Slowing down

The art of better food

Words by Joel Bankhead

Photography by Simon Bray
     A large steel bucket, glinting in the sunlight, is the first thing to catch my eye as Simon and I step out of the car at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset; as intriguing as it is majestic. Open-fire cooking equipment in the courtyard stops us in our tracks, conjuring the image of Francis Mallmann barbecuing in the wilds of Patagonia. We are in no doubt: this is not your standard art gallery - there is something more at play here.

    Entering the gallery your gaze is drawn immediately to the salt room. A large glass box lined with over 500 hand-cut beautifully preserved Himalayan salt bricks, prized for their purity, is home to Roth Bar & Grills dry-aged meat from Durslade farm. The traditional process allows the meat to tenderise through naturally occurring enzymes, intensifying in flavour as the salt draws moisture from the air, allowing the water to evaporate.

    Housed like a Damien Hirst creation between the gallery and the dramatic bar, this particular piece once resulted in a horrified review for the gallery on TripAdvisor, claiming that the 'meat installation' was sickening. There is now
a sign.

    Hauser & Wirth, Somerset is the realisation of a shared vision, cultivated by owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth, who are two of the most influential figures in the art world. It is a unique and special place that unites their passions: art, architecture, landscape, conservation, garden, food, education, community, and family. Discovering the dilapidated farm buildings of Durslade in 2012, they saw an opportunity to create "a place where life could slow down; a place where time could decelerate and where we could spend that time with the very people we care so much about."

    As we share food and conversation with Steve and Jules Horrell, the head chef and general manager of Roth Bar & Grill, it is immediately apparent just how much this ethos of slowing down and taking care is at the heart of everything that happens here. Almost everything we eat is from the surrounding Durslade farm or local producers - I'll forgive them for the Italian mozzarella. Steve works closely with Paul Dovey (the farm and estates manager), and it is their collaboration that demands a straightforward question of their actions, “Is it going to make the food taste better?” 

    Paul has been breeding pigs that are a cross between Mangalitsa, a little known Hungarian breed, and Gloucester Old Spots.

    The Mangalitsa, a hairy pig that boasts a fatty, marbled meat, is the Wagyu beef of pork. Initially, Steve found that the ribbon of fat on top was just too thick, not leaving enough meat to work with. After discussion, Paul provided a larger space for the pigs to roam and reduced their feed, encouraging more foraging and exercise. Within six months they had dramatically improved the quality of the meat on the plate.

“a place where time could decelerate and where we could spend that time with the very people we care so much about.”

   It takes 18 months to cure a leg of Mangalitsa in the salt room. Perfection takes time, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Durslade farm.

    The weather is perfect for late-November as we head out to see the farm: bright sunshine and cold, crisp air. First, we have the honour of being introduced to Iwan, an impressive 900KG Hereford Bull who strides forth to perform for the camera.

    Paul explains that they have recently welcomed their first home-reared Wagyu beef calves, but it will be 32 months before they're ready for slaughter. The process of learning and refinement demands yet more patience, particularly with cattle.

    It's clear that Paul loves to experiment. He delights in showing us a Wagyu and Aberdeen Angus cross that evidently has Steve excited. It is an effort to combine the impressive capacity for growth of the Aberdeen Angus with the fat marbling of the Wagyu, and it appears to be working. I ask Steve which cut came out best: "The sirloin, hands down. It combined the best of both breeds."

    This relentless drive to make the food taste better overflows into everything that touches this enterprise. The farm works in a very sustainable way (90% of the feed is grown on site) and everything that it produces is destined for the kitchen, from wild deer and game to truffles and fruit from the walled garden. Just as I think that no new venture will surprise me at this point, Paul turns to us and asks, "Shall we head to the vineyard?"

    We heard one story, in particular, that helps to explain what Hauser & Wirth Somerset is all about. A couple of years back, once everything was up and running, Iwan gathered every member of the team together - from every arm of the enterprise - sat them down and started to draw. Surrounded by farmers, chefs, managers, gardeners, and art directors he sketched some straight lines on a blank page, none of them intersecting, all separate from one another: "This is us, now." On a fresh page, he began to draw more straight lines, but all intersecting in the middle of the page: "This is where we're going."

    Durslade is a place where art, landscape, farming, and food come together to enhance and improve one another. Every element is more productive, bolder, authentic and fruitful because their intertwining parts live to co-exist. And behind all of that, it is the people of Hauser & Wirth Somerset that make this venture so unique. Everyone we meet exudes warmth, hospitality, and a passion for what they do.

    Sharing a final lunch at the restaurant with Jules, she orders her favourites from the menu for us to sample. As we move seamlessly between a platter of salt-cured bresaola, a delicately sliced Aberdeen Angus steak and homemade merguez sausages that make me want to cry, she talks excitedly about the art on the walls around us. It all comes together. Everyone involved puts their heart into this place, and you can taste it.