IAIN PENNINGTON - CO-FOUNDER OF THE ETHICUREAN
“Good food, good wine, good people, in and amongst nature. This is how Matthew and I live. The restaurant is very much a reflection of what we like and what makes us happy.”
Set in the heart of the idyllic Mendip Hills in a former potting shed hidden by the red brick walls of a charming Victorian kitchen garden, The Ethicurean is a paradise for purveyors of sustainable, ethical produce. Founded by brothers Matthew and Iain Pennington and their friends Jack Bevan and Paula Zarate, the award winning restaurant prides itself on only using seasonal produce from its garden and the fields, forests, orchards, lakes & seas that surround it. I speak to Iain Pennington about the story behind The Ethicurean, the restaurant’s philosophy, his love of Scandinavian culture, The Ethicurean’s signature dish, and what the future holds.
Does your interest in nature stem from your childhood?
Growing up my brother Matthew and I were always outside racing across the country on our mountain bikes or walking across the hills with our parents. As Matthew and I grew older we became more conscious of how much we love nature and increasingly concerned about the degradation of the natural environment.
What inspired you to found The Ethicurean and how did you stumble upon such a unique location?
Matthew ran a delicatessen in Bristol called Chandos Deli for ten years and would import some of the finest European produce to sell in the store. He began to realise that there were a lot of amazing local English food producers and suppliers making cheeses, wine and charcuterie that was just as good if not better than the produce he was importing from Europe.
Eventually he made the decision to leave the delicatessen with his colleague Jack Bevan to start selling produce at farmers’ markets. This coincided with me moving to Bristol so I joined them. Our goal was to sell seasonal, sustainable, local produce that had really good traceability. We focused on simple tasty things like chorizo, sausage rolls, and scotch eggs; just really wholesome food that people could eat as they wondered around the market. We started speaking to Miles Bradley, the founder of Bradley’s juices, at one of the markets and he mentioned that he had found two orchards attached to a café near the airport, which were not quite right for him but might be of interest to us.
We went along expecting the building to be like some horrible greasy spoon café but were blown away by what we found. The café was in an old glasshouse and supplied by a beautiful Victorian walled garden. We saw the potential immediately, stumbling across it was a bit of a jackpot really. We had a month of negotiating leases and then moved in October 2010; it has been six years of hard graft since.
How would you summarise The Ethicurean’s philosophy?
Good food, good wine, good people, in and amongst nature. This is how Matthew and I live. The restaurant is very much a reflection of what we like and what makes us happy.
We really want to inspire people to look closer to home for their food and to educate them about the many delicious things that are on their doorstep. In supermarkets there is produce that has been flown in from half away across the globe because people want to have access to certain things all year; that is simply not sustainable. Everything we do is traceable, sustainable and ethical, that is what motivates us.
What do you find so inspirational about Scandinavian culture?
Matthew and I have long been interested in Scandinavian culture. We went to Sweden to visit a restaurant called Favîken about 4 years ago and to meet the owner and chef there, Magnus Nilsson. We went in January, in the depth of Winter. It was -25C, and snow as high as your waist at points, but it was just incredible. Magnus’ take on food is incredibly inspiring. It’s minimalistic and shares the same values as we do at The Ethicurean. He’s out hunting and foraging a lot, cooking within the season from whatever is available to him from the surrounding landscape. It is not trendy to be like that out there, it is just a way of life. I think it is a beautiful way to live but there is still a bit of a stigma attached to foraging in this country.
I’ve also recently been to Denmark. I ate out 3 times a day for a week, which was incredible. Relæ was a great experience, although a sister restaurant of Relæ, called Manfred’s was a standout for me. Incredible natural wine list, with some of the better wines I’ve had the pleasure of drinking, and the food was excellent. Simple Scandinavian cuisine executed exceptionally well. I’ll be making a trip to Copenhagen specifically to go back there in the future.
How often do you and Matthew go out foraging for food?
We are often out foraging with our dog. As you look out of the restaurant across the Vale we live on the other side of the hill, which is not only incredibly peaceful and beautiful it is also an excellent place to go foraging. Now it is Autumn we can pick some mushrooms which is really exciting and in Spring there will be lots of wild herbs; then in late spring we will be foraging for samphire, sea plantain and all sorts of sea vegetables. There is a big mix throughout the year and we use it all in the restaurant. Everything we do outside of the kitchen is focused around nature. If I am not in the restaurant or foraging I am usually in the ocean.
How would you describe your cooking style?
