The group of us that headed down to Kent a little over a week ago was slightly smaller than usual, just five of us, taking two bottles each, although I took a bottle of Champagne plus the two halves at the end of the meal. We ended up with a really nice mix of classic wines and a couple of natural wines, from a group that drinks widely and is completely open to any style. The wines were quite fluid between courses, and especially with the whites we tried different things with different dishes to see which worked best. I’ll just weave the wines in as they came.
Thirsty from a long journey we popped open my Champagne to start with, Vouette & Sorbée Fidèle, Bertrand Gautherot’s Blanc de Noirs cuvée. Like all his wines it is biodynamic, vinified in oak, and bottled with minimal sulphur. This was disgorged in February 2017 (with a 2014 Lot number). The vines are on Kimmeridgian soils at Buxières-sur-Arce on the Côte des Bar. This cuvée is notoriously closed immediately following disgorgement, but after two years it has opened a lot, mouthfilling, with secondary autolytic character over red fruits.
The first oyster course (there were two) was frozen oysters with brown butter, honey, lemon and apple. This dish was created knowing we were bringing a Chablis Montée de Tonnerre 1er Cru 2012, Raveneau, so we quickly switched to that bottle, which had been given a little time to breath. It was indeed a match made in heaven. Although not a Grand Cru, this 2012 was “classic Chablis” and very fine indeed.
Very mineral, with an almost Riesling-like spine of taut acidity from which hangs lean but vivacious stone fruit and pear flavours. You get a classic whiff of graphite and an equally classic oyster shell texture on the palate. Montée de Tonnerre is one of the larger Premier Cru sites in Chablis, and the wines don’t always live up to expectations from all producers, but in this case it did, and more. A reminder that top Chablis can be a remarkable drink.
Between the oyster courses we were treated to something with spice and bite, by way of pork belly with mustard, accompanied by an apple and sorrel foam. The pork belly was crispy and the mustard fresh and piquant, the foam providing a nice foil, drying, contrasting.
The second Champagne was a big contrast to the first, and oddly this was the only wine which two of us had independently suggested bringing. Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux Extra Brut is a Blanc de Blancs made by Emmanuel Lassaigne in the tiny region of Montgueux, effectively one hill of a little more than 200 hectares of vines to the east of Troyes. This is 100% Chardonnay, partly vinified in oak. It’s “big”, but more in the way it fills the mouth than the roundness and near opulence of the Vouette & Sorbée. It is quite linear and tight, but also amazingly fresh.
The vines at Lassaigne face mostly south and can get very ripe, sometimes exhibiting quite exotic fruits, but the acidity and structure are held in place by the class of old vines and Emmanuel’s careful winemaking. These are stunning Champagnes from a producer I rate really highly. “Les Vignes…” is the entry level NV here, but it is a true terroir wine. He also makes the House Champagne for the Cave des Papilles in Paris, another Blanc de Blancs which I think may have no added sulphur, and currently costs a mere €31, quite a bargain for a producer whose top cuvées cost five times that. Naturally stocks are limited.
The second oyster course appeared as we were all vocally admiring the Lassaigne. Native oyster with chilli paired with a rock oyster with beurre blanc, cucumber and caviar was so well constructed, and so totally different to the frozen oyster we opened with. The chilli in the native oyster was perfectly judged to prick the palate like a needle, but not to coat it. The beurre blanc was smooth and heavenly.
We were a group who, none of us, regularly drink Sauvignon Blanc. This is not prejudice, but perhaps a reflection of our diverse interests in regions which don’t grow it. But when the opportunity comes along to drink a good one, whether from The Loire, Bordeaux, New Zealand or even Styria, then we are glad to take it. I certainly don’t own any Blanc Fumé de Pouilly “Silex” 2014, Didier Dagueneau. “Silex” is one of two barrel-fermented Sauvignons made by Didier’s son Louis-Benjamin (Didier of course died in a micro-light crash in 2008), and comes off pure slate (or silex).
