The Ethicurean sits just north of the Mendip Hills in a Victorian walled garden. Views into the surrounding countryside give the place a truly rural feel, even as it lies just 25 minutes from Bristol by car. There, they take the concept of plot-to-plate dining seriously; everything they serve is both seasonal and local. “Unless we can go and see where and how something is made and created, it won’t feature on our menu,” says founder, director and co-owner of the restaurant, Matthew Pennington.
Formerly an importer of foods for delicatessens, about 15 years ago Matthew began to shift his focus to UK produce and products. “There was this quality starting to flourish in the UK,” he says “and I wanted to help the UK native food scene.” He and his brother would travel to farmers markets across the south-west, purchase ingredients there, then head back to their home kitchen to cook the food to sell the next day. During that time, they built up a huge network of producers, and it was through this that they first heard about Barley Wood Walled Garden: a cheesemaker told them about a little café and orchard that had become available near the airport. “It was the orchard that piqued my interest,” Matthew says “because a café by the airport just sounds a bit naff, to be honest.”
When they went to take a look, it became clear that this was much more than a greasy spoon – there stood a Victorian walled garden with a productive orchard and at its heart, a brightly lit dining space. They jumped in at the deep end and opened The Ethicurean with little to no experience in the industry and no financial backing. Over a decade later, the ethos that started the business remains the same: a closed loop food system with a focus on seasonality and locality.
Much of their produce comes from the kitchen garden that surrounds the restaurant. The chefs can often be seen nipping in and out to pick some extra herbs or a few leaves of kale. Because they have a strict ban on using any imported foods, creativity has had to flourish among the kitchen staff, now led by head chef and co-owner Mark McCabe. “Curiosity led us here and we’ve fed that back to the team” says Matthew. In the first few years, when he was head chef, they experimented widely with fermentation, pickling and preserving. “I’ve done just about everything you can to preserve a beetroot,” he jokes.
These traditional processes became another important pillar to The Ethicurean’s spirit, with a focus on folklore and history as a means of connecting people with their food. Each January in the orchard, the team hosts a wassail – an ancient English tradition in cider-making regions to promote a good harvest for the coming year. They’ve also tried their hand at clamping carrots, an old-age technique in which root vegetables are buried in straw to preserve them for long periods of time.
People are at the heart of the restaurant. Although Matthew lives in Edinburgh now, he keeps his finger on the pulse of the food scene in the south-west. “I still know every one of my suppliers,” he says “that connection between land, supplier, producers and what ends up on the plate is where it all began.” After the pandemic, The Ethicurean decided to revamp their ways of working and ditched the à la carte menu. By having fixed menus, they can order exactly what they need for the week and avoid any waste. When Russel delivers their ducks on a Monday, they have been ordered on Sunday night and killed that morning. “By the end of the week we’ve used every part of the animal,” Matthew says, “and you can only do that through a direct conversation with a supplier that you know.”
It isn’t always easy-going in the hospitality industry; over the winter, they had to run a fundraiser to help with the cost of upkeep during the quieter months. The outpouring of support, however, is testament to the incredible food and the warm atmosphere they have created. Matthew is keen to reiterate that the idea behind The Ethicurean is conceptual. “We’ve found ourselves in a restaurant,” he says “but we could have done this in a different business entirely.” No matter where the restaurant started – from a philosophy, a garden, or from a list of local producers – the “journey is complete in that gathering around a table.”
Visit The Ethicurean on their website or Instagram page, and learn more about the people behind your favourite restaurants and cafes via Hawkker’s Spotlight Series.