Su Carroll looks at the changing focus on food at Dartington.
In 1925, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst bought the run-down Dartington Estate near Totnes. They were visionaries who began what they called the “Dartington Experiment” – bringing together other like-minded, creative people for education and inspiration. In the early days, the couple spearheaded changes to the estate – Schumacher College, Dartington Hall School and Dartington Tweed Mill were established, followed by Dartington Glass and The Shops at Dartington.
Times change, and in 2015 Dartington Hall Trust held Open Space meetings following the arrival of CEO Rhodri Samuel to discuss proposals for the gardens, development, land use, food, arts, social justice and community of enterprises.
One of the areas earmarked for expansion is food, with chef Oliver Rowe being appointed as Dartington Hall Trust’s Director of Food and Drink. It’s a good fit for the Dartington ethos – Oliver is the man whose trials in setting up a London restaurant with locally- sourced food was recorded in the BBC documentary, Urban Chef.
Oliver’s appointment to the team signals “more joined-up thinking” he says. “Dartington is an amazing place. It offers a broad spectrum of the elements you need as a person to approach life and any given situation. It’s a holistic approach and I love that; it’s why I’m here. We look at everything from every angle.”
Dartington is home to The White Hart Bar and Restaurant – holder of a Sustainable Restaurant Association star, The Roundhouse Café which offers drinks and light snacks, and a new space – The Green Table which has an informal atmosphere with big tables, a deli-style counter, an open- plan kitchen and a large terrace with tables and chairs.
Oliver’s job is to advise and guide using everything he’s learned about sourcing locally and responsibly. He’s been working with The Green Table head chef Tara Vaughan- Hughes to develop an interesting menu in a space which is “quite a departure” for Dartington. “Sometimes you create an audience when you give people something they’re not expecting. The Green Table was like this for Dartington – a completely fresh approach.”
He will also help to strengthen the links between tenant farmers on the Dartington estate who farm the land in innovative ways that benefit the community. As his experiences on Urban Chef will testify, it isn’t as easy as it looks. “It can be difficult to work with really small producers,” he admits. “Some of the ingredients that we need are hard to find in the volume we want. Then it’s about menu planning and discussing with the producers what we’re cooking and making sure they know what we’re about. We’re about great ingredients, locally sourced, being considerate to the environment and working with people in the area. We have respect for the produce, the animals and staff. That’s our food concept.”
Oliver started cooking as a teenager, working in the kitchen of an art school in Tuscany, run by his cousin, the sculptor and art historian Nigel Konstam. He learned from Italian women how to make simple pasta dishes that owed a lot to the landscape surrounding him.
At the age of 22, he wandered into the kitchens of Moro in London looking for work and found himself honing his craft there. Stints at restaurants in London and France followed before he opened a café in London and then a restaurant, Konstam (after his grandmother) at the Prince Albert – the focus of the Urban Chef series.
“My mum was a very, very good cook, and so was my grandmother, and I definitely have a connection to that period in time. One of the great things about the chefs at Dartington is they’re not throwing anything away; there’s an appreciation for the ingredients – the way they’re cooked and presented. It’s about keeping it simple,” Oliver adds.
London-based Oliver’s commitment to Dartington is three days a week but he says it’s no hardship to come to “a stunning” part of the world. “It’s not a million miles from London and it has a good vibe. There’s a real sense of community.” So, is Dartington going to be a deep-fat fryer free zone? Oliver laughs “We do have deep-fat fryers! You can’t knock a good chip and we do great ones at The White Hart. After all, everyone loves fish and chips, but we make sure we get potatoes that are sustainably sourced.”