It’s big for a Sauvignon Blanc, not just because of the oak, but it is very ripe too (13% abv). That said, the varietal character does meld with the obvious oak influence in what is a relatively young vintage for this wine, coming through as vivid freshness and firm minerality on the palate. The quality of the fruit, and the terroir, is perhaps reflected in the way that whilst you undoubtedly get oak on the nose, there is also what whiff of flint, so fine that it cuts right through it.
The next two courses show so well how inventive the kitchen is at The Sportsman, although photos of the food do not come close to explaining the subtle but thrilling flavours of these two plates. Pot roast black cabbage on a bed of stewed apple purée and raw crème fraiche sounds simple, but it was a dish where everything was in perfect proportion and perfect harmony.
Mushroom tart with celeriac blends perfect, wafer-thin, buttery pastry, and rich meaty mushroom (dried ceps and chestnut mushrooms) in a celeriac foam. I think it was sprinkled with black truffle and possibly some cep powder. There’s a recipe for this posted by the chef, Stephen Harris, on the web site “thestaffcanteen.com”, but I’m not sure I could get close to this if I tried it out, one of The Sportsman’s most magical creations.
I think it was about then that the Ganevat came over. Les Cèdres 2015, J-F and Anne Ganevat is a negoce wine, despite wearing the domaine-style label. The Chardonnay vines are 80 years old, a limestone and marl parcel somewhere within the Côtes du Jura (nothing more forthcoming than that). Ageing was for 30 months, first in larger demi-muids and then in barrique.
It’s a beautiful Chardonnay, quite tight and young on opening, but it blossomed into a beautiful mixture of purity and concentrated fruit. Although the wine saw almost no sulphur, it didn’t have any volatility, nor really any reduction. Just an impressive old vine Chardonnay and I think in a unique style. You might still find the odd bottle of this around, even though it was not produced in anything but tiny quantity. Solent Cellar lists some (£40) and The Good Wine Shop (£44).
The Ganevat, and the remainder of our preceding wines, with the exception of the Ravenneau, which had been drained by this stage, paired with the two fish courses. The first must be the classic signature dish here at The Sportsman, slip sole grilled in seaweed butter. This dish is almost embarrassingly good, cooked to absolute perfection every single time I eat it. It falls off the bone and melts in the mouth.
It is also the catalyst for a comparison with the Noble Rot version. The kitchens are overseen by the same man, Paul Weaver in charge in Lamb’s Conduit Street, with Stephen Harris from The Sportsman as Consultant Chef. The Noble Rot version is cooked in “smoked butter”, where the flavours are from sweet smoked paprika and a nip of chilli powder. I cannot decide between the two, and the pleasure comes in knowing you can have the same fish cooked two equally exciting, different, ways.
Although the slip sole is hard to beat, if anything were to surpass it I think my dish of the day might have been halibut braised in Vin Jaune with a single morille and an asparagus tip. The sauce here was so concentrated and of perfect consistency, and for a tasting menu the halibut was a nice, firm chunk. It made a lovely change to the turbot we usually eat here, much as I swoon over turbot. The Vin Jaune in the sauce was subtle, which didn’t overpower the fish.
We started out with three reds with which to accompany the single red meat course, but sadly the first of these, Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2011, Sylvie Esmonin, was corked.
Barolo Bussia “Romirasco” 2004, Aldo Conterno had been waiting in a carafe and so was ready to leap in. Classic tar and (for me) violets rather than roses on the nose, the fruit was smooth and fresh, despite 14.5% alcohol. Even now it still has a youthful touch to it, assuming you like your Nebbiolo mature. This is a good example of the vintage. If you read my recent article on “Nebbiolo Day”, where all those young Nebbiolos were on show, you would appreciate how a wine like this reveals what all the fuss is about. This one took fifteen years to get to where it is, but such careful cellaring pays mighty dividends.
The red meat course was not, for once, the Sportsman classic of lamb from the salt marshes, but rib of Sussex beef in a red wine sauce with powdered roast garlic and watercress purée. The beef was wonderful, and so good I could have gone for seconds. The seasoning gave it an umami note that added another dimension, but subtly.
