Birch is the kind of neighbourhood restaurant I wish I had on my doorstep. Friendly and relaxed; it has a concise and seasonal menu that is distinctly British. Owned and run by Beccy Massey and Sam Leach, much of the produce they serve is grown at the edge of the city, on a plot they tend themselves. Pared back, though not at all austere; the quality of the ingredients sing in each dish, with all the pleasure in the eating. I’ve yet to have a dud meal here and will happily go from snacks to cheese plate, without feeling like Mr Creosote. Oh, and those potatoes: I could eat those confit potatoes with every meal and never tire of them.
I pestered Beccy and Sam with a few questions.
WM: You originally began as a supper club. What made you decide to take the step of opening a restaurant?
BIRCH: We always hoped to open a restaurant really, and the supper club was a good way of trying things out and finding our style while we were working for other people.
WM: What sort of preparation and experience did you gain in order to make the transition?
BIRCH: We more or less had to learn everything. Between us we worked in as many places as possible to get experience of different types. Beccy worked in fine dining restaurants and casual places; Sam worked as a chef, baker, butcher and pastry chef. In a small restaurant, you have to do everything.
WM: You converted the restaurant from what used to be an old school curry house largely by yourselves; was that quite an undertaking?
BIRCH: Yes. It took six weeks, which was quite quick I think, but it was pretty full on and a big learning curve. We learnt that every time you remove a layer, you find something worse behind. We took up a fairly gross floor, to find some rotten floor boards. They came up to reveal rotten joists…
WM: A lot of the produce that you use, you’ve grown yourselves. Why is that important to you rather than simply using local suppliers?
BIRCH: We used to have an allotment when I started working in kitchens, and seeing the difference between the morning veg delivery and what we would grow ourselves, was when we realised that it was important to grow your own. The truth is that there isn’t enough really local produce of high quality to go around. We are lucky to have some amazing growers and suppliers, but they are small and for long stretches of the year there is little available. Our garden is a way of trying to redress that balance and increase supply. It is also a nice counterpoint to the stress of the restaurant, spending a morning outside hearing the birds and picking vegetables.
WM: Are there any particular varieties of fruit and vegetable that you plan to showcase at the restaurant?
BIRCH: We are keen to grow things that are in very short supply locally, such as fennel, salsify, forced chicory, dried beans and numerous others. Sea kale is one of Britain’s few native vegetables and was once a popular delicacy, but is now almost completely unavailable. We have planted some this spring, so it should be on the menu in the future. A long term plan which is in motion is to grow some grains for the restaurant, mainly heritage varieties. This season we have only planted ten square metres, but next year, we hope to expand this to a couple of hundred and after that, who knows?!
WM: How do you go about drawing up your menu?
BIRCH: The menu changes day to day, but as a rolling programme. Not everything will change everyday, different products have different cycles. The meat provides the structure; meat is ordered weeks or months in advance, as we buy directly from farms and know when an animal will be killed. This week a cow went to slaughter; we had the offal and then a section of the carcass will be delivered in the last week of August. A pig means a two week cycle: first the roasting cuts, other bits go into brine so that the following week we have brawn, then ham, then bacon. Fish is ordered daily, but often the rest of the dish stays the same to keep some continuity, both for the kitchen and front of house.
Over the weekend I look at what is in the garden and work out what to do with it, and where there will be gaps. I speak to Mark Cox who runs Barley Wood Walled Garden every Tuesday about what he has ready, and the menu starts from there. We always have to think about who in the kitchen is doing what, make sure not too many things need to go in the deep fryer, or the oven at the same time. It’s important to balance things out, otherwise it can get a bit stressful in service with fifteen pans on four rings.
WM: There are a number of natural and biodynamic wines on your wine list. Why is that and any particular favourites at the moment?
BIRCH: All of our wines are organic or biodynamic in the vineyard. In a few cases they won’t have been certified but will be practicing organically. It is important to remember that wine is a product of farming as much as a carrot or cream, so we look first for good farming practice in the vineyard, and then we look for minimum intervention in the cellar; letting the grapes speak for themselves and not trying to shape the wine with additions of commercial yeast, sugar or any tens of dubious additions which are common . Right now we are really enjoying ‘Bandita’ from Nadia Verrua, one of our favourite producers, who makes wine carefully in a tiny cellar beneath her house. She only uses the indigenous grape varieties and ferments using wild yeasts -the key to good wine. Her ‘Bandita’ was too distinctive to allow the Barbera di Asti label but it is truly delicious and an individual expression of Barbera. Her Grignolio (another local grape) is one against which all others must be judged.
WM: You’ve recently done a spot of cider making -any plans for making a bigger batch or for any homemade liquors or spirits?
BIRCH: We just bottled the last of our 2014 cider from the barrel, and have plans to make a slightly bigger batch (500 litres or so) this year. Whether we sell it at the restaurant I’m not sure, but we are making cider vinegar which will definitely feature. In the future, perhaps post-Birch, there will be more cider making. We make our own liqueurs with various fruits, some foraged, some bought, some grown, but with bought spirits -no plans for a still.
WM: What have been the highs and lows since opening Birch?
BIRCH: The lows: a lot of stress; lack of sleep and people thinking we do other jobs ‘during the day’. The highs: when everything is going well; the dining room is busy; people are happy and the food is tasting good. It’s the best feeling.
WM: Finally if you could eat anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?
BIRCH: On a deserted beach in Devon. A big crab, mayo and loaf of good bread and, a very good champagne from Jacques Selosse.