Simplicity and clever sourcing is the order of the day at the Californian-inspired Darsham Nurseries in Suffolk. Tessa Allingham pays a visit
Even on a day of summer rain, there is more than a sniff of California about Darsham Nurseries. Owner David Keleel is a West Coast native, while head chef Nicola Hordern undertook a stage at Chez Panisse, Berkeley.
Hordern, who trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, has run the kitchen since summer 2017, with two other chefs and Jess Avery leading front of house. She explains: “I heard Darsham Nurseries needed a chef, so I knocked on the door. To be honest, there’s nowhere else I wanted to work.”
The 40-odd covers inside the light-filled café open on to a further 25 on the terrace where – weather permitting – guests can sit under a pergola strung with lights.
There’s a kitchen garden, looked after by head gardener Anna Outlaw, that provides tomatoes, herbs, squash, melons, countless varieties of chillis and peppers, and the daily changing, largely plant-based menu is decided according to what is best that day.
“We finalise the menu as we prep. By 11am we’ve nailed it,” says Hordern. “It sounds a bit disorganised and it isn’t easy, but it feels right.”
All vegetable peelings are composted and find their way back to the beds; gluts are dried or preserved; kombucha and shrubs are made in house; and produce that’s bought in is organic where possible. Hordern is looking into the Japanese bokashi system to ferment all kitchen waste, including cooked meat and fish, in order to create soil-enriching compost. “I’m desperate to get to zero waste,” she says.
The menu is a compact line-up of small plates (roughly 10 savouries, three desserts and local cheeses with breads from Pump Street Bakery in nearby Orford). “Small plates work,” she says. “People drop in all day and expect a quick turnaround, so starter-main-pudding isn’t right. We often have just two chefs on, and I only have one stove, so it has to be manageable.”
The style is broadly Mediterranean. Roast cauliflower with a lightly spiced vadouvan butter, herb yogurt and pistachio dukkah is a runaway bestseller. “It’s my version of Lola’s cauliflower dish,” says Hordern, referring to previous head chef, Lola DeMille. “There’d be a riot if we took it off! We make the vadouvan butter once a week; we use eight packs of butter for a four-litre batch and it takes several hours. It’s a bit of a fridge-raid when it comes to the spices and flavours – fenugreek, chilli, cardamom, mustard seeds, turmeric, orange peel. About 30-odd spices all told, but it’s worth the effort.”
Dishes play on simplicity, such as a whole globe artichoke from the garden served with sauce ravigote. A cheese toastie is served with radish kimchi and cornichons to counter the creaminess. “We use Ogleshield from Somerset, a washed rind Jersey cows’ milk cheese. It’s incredibly rich and melts like raclette.”
Keleel is particularly passionate about tomatoes, bringing seeds back from California. This year, Purple Bumblebee and Large Barred Boar scramble up canes alongside more conventional varieties. In high summer they will appear in a tomato salad with basil oil and smoked aubergine, while a romesco sauce is served with hake and plancha-grilled onions, or alongside grilled octopus, chickpeas and aubergine.
Fish and meat appear sparingly. A dish of King’s Lynn brown shrimps with Savoy cabbage and a ginger buttermilk dressing is popular. “The dressing is one I learned at Quo Vadis, but I’ve replaced the cream with buttermilk,” says Hordern. “It makes me think of Chez Panisse. Alice Waters uses buttermilk a lot and you see it in the recipes of others who have worked there – Samin Nosrat, Claire Ptak, Sally Clarke.”
Popular meat dishes include slow-cooked Alde Valley hogget shoulder with lentils and salsa verde, and confit lamb with green split peas, nettle purée and broad bean tops. Berkshire pigs reared on the café’s adjacent meadow will become prosciutto, while Scotts Field supplies belly and loin from its herd of rare breed Large Blacks at Oxborough, Norfolk.
Hordern is happy discovering local suppliers, working with Outlaw and Keleel to make the garden as productive as possible while embracing a spontaneous approach. “In London I could get everything at the drop of a hat. It’s harder here, but it’s an adventure. There’s such strong artisanal food production in east Suffolk – it feels a lot like Cork.” And a bit like California, too.
From the menu
Leek, new potato, red onion, salsa verde £6.50
Lambs’ liver skewers, beetroot, red onion agrodolce, fried sage £9.50
Burrata, agretti, courgette, preserved lemon, parsley £9
Rolled loin of pork, herb stuffing, gooseberry sauce £12
Squid, coconut masala, lemon pickle £12
Poached skate salad, lovage aïoli, pickled vegetables £12
Gooseberry and elderflower compote, elderflower syllabub, almond meringue £7.50
Buckwheat cake, rosemary and honey-roasted apricots, custard, crème fraîche £7.50
Main Road, Darsham, Saxmundham, Suffolk IP17 3PW www.darshamnurseries.co.uk