The second red wine, not in any way to diminish the Barolo, was a privilege to drink. Before trying to describe Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1990, Casse Basse di Gianfranco Soldera sensibly, it would be wrong not to repeat my thoughts on my first sip, “holy mother of…”. A special wine on a special occasion is a winning combo, but will I drink a better classic red wine this year? I will be hard pushed (though I’ve got nine months left to give it my best shot).
This wine is nowadays labelled as an IGT Toscana, but back in the 1990s was still labelled as Brunello. A Riserva was only produced in top years at Casse Basse, and I dread to think what the bottle cost. 1990 is one of the estate’s most famous vintages. The wine was served from the bottle. The late Gianfranco Soldera always insisted that his wine should be tasted when the bottle is first opened, and then left to open out in the glass. This way, he said, you won’t miss anything.
The fruit is rich, both fresh and dried, with figgy, plummy, cherry complexity. The next level of tertiary flavours and aromas cover coffee and new leather, with a touch of spice, perhaps nutmeg. It’s complexity can be dissected, but to be honest the way this wine sits in your mouth is just so silky, that the experience is primarily a sensual one, in the most positive way. Some have said that this is one of the greatest wines of all time. It’s probably not far off the mark.
The next course demonstrated The Sportsman’s inventiveness and willingness to perfect an idea. How to give these guys something different to go with their Vin Jaune? Home made hot cross bun with comté and black truffle proves tasting menus can leave you full. This astonishing dish could have been lunch on its own, almost, in other circumstances. Very intense, rich, flavours, contrasting sweet dried fruit with dripping cheese savouriness. Just look at it!
Vin Jaune 2011, Philippe Bornard, Arbois-Pupillin was certainly a young wine, but one of those VJs which can be broached young. By this, I mean that the acidity and texture does not completely dominate the glass. I’d call it “light to medium”, with nice vibrant fruit. It has a savoury edge, but it isn’t wholly over in the nutty spectrum. The lightness and acidity made it a good match for the hot X bun, cutting the richness of the butter and melted Comté.
The final two wines were served from halves to accompany the classic, ever successful, bramley apple soufflé with salted caramel ice cream, a dessert of the absolute highest order, with the purity of the slightly lifted bramley fruit coming through in a pure, clean, line to act as a foil for the richer, salty caramel. And then the cheese course.
Château Rieussec 1996, Sauternes looked somewhat darker than I’d expected it to when removed from the cellar. It’s not a top Rieussec vintage, but the bottle, with good provenance, didn’t concern me. It was reasonably mature, with some burnt toffee notes, perhaps molasses, but it had, by now, a restrained sweetness, a lightness of touch, an elegance, all demonstrating its pedigree.
I did find it immensely enjoyable, but I would grant the coup de coeur for this pair to La Bota 51 Palo Cortado Viejísimo, Bota “GF”, Equipo Navazos. This was the oldest EN Palo Cortado currently in my posession. It is a saca of February 2014, originating in Sanlúcar and from Gaspar Florido (GF), moved later to the warehouse of Pedro Romero.
The key to this bottling’s amazing complexity is the age of the wines in the butt, between fifty and eighty years of age. It is very much in the style of similar EN releases, in that its alcohol content is certainly no less than the 22% on the label, and the wine’s intensity shocks many not used to wines like this. Perhaps I have grown to love them a little too much. Far from shocking my palate, I get one of the biggest thrills in wine when I taste them. This is a venerable wine, yet has all the freshness and acidity which you’d associate with youth. For me, it’s a stunning way to end a meal. Nothing can follow it, unless either highly fortified, or intensely caffeinated.
It’s truly difficult to beat a meal at The Sportsman. The view, whether towards the sea over the shingle, or in our case usually over the salt marsh, adds an extra dimension to the meal. When you finally exit after four-and-a-half hours of gastronomic pleasure, a blast of fresh air and iodine is a lot more welcome than the exhaust fumes of Central London. All of which helps make a trip to Seasalter something which every food lover should try to experience.
Amuse and the beautiful bread which The Sportsman continues to perfect