It isn't the fact that they churn their own butter and cure their own ham that makes The Sportsman such a treat. They do, as it happens, and they do so very well, the butter balancing natural milky lusciousness with the tangy pinch of salt from the local marshes, and the ham dense and - there's no other word for it - rustic. But, while welcome and pretty rare, such self sufficiencies can't be the reason this Seasalter pub is such a foodie Mecca.
It's also not down to the rest of the sourcing policy, which sees most of the ingredients passing through Stephen Harris's kitchen coming from the pub's own veg patch, one or two local farms and the surrounding sea. Laudable, once again, for sure, but hardly unusual: no dining establishment worth its locally-sourced organic salt composes its menu without some sort of back story these days. That alone wouldn't make it worth the trip (quite a trip, in my case).
It's not even the quality of the cooking, that makes The Sportsman stand out, excellent though it is. The good folk at Michelin certainly think so, having awarded it a star in this year's guide. But again, that alone doesn't make The Sportsman stand out.
The fact is that the cooking and the attention to local and seasonal detail would be rightly praised anywhere. What makes The Sportsman such a special place is that it remains a pub. I can't believe there are many other Michelin-starred kitchens operating in such relaxed, convivial establishments; where one man and his dog are still welcome at the bar for a pint and a chat; where walkers stop off for refreshment and Walkers deliver crisps during service; where pubby sensibilities keep the wine mark-ups at criminally low levels and a multi-course tasting menu will set you back just £55. If there are other places like this on Michelin's map I need to find them.
Frankly, after the journey I had from South East London The Sportsman was going to have to deliver. We'd been advised to take a noon booking to get the most out of a leisurely lunch, which for me meant getting a train to Victoria at about 9am to join the rest of the party. Getting up itself was something of a challenge after one too many Corpse Revivers in Callooh Callay the night before, but I was nothing if not determined and hauled my slightly shaky soul to the platforim just in time. There then followed a catalogue of disasters too complex to go into right now involving ticket inspectors and train failures, low phone batteries and scary minicabs, after which I met my co-lunchers at Bromley South, £30 poorer but – bizarrely – on the right train. An hour and a half and another cab later we were deposited outside the Sportsman. I was in serious need of a bloody Mary.
And a fine BM it was too, not least because I got to administer the spices myself, a lengthy procedure that drew worried gasps from the bar-staff but which I knew was the only answer. Reader, I rallied then.
First up on our multi-course journey were new-season natives with crunchy disks of chorizo. These were a proper test of my recovery and one that I'm happy to say I took in my stride. Stephen was almost apologetic that these weren't as local as he'd have liked (I forget where they came from but it wasn't far) but he needn't have worried. Briny, creamy and silky, with welcome additional flavour and texture from the sausage. Lovely.
These were followed by a duo of additional treats: delicately thin pork scratchings that yielded beautifully in the mouth after an initial thrilling crunch and squares of pickled herring and gooseberry jelly on rye bread.
And then this beautiful slipsole in seaweed butter materialised in front of us. An absolute winner of a dish, stupidly simple but simply perfect, the flesh reluctantly yielding from the bones and melting in the mouth with more of that butter. Fabulous.
Crab risotto delivered on just about every level: intense bisquey flavour from the stock, perfect rice, exactly the right sized portions and a beautiful presentation that made excellent use of the white and dark meat. For many around the table – and it's hard to argue – this was the dish of the day.
The rustic ham (I think this may have arrived before the turbot, but who's counting?). Not the most refined ham you'll ever taste but excellent use of the one bit of the pig – the legs – that Stephen was struggling to make best use of. Chewy, salty and very moreish.
As a little extra treat Stephen brought us out some breast of lamb Ste Menehould. This is something I've been meaning to make for myself so I know how much effort is involved. As Stephen himself predicted, it didn't meet with universal approval around the table but that was fine my me: I couldn't get enough of it!
The final savoury course was a duo of saltmarsh lamb: a cube of fabulously unctuous shoulder, with lovely papery skin, and a prettily pink chop. The runner beans they were resting on were sensational. Not something you often hear about the humble runner. Certainly not from me, anyway.
The biggest of the desserts was also the least successful dish overall, both in its slightly overwrought construction and the in the texture of the main focus, a rather grainy apple parfait that had probably been over-chilled. Hints of salted caramel were good though.
Finally a glorious parade of goodies to finish: a rhubarb sorbet, a gooey chocolate and salted caramel mousse, a lemon and raspberry tart, a sugared plum and a cube of sponge cake doused in walnut liqueur. A lot of fun, and great way to finish.
After all that and a cheeky coffee we looked up to discover that a (very) good four and a half hours had passed. Fortunately that meant the tide had gone out and we could spend the next couple clambering over the dozens of groynes that keep the beach between Seasalter and Whitstable in check.
If anyone is daunted by the prospect of this testing trek after such a fine feast I can reassure you that there is another pub at the end of it where a fine pint of Harvey's will see you right. It's not as good as the pub at the start of the walk. mind. But then not many are.
The Sportsman, Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent CT5 4BP 01227 273370