When is a pub not a pub? In a tiny village five miles to the east of Canterbury, sits a pub that has a fiercely creative kitchen, yet is still gloriously, defiantly a proper pub.
The name Stodmarsh derives its meaning from the Saxon words for mare (stode) and marsh (mersh), and was once a hunting forest owned by Bishop Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror – this pretty village has a quiet ancient aura, the 13th Century church of St. Mary the only other public building. It is a quite unexpected spot to find a kitchen team swaggering with such confident élan: chef/owners Morgan Lewis and John Young are a fizzing fire-cracking team, furiously curing, fermenting, foraging, butchering, and knocking out the kind of eye-poppingly exciting menus that demand repeated visits.
I’ve been here before, several times, and each time stepping through the door feels like a homecoming of sorts. I’ve had a remarkable classic Sunday roast here, featuring a ‘three cornered garlic’ stuffed partridge, as well as a ‘quail kiev’. Another that remains bright in the memory are the goose liver parfait profiteroles with a Peruvian black chocolate sauce: sounds bonkers, yet absolutely heroic.The big open fireplace is spluttering and crackling away, and another co-owner, the wonderfully exuberant Mark Winstone, ushers us in: “You can eat at the bar if you like”. Monty the cat, a regal legend of the pub, is snoozing by the fire. We pull up a stool, so often the best seat in the house.
Lunch at The Red Lion Stodmarsh
This casual drop-in for lunch kicks off with a ‘little taster’ from the kitchen, a beautiful nugget of satin-textured venison loin, a thrilling statement of intent: an opening salvo that would be quite at home at a swanky Michelin starred joint. We adore the couple of small courses too, some delicately smoked monkfish with the subtlest whisper of smoke, a fine counterpoint to the fish, perked up with the sharp pop of pickled bilberries alongside the crunch of fermented and fried leaves of purslane: the dish shows off the meticulous and detailed obsession of the kitchen. The next dish knocks us for six, a real ‘wow’ moment. A chunk of confit rare-breed Oxford Sandy and Black pork belly, a sliver of latticed and grilled squid, fermented radish, a reduction of squid ink with Kentish Pip cider giving the plate dramatic Jackson Pollock-esque fork smears as we eat. The combination is a beauty, popping with contrasts, sharp and sour, sweet and fatty, a rat-a-tat-tat of flavour bombs.
We share some Longland Farm goose breast, with a sprout top croquette, and a zingy chutney/jammy smear made with the medlar fruit – the meat is blushing pink and juicy, the skin scored and grilled until the fat has just rendered, a fine bird that has led a good, well-fed life. More pitch-perfect cooking, as good as you’ll find in any restaurant in the UK…but we’re absolutely still in a pub. Apple and liquorice root meringue pie is a happy flourish to end, the cutest little thing, buttery short-crust encasing a sharp dice of apple, with a grating of liquorice root, skilful cheffy meringue peaks topping it off.
Foraging skills at The Red Lion Stodmarsh
The ingenuity carries on in their plethora of house infused spirits, from banana rum to horseradish gin, as well as making use of wood ants in some of the dishes, currently on show with their homemade wood ant gin. We’re offered a little taster of the ants in their unadorned state: very citrussy, sharp, compellingly complex flavour, if you were wondering. They also use winter chanterelles to make kombucha, foraged from around Stodmarsh: there’s always new experimentation going on. There’s excellent cava poured by the glass, and a tight selection of wines with a strong value/quality quotient, and on this occasion we enjoy a sleek Chianti Riserva 2018 from Uggiano, cracking stuff for less than £30.
The creative collective of owners of The Red Lion describe themselves as an ‘unconventional dining pub’ cooking food ‘inspired by the wilds of Kent’ – this neatly sums up the ethos, although there’s also an alchemy going on between all the elements that make this place such a draw.
This is a pub to the very core of its DNA, with a dazzling sprinkle of magic from the kitchen, a riotous and playful celebration of Kentish ingredients – unique, quirky, joyful. It’s a true gem.
The Red Lion Stodmarsh