Ruth Hansom has moved to the countryside, with the Swinton Estate in the Yorkshire Dales, to continue creating her own brand of fine dining surrounded by produce that will go straight to plate
A fter a stellar decade in the capital that has cemented her reputation as one of the country's most exciting young talents, Ruth Hansom has headed 230 miles north to the Swinton Estate and found she is as comfortable on the farm as she was in some of London's most prestigious dining rooms.
Hansom will work alongside the estate's chief executive Iain Shelton and general manager Andrew Mackay to reinvent Samuel's restaurant as a culmination of a journey. The ‘estate to plate' food strategy incorporates ingredients grown and reared on 20,000 acres of hill farming countryside up onto the Yorkshire Dales. Hansom will offer a six-course epicurean tasting menu for lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Saturday, with roast lunches on a Sunday.
The produce from the estate and its associated farms is already put to good use on the Terrace restaurant menu headed up by Shaun Burke, as well as a more diverse provision from estate chef Andy Mangan.
Hansom, who left the Princess of Shoreditch in London after winning the restaurant three AA rosettes in August 2022, has ambitious plans for the estate's fine dining offering. At the very least she would like three AA rosettes again. She is planning to produce her own charcuterie and bread, help develop a small deli and support the opening of a production kitchen in the house's stables to perform as the hub of the estate's food delivery system. There is also a proposal to develop a courtyard behind the successful cookery school (headed up by chef Luke Palmer) into a community area for local artists and food and drink producers.
She is excited to have a considerable-sized working garden providing fruit and vegetables for the kitchens, just a two-minute walk away, and describes Dame Susan Cunliffe-Lister, who is the head gardener, as incredible: "I've been shown a cellar where they are growing mushrooms and herbs and I'm learning something new about the estate every time I visit," she says. "We get over 40% of our produce from the garden, and the majority of our fresh ingredients from the estate."
About two-thirds of the Swinton Estate is farmland and forestry and one-third open moorland, and most of the estate sits within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The estate lets several farms and farmhouses, including Masham pedigree pigs on Waterfall Farm, which supplies the estate with Saddleback and Gloucester Old Spot and goats' milk, and Farm Adventure (which started out as a family-run farm supplying Angus beef to the estate's kitchen) and is now run as a farm education and experience centre.
R&J Yorkshire's Finest Farmers and Butchers is supplying some of the finest quality cuts, and Hansom will have its Waterford salt lamb on the menu from April. She is also keen to showcase its Cull Yow sheep. Inspired by Matt Chatfield's project in Cornwall, culled ewes are sheep that are no longer producing lambs and are removed from the flock. Chatfield (inspired by the farming methods of Ibérico pigs in Spain) saw the potential of taking his old hillside ewes and giving them fresh pastures to retire on and to fatten up again. The ewes end up producing incredible meat, thanks to their maturity, active life, and with freshly added fat content.
With advice from Chatfield, R&J is producing its own Cull Yows at Waterford Farm with Scottish Black Face sheep, one of the hardiest sheep breeds in the country, renowned for their depth of flavour.
Back to the drawing board
A new menu and direction at Samuel's and the further food plans for the estate will require a suitably modern kitchen, one that fits the estate's sustainable commitment. Hansom will be overseeing the redesign of the main kitchen in the hotel and Shelton confirms: "We are going to be refurbishing the whole back of house kitchen – that's definite. It's £300,000 worth of investment in a new design and equipment.
"We are moving Samuel's bar alongside the drawing room so that it flows into Samuel's. The whole of the front of the south side of the building will open up. We have taken advice from the AA and are also making some other changes, some to accommodate a higher level of dining experience in-room.
"Opening our country club and spa in 2017 was a new spark for the estate, really," adds Shelton. "We had to grasp hold of what was going on in the business overall, how the landscape had changed, partly due to the pandemic. We've been busy doing lots of things to pull the whole estate together, rather than necessarily focusing 100% on the food offering. In terms of our messaging, we wanted to share the journey from the estate to the plate and that's really coming through now, and we are more confident in making sure that happens. Added to that our estate experiences give our guests a taste of what Swinton is about and, as part of that, the cookery school has really started ramping up."
Experiences on the estate include game shooting, shooting lessons, caddied rounds or Claymate sessions with EJ Churchill, river fishing along the River Ure and the River Burn, and birds of prey encounters for families, groups and individuals. The birds of prey sessions provide hands-on interaction with owls, hawks and falcons. A hawk walk involves the flying of Harris hawks around the castle grounds, safely handling the hawk, which once released will follow you through the trees and return.
Alongside Hansom's ambition of three AA rosettes the hotel has a strategy for five AA red stars and is on track having won the AA Sustainable Award 2022/23, an accreditation which recognises ‘an independent establishment or group which has demonstrated a clear commitment to sustainability, integrated its approach as a fundamental part of their business and really champions this across its team and customers'.