We have a unique style of cooking which has really come about through necessity. We limit ourselves to using produce from the garden and surrounding area and do not cook anything out of season. We have had to learn to be resourceful and use the best of what we have to survive the winter. It has been those limitations that have spurred on our creativity. We have a lot of produce at the end of summer so we needed to learn how to preserve that. We started experimenting and learning lots of techniques that had been forgotten such as fermenting, pickling, smoking and curing. Preserving has grown in popularity now but we started doing it out of necessity and that has given our food and menu a unique voice. Ultimately it is very difficult to pigeon hole our style, but if I had to, I would say modern British cuisine that is in season and sustainable.
Do you have a special fondness for any particular ingredient and does The Ethicurean have a signature dish?
I suppose you could say The Ethicurean’s signature dish has always been our Sticky Toffee Apple Cake. It’s one that was invented back in the Farmer’s Market days, and we used to sell out of it pretty fast. That’s been the only thing that has never not been on the menu over the 6 years of the restaurant. If it makes it on the evening 5-course feast menu as a dessert, then the components to go with the cake usually change depending on the seasons, but it’s always delicious any time of the year.
As for single ingredients, I’m a huge fan of the cauliflower. Some people don’t rate it, but it’s hugely versatile and can be incredibly delicious. Aside from cauliflowers, mushrooms or celeriac feature heavily throughout all the dishes at The Ethicurean. Mushrooms are a miracle, and mycology is something that utterly fascinates both me and Matthew. Fascinating facts aside, mushrooms add tons of umami to dishes. Big, savoury flavours that keep you wanting to have another bite. What more could you want from an ingredient?
It must be really satisfying to have such a close relationship with the person that is growing the food you use in your kitchen.
Yes, it is fantastic to have such a close relationship with Mark Cox who grows all the produce in our garden; he is so passionate about what he does and what he is growing. As a chef, working with someone that is equally as passionate as you really is the dream. One of the great things about Mark is that he will grow what we ask him to grow but also things we have never seen such as unique types of carrots, tomatoes and different herbs. He has introduced us to lots of produce, which has been fascinating to experiment with. Mark makes sure that the walled garden stays true to how it was done in the Victorian days so everything is grown in straight lines. It is all very neat and pretty, we wanted to keep true to the heritage of the place.
I noticed that you are interested in creating your own drinks at The Ethicurean.
Yes, our interest in drinks has come about very naturally. We do not want anything to go to waste and one way of doing that is looking at what materials used during cooking can be used to make drinks and cocktails. For instance, we might turn the vinegar and water the beetroots have been cooked in into a syrup and add it to a cocktail recipe. Our vermouth is made up from a collection of botanicals grown in our walled garden and wild ingredients from the countryside around us and from the Mendip Hills.
How do you like to unwind on a typical Sunday?
There was about 4 years where I didn’t think I’d ever get a Sunday out of the kitchen. Fortunately for the last 2 years or so, due to the excellent team we have at the restaurant, Sunday’s are now fairly balanced.
An ideal Sunday would involve being in nature somehow- usually it’ll either be Freediving with my club, GoFreediving, having a blast exploring the submerged world on a single breath. If there’s any swell in the ocean, then my surfboards are packed and I’m on the road before sunrise, eager to get out for the dawn patrol and surf until it’s dark.
Some Sundays, however, I’m so knackered that I just need to stop. These days usually involve having a lazy morning, and then getting on with preparing Sunday dinner. As soon as my knives are out, the red wine is flowing. When all the food is ready, and the meat’s slow-cooking in the oven, perhaps a late afternoon film or a walk, and then return for an epic dinner with my favourite people.
What does the future hold?
We are looking at a concept that we can take into the city which is a bit more city friendly. We need to work out how to scale and transport what we have in the walled garden to Bristol. There is nothing set in stone yet, but this is a really exciting time for us, and there are myriad possibilities lying ahead over the next year or two.
The reality is that a restaurant is a living thing. People have likened owning a restaurant to having children, and I couldn’t agree more. You invest so much energy in their formative years, trying to guide them on the right path, and give them the nurturing and support they need. Sometimes they fall off that path, sometimes bad things happen, sometimes they bring you more joy than you thought possible. You have virtually no sleep and at points, you’re sure that no one has ever, ever felt this exhausted in the history of mankind.
But eventually, they grow up and start gaining their own independence, own style and require less guidance and support. Matthew and I will only be happy to start thinking about our next venture, in whatever guise that is, when we are 100% happy that The Ethicurean has had the guidance it needs to be able to walk independently, and when we know its prepared to be an older sibling to the new addition of the family.
We’re not quite there yet, but I know we’re not far off.
Headline photo credited to Jason Ingram (www.jasoningram.co.uk)