Jo Denbury, Features Writer
Sasha Matkevich has a soft spot for vegetables. ‘My grandmother was a vegetarian,’ he recalls, ‘she taught me a respect for food, how to plant, grow, pick and prepare it, that has been with me ever since.’ Home for Sasha was in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains in Russia. It’s a bountiful, beautiful landscape with a rich soil that cultivates one of the best vegetable gardens of the world. A place not far from the Silk Route where spices from the east meet the produce of the west and where culinary skills are faithfully passed down from generation to generation. This helps to explain why now, many years later, as head chef and owner of The Green, one of Dorset’s finest restaurants, that Sasha is still careful to source the best produce and ingredients that he can find locally.
It is a far cry from the Caucasus foothills but life at The Green is a family affair and the skills that his grandmother taught him are now being passed on to his own children. You are likely to find ingredients on the menu that have been foraged by Sasha and his family – wife Ailsa, two sons Tom, 12 and Hector, 9 and daughter Lena, 15 - alongside those of well respected local suppliers. Sasha and Ailsa met in Russia. After attending Sherborne Girls School, Ailsa had gone on to read Russian at Bristol University and then moved to Russia to work. Sasha had left home and arrived in St Petersburg to study art. Shortly after they met Sasha was called up for the obligatory military service. ‘After two years service I knew I couldn’t return to art,’ he explains. ‘I had begun to cook while in the military so I continued to study catering.’ The two got together while in the Baltics and in 1996 Ailsa encouraged Sasha to emigrate and join her in England. They lived in London for 10 years while Sasha trained at the Halkin under Stefano Cavallini and the Michelin starred chef Philip Britten, who has since gone on to form Solstice – a supplier of top-quality vegetables. They then made the move to Somerset where Sasha joined Michelin starred chef Adam Fellows at the Mulberry Restaurant, Charlton House before making a name for himself at the Devonshire Armsin Long Sutton. In November 2012 he took over as owner at The Green, building respectfully on the restaurant’s reputation while creating a menu and culinary aesthetic that is very much his own.
Sasha continually strives to keep the menu fresh and in harmony with the seasons. ‘Diversity in what we eat is important. For our wellbeing, yes, but also to keep our diet exciting. If we are eating fish, let’s think about including seaweed and fish eggs, not just cod.’ Take for example the restaurant’s popular grilled scallops served with sea buckthorn berries, ‘Sea buckthorn berries have many more health benefits than goji berries, and a lot less air-miles,’ says Sasha. The berries are the spoils of a day spent foraging the prickly contours of Dorset’s coastline. Once harvested, the berries are preserved for use over the year ahead. ‘Sometimes the children complain about having to search for food,’ laughs Sasha, but for him it is important that children learn where food comes from and what they can eat locally.
Another favourite are ceps, (also known as porcini or penny bun mushrooms) which he forages with sous chef Max. ‘You have to be very careful when foraging,’ explains Sasha. Take a guide book and vigilantly identify what you are picking. You must also be respectful, picking only what you need (don’t be greedy) and being sure to leave at least half the plant so that it can recover. Be mindful of the rules of the countryside,’ he recommends.
Come the summer, a favourite pastime – on a rare day off – is to head to the coast with his family for a day picnicking, fishing and foraging. ‘The excitement is in the never knowing what you are going to find and the thrill of eating it,’ Sasha explains as he eyes up the beach in search of a potential spot to set up camp away from the on-shore breeze. ‘Seasonality is everything,’ says Sasha, ‘the availability and abundance of particular foods comes and goes, almost weekly and that is of course how it should be, how nature intended that we sustain ourselves from the land and the sea.’ At this time of year family picnics often consist of mackerel, caught on lines by Sasha and the two boys, along with crab and traditional Russian skewers packed with minced meat that can be easily roasted on the barbecue. There is also always a pot of cooked kelp seaweed to hand. It is a food that is fastbecoming popular because of its health benefits, >particularly as a source of iodine. Once foraged the kelp is cooked very slowly at a simmer to tenderise it then eaten as a savoury snack on flat breads or an accompaniment to the meats. The flatbread doubles as a plate with small pieces of fish and vegetable added so that everyone, including the children, can graze and mix the flavours. This idea of grazing over small dishes is something that has developed in the restaurant under the name of Zakuski. A Russian style of preparing and serving food with it roots in the Mediterranean traditions of tapas and mezze. Dishes are ordered and then served from the kitchen as they become ready. It makes for a wonderfully leisurely way of spending time with friends, sharing and exploring a palette of exciting flavours and textures without indulging in a larger plate. Where else could you sample the likes of lamb bitchoki with roasted red peppers, spicy puy lentils with mint yoghurt, ham hock rillettes with handmade rye bread and the ever-popular triple cooked chips with Dorset truffle mayonnaise in one sitting? These intricate, tasty meals in miniature are ‘how we ate at home in Russia,’ explains Sasha. ‘The dishes would be prepared and laid out on the table where we would all take a little of each, tasting and sharing each flavour. Now visitors to The Green, particularly vegetarians will tell me “do whatever you want”. They trust me to come up with something different. There are also regular customers who come back looking for certain ingredients such as the ceps sauce which we often serve with a fillet of beef.’
One of Sasha’s passions is the revival of culinary traditions lost over the years to the unsustainable and unseasonal sense of consumer entitlement. He strives for his customers to experience the incomparable flavours of the highest quality, locally available and in season ingredients. His aim is a return to the fundamental principles of sourcing, preparing and eating food. ‘It’s why, at The Green, our menu is ever-evolving. People’s palettes change too and I want to introduce them to the exciting new flavours we discover. It is in my blood and something that I will continue to do for as long as I cook.’ Babushka would be proud.