MANY restaurants have recognised the multiple benefits of putting produce that is local to their area on the menu – but not many chefs have an historic family tie to the food they serve.
Mark Hartstone, chef-proprietor of La Fosse restaurant with rooms at Cranborne, grows many of his own salads, herbs and vegetables on his allotments, and sources most of his other ingredients, including cheese, meat, charcuterie, fish and preserves, within Dorset and west Hampshire.
He can also trace a direct link, via a Victorian ancestor, to the Dorset Down lamb he buys from a farm at Knowlton, just three miles down the road. Thomas Homer Saunders of Fordington, formerly of Watercombe Farm, Owermoigne, was Mark’s great great great grandfather’s brother, and one of the local farmers who bred the sheep that became the recognised Dorset Down breed.
The rare breed Dorset Down sheep are reared by Terry and Louise Matthews at New Barn Farm, close to the ancient Knowlton Rings which encircle the ruined Knowlton Church.
Terry and Louise also rear Boer goats for meat. Mark regularly puts this healthy and delicious meat on the menu, usually as a starter. He has been pleased with the response from customers: “People will try something new as a starter,” he says.
Sometimes he serves it in a slow-cooked dish, sometimes barbecued or with Middle Eastern influenced spices. On the evening we went to La Fosse, Mark was showcasing both the Dorset Down and the goat meat from the Matthews’ small, welfare-friendly family farm.
There were plenty of tempting choices to start – West Country asparagus and pea with poached egg and thyme hazelnut dressing, fly-caught trout fillet pan-fried with sesame seeds, and a warm tomato and herb salad with Burns cheese (Cranborne’s answer to halloumi). We opted for the goat koftas, with rose and north African harissa spicing, served with a tomato and cocoa dressing. The level of spicing was perfect, allowing us to enjoy the delicate taste of the goat, and the well-judged amount of dressing was rich but not overwhelming.
Main course choices included trout again (no complaints, when the fish from local chalk streams is so good), char-grilled sumac sage chicken with courgettes and herb champ, or a hot and spicy vegetable stir fry. We both chose the Dorset Down – a barbecued lamb tasting plate with a mango vinaigrette dressed carrot salad. This was as beautiful as it was delicious – tangy, fruity, sweet and sour, underlining and illuminating the flavour of the lamb, which was full of flavour, and, like most rare breed meat, not all fatty. (We don’t mind fat, indeed we believe it enhances the flavour of the cut or joint, but we know that, unaccountably, some people don’t like it).
Mark is a cheese expert and his cheese board is always a glorious celebration of the local artisan cheesemakers’ skills. But who can resist such sweet seduction as banoffee meringue sundae, home-grown rhubarb oat and almond crumble with vanilla ice cream, or orange and spiced pineapple with green tea ice cream and homemade yogurt lemon balm cheese? Well, not us.
The lure of something new, unusual, even a little strange is always strong, and in the hands of such a talented chef is pretty certain to be delicious – so we went for the green tea ice cream. Good choice – refreshing, with a delicate green colour and that faint green tea smokiness on the palate, pepped up by the fruit and delicately soothed by the lemon balm cheese. This ice cream, made by Purbeck Ice Cream, is now on our things-we-ought-to-have-in-the-freezer list.
Having a dog and cat who require their night-time rituals and their breakfast, we tend not to drink much – just a glass of wine suggested by the chef – as we normally have to drive back. But if you can stay over at La Fosse, you should – we recommend the comfort of the bedrooms and the excellent breakfasts. You could even have a bracing walk on Cranborne Chase before heading home.
Pictured: Goat koftas, Dorset Down tasting plate and orange and spiced pineapple with Green Tea ice cream.