The family connected their first biomass boiler 20 years ago, which generates all the energy for the hotel. A second was installed for the country club and spa, heating the extended building including the entire spa and its indoor heated swimming pool and the Terrace restaurant. Sustainability is viewed as a whole; from the signs that are placed in the hotel's bathrooms to how the forestry planting is managed and initiatives such as planting forward.
The estate's Bivouac, home to rustic tree lodges, built using traditional round wood timber framing techniques, meadow yurts, the Bivouac café, the Loft, shower facilities and shop are all powered with their own biomass system and a reedbed sewage system.
They have a sustainable staffing policy too. Samuel's will only open 4.5 days a week. "Gone are the days where we need to be working people for 60 to 70 hours a week," says Shelton. Hansom is in favour of a work-life balance: "I think slowly people across the whole industry are moving out of London. For me, if I was leaving school now, I probably wouldn't have moved to London. There's so many great restaurants now in the North East and North Yorkshire that it wouldn't have been necessary.
"Also, I think the pandemic has just made people think differently, hasn't it? It's made them realise what their priorities are and how they want to spend the rest of their life. And, you know, it all goes back to that work life balance."
As a business, Swinton is fortunate to have plenty of staff accommodation, with several cottages just on the other side of the estate's gates and a house in the nearby village of Masham.
The main house on the estate with its impressive turreted castle is owned by the fourth earl of Swinton, Mark Cunliffe-Lister, and the countess, his wife Felicity. It is one of the largest privately owned estates in the country and was bought back by the family in May 2000, and after nine months of intensive building works, opened as a four-star hotel in March 2001.
Mark and Felicity are hands-on at the estate and in the hotel most days along with their sons and daughter (working part-time in various roles). Felicity is heavily involved in the design aspects and interiors and is currently taking a lead on multiple room refurbishments. Mark is involved on the rural side of the business, from a sustainability and environmental aspect.
Then there's the executive team reporting into Shelton with Debra Hinde as head of marketing and new business, Laura Angel, as rural estate manager, Ashleigh Burns, head of finance, and Rachael Day as human resources manager. Hanson will report into general manager Andrew Mackay, but it is predominantly a flat-structured female team.
Hansom's female role models include Lisa Goodwin-Allen, who she describes as inspiring for having "achieved continuing success, growth in her role and multiple accolades as well as being a mother." Clare Smyth is another exemplar for her, and her previous general manager at the Princess of Shoreditch, Clare Smart. "She was very supportive, and we learned a lot from each other. "Anne Pierce, the past chief executive of Springboard, was very influential in my early career," adds Hansom. "From first coming into contact with her at FutureChef, to all the other industry initiatives she organised and led."
The chef will have at least two women in her new brigade, including Louise Murray, the hotel's existing pastry chef, and Nicole Benham-Corlette, a regional finalist competing alongside Hansom in the upcoming Roux Scholarship competition, joining the team in April. She mentions April Partridge too, sous chef at the Ledbury (and another 2023 Roux Scholarship regional finalist), who she first met at the Young National Chef of the Year competition in 2013.
"April just keeps on going and is so supportive of everyone else. I was in awe of her creativity during lockdown and her loyalty to her colleagues. I really respect that," Hansom says.
When it comes to her ability to inspire others, she is modest but accepts that as a younger female chef, she can certainly act as a role model. "I do as much as I can in colleges so I guess I might be inspiring students and I really enjoyed my consultancy work with BaxterStorey working with its young female chefs."
With her family nearby in Darlington, she really is returning to her roots. With a food style she describes as modern British with classical French techniques she is perhaps returning a more refined version of her former 16-year-old self who travelled down to London more than 10 years ago.
Ruth Hansom's CV
- Winner of Springboard's FutureChef competition
- Master Chefs of Great Britain Young Master Chef of the Year
- Gold medal at the World Skills UK final
- Craft Guild of Chefs Apprentice of the Year
- Master Chefs of Great Britain Young Master Chef of the Year
- Craft Guild of Chefs Rising Star
- Worked part-time with Frederick Forster at the Boundary restaurant in Shoreditch whilst at Westminster Kingsway College, London
- Royal Academy of Culinary Arts apprenticeship (at the Ritz London) whilst doing one day a week at Westminster Kingsway College
- Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Diploma, Westminster Kingsway College, London
- Demi chef de partie, the Ritz London
- Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Annual Awards of Excellence
- Part of the EuroSkills Team UK in Gothenburg
- Crowned the Craft Guild of Chefs Young National Chef of the Year (YNCOTY)
- June Head chef role at Wernher restaurant, Luton Hoo hotel, Bedfordshire
- April Joins Pomona's in Notting Hill as head chef
- July Announces new role as head chef at the Princess of Shoreditch
- October Achieves three AA rosettes for the Princess of Shoreditch – the only pub in London to do so
- Leaves the Princess of Shoreditch
- Returns to the Ritz on a part-time basis
- Works with BaxterStorey as a chef consultant with their female chefs
- January Announces role as executive chef at Swinton Park
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