Secret hideouts: Castle Farm

This versatile joint provides us with plenty of reasons to keep going back…

Such smugness is really unbecoming. There’s no curbing it, though, the gloat is real and – whoops, was that a mental fist pump? The sense of personal triumph begot by discovering a place like Castle Farm is as irresistible as the unassumingly charming joint itself. (I have to fess up at this point; I didn’t happen upon this place myself, by accident. I have a good mate to thank for the discovery.) Castle Farm is housed – yes, on a farm – in a former tractor shed, which is still very much as-was (i.e. a large, windowless box with a corrugated lid and concrete floor). Yet it’s cosy, cheerful and inviting. No, really. And in the evening, when the clear sections of roof no longer filter in daylight, the atmospheric space is lit dimly and filled with candlelight and strings of tiny glowing bulbs.

It’s been a café-cum-restaurant for about two years, with husband-and-wife owners Leah and Pravin Nayar having taken it on in June 2018. It’s chef Pravin (formerly of The Talbot Inn in Mells and Beckford Arms in Tisbury) who heads up the open kitchen with pal and fellow chef, Nigel Everett. Season permitting, the produce comes largely from the organic farm the restaurant sits on. By day, you can get breakfast and lunch (roasts on Sundays), and on Friday and Saturday evenings there are curry nights and supper clubs respectively. There are sometimes cookery classes, too.

The supper club (£35, usually with six or seven courses) gets a newly themed set menu each month, to reflect what’s being harvested and allow Pravin and Nigel to keep their creative juices flowing. January, of course, is not known for its horticultural bounty, so the pair looked to other seasonal prompts for that month’s menu, and settled on Chinese New Year. It just so happens that I love a dumpling…

After parking up, a trot down a dirt path brings you to a farm building. The door is closed, although – in an attempt to reassure you that you’re in the right place – has the café opening times painted on it. Inside, the brick walls are painted white and wood panelling closes off the dining space. Retro prints – including scientific illustrations of veg – and old-school mirrors are hung up, while an assortment of filled jars with brown labels around their necks are displayed on shelves. Each of the mismatched tables is set with linen napkins, gold cutlery and wooden chopsticks, and a blanket is thoughtfully draped over the back of each chair in case the winter chill sets in.

We order a couple of glasses of the lightly effervescent Vinho Verde before the appetiser arrives: bubbly tapioca crisps topped with smoky charred aubergine and five spice. This first course sets the culinary precedent: fun and experimental, illustrative of the chefs’ creativity as opposed to being authentically Chinese. Next are steamed pork dumplings (hurrah) with brown butter. The casing is delicate but with bite, and when sliced open oozes out its juicy filling of well-seasoned Mangalitza pork. The salty meat finds its counterpoint in the topping of sweet and mild crab, and a gentle kick of green chilli heat emerges gradually. A bowl of seaweed broth comes next, containing hunks of plump shitake mushroom, buckwheat noodles, Chinese sausage and plenty of umami gratification. The unctuous sweetness of the pale pink sausage contrasts with that savoury character, and the light brown, matt-textured noodles are cooked spot on.

Heady Szechuan pepper permeates the next dish of pork belly with black bean sauce and poky chilli broccoli. Pulling away the meat’s crunchy, well-spiced strip of crackling allows us to get to the soft, melting fat underneath. A bowl of perfectly cooked black sesame rice sits alongside, steam tumbling out of the fluffy mound. After a taste of a fruity and tart plumb wine comes dessert – glutinous black rice with loganberries and silky sesame ice cream – and then warm sesame shortbread, the seeds creating a moreish sweet-savoury effect.

I think I’ve been rather explicit despite myself (I’d really rather not have to fight for a table here), but just in case it’s not clear: this is a genuine hidden gem that completely justifies the use of that much over-used term. Enjoy telling your mates that you’ve just come across this great find – I’ll let you take the credit.

Main image: Neil White