A class act: The Potting Shed, Sandridge
Form an orderly queue. The Potting Shed at Carpenter's Nursery is an absolute treat.
Carpenter’s Nursery has opened a café. It’s called The Potting Shed. I’d been invited, along with other guests, for a sneak preview ahead of the official opening on Tues 27 March. I’ve been to more soft launches than I care to remember, so for lunch at The Potting Shed I had prepared myself for the worst. My list of expectations included: gaffer tape hastily applied to cover up trailing wires, a lunch service that isn’t anywhere near up to speed, and a chef having a meltdown in the kitchen. And that James Carpenter, who is behind the new venture, would be running around apologising to everyone, promising that in time, things would improve. How wrong I was.
My first impression? I can’t believe my eyes. It is so totally unexpected. This is less café and more restaurant and it’s an absolute delight. Everything is top notch. Dark wood contrasts with pale walls and there’s a quality and softness to the finishes that create an atmosphere that immediately makes you relax. Everything – the lighting, the tiles in the coffee bar, the wood in the ceiling, the tulips on the tables and the photographs on the walls – has been thought about and has been created with real love and care. Light floods in from outside, and you have a view of the newly landscaped garden, outside café area and open fields. The tables are solid and tactile and I find out that they’ve been handmade by James and his team, using reclaimed wood found in St Albans. A glass of prosecco is thrust into my hand (I’d arrived wondering whether they would be licensed, so that soon answered my question), and I realise that I’m in for a bit of a treat. The Potting Shed isn’t just about having a drink before or after buying some plants. It’s a destination. Everyone is so excited about the fact that it is already way beyond our expectations, that we haven’t even sat down when people start grilling James (a host with the most if ever there was one) about whether he’s going to be open in the evenings. Give the man a chance!
Carpenter’s is just north of St Albans, on the edge of Heartwood Forest, and it’s one of the oldest farm shops and nurseries in Hertfordshire. It was started in 1923 by Fred Carpenter senior, and has been looked after by sons and heirs through the generations. Last year Carpenter’s won Best Farm Shop in the Muddy awards and the shop itself is full of home grown produce and locally produced food, much of which finds its way onto our menu.
I have the perfect starter. Pretty as a picture, with wonderful contrasting flavours and textures. It’s refreshing and yummy and light enough to get your taste buds going and leave you wanting more. The rye crackers are perfectly baked and have a rich flavour. The salmon is firm yet melt-in-the-mouth. The beetroot is grown on site, and the apple adds just the right amount of fruitiness. For wine, we are offered a Sauvignon Blanc or a Côtes du Rhône, both from nearby Flagship Wines. I quite like the simplicity of having just one white and one red on a menu, but this could change. I have the white, by Los Tres Curas from Chile, and it’s delicious.
The main course is a big success. Pork belly is plump and perfectly cooked and with a pleasing tang of cider. And the rhubarb, doing the job that apple sauce used to do, is a winner, cutting through the richness of the pork with a satisfying confidence. The colour makes me want to suggest it for next year’s Pantone colour.
When the pudding arrives, it turns out that buttermilk pudding is in fact panna cotta, one of my all time fave puddings. And here there are more contrasts between smooth and crunchy and sweet and tart. I’m happy to have more rhubarb – it’s a pretty pink lunch overall – and the panna cotta is perfection – it judders and quivers when you approach it with your spoon and it’s one of the best I’ve ever had. While I’m eating, I’m already making a list of friends and family who will like The Potting Shed. The people who take our orders are charming and interested and really proud of what’s on offer, and so they should be. I don’t have a chance to meet chef Scott Whitehead, but his ears must have been burning because everyone invited is talking about how good the food is. This is the perfect farm to fork local business and it’s very exciting indeed.
And that’s pretty much it. For now. At the time of writing, I don’t have prices, and the final menus are still being compiled. But I can tell you that if you are just looking for a bacon sarnie, or avocado and eggs on toast (with bread from Redbournbury Mill) with a smoothie, you will also find it right here. And coffee (from The Gentleman Baristas), and cake, and cream teas. Veg will be from Carpenter’s own fields, as much of it as is possible, and loads of local producers will be on the menu: Chiltern Oils, granola from Dizzy Bee Kitchen and goats cheese from Wobbly Bottom Farm.
It’s the best Friday lunchtime I’ve had in a long while. If James Carpenter, Scott Whitehead and the team at The Potting Shed can keep this up, we are going to be very lucky indeed. There’s no need to change a thing. The Potting Shed is a class act.
The Potting Shed 106 St Albans Road, Sandridge AL4 9LJ