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Living field to fork and cooking over fire with The Salt Box

Born out of a passion for local produce and seasonal ingredients, The Salt Box is the brainchild of Beckie Wingrove and Christian Armstrong, who have set out on an adventure to bring people together through food and fire. Here we catch up with chef Christian to discover where they find their inspiration  


Can you remember when you first fell in love with food and drink?

My family are largely vegetarians and vegans, but I grew up on chicken dippers with little concept of where my food came from. My mum allowed me to leave school at 15, although she wasn’t happy about it, on the promise of me finding a job. That’s when I first stepped foot into a working kitchen.

I had quite the baptism of fire, when shortly after I started I was confronted with a chiller full of pheasants. My passion for food and, most importantly, discovering where food comes from started here. I made it my mission to learn my craft, utilising all animals from nose to tail, and all fresh produce from root to fruit.

How did you land on the concept of The Salt Box?

It all began with a chance meeting arranged by a mutual friend back in autumn 2017. It sparked an incredibly fruitful relationship between Beckie and me, both in our private and working lives. Just a few weeks after we met we coordinated a number of pop-up dining events.

We started scheming business ideas from then on, combining my experience in the kitchen and passion for the outdoors, with Beckie’s events and marketing skills. From day one, we always wanted to move within the seasons, surrounded by the outdoors and crackling fires.

Since joining forces as The Salt Box, we have strived to create a business that focuses on local, sustainable and ethical ingredients, cooked simply over fire and enjoyed around our family-style dining tables. We have some incredible local producers and farmers in Surrey and the surrounding counties, so it was our intention from day one to showcase local (and, of course, seasonal) ingredients.

Which chefs and producers inspired you?

Locally, the farmers and producers we work with are our biggest source of inspiration. The passion, hard work and care they take to produce the best quality ingredients possible is phenomenal. Without them, The Salt Box wouldn't be what it is today.

Chefs wise, the Argentinian chef, Francis Mallmann, has been a great influence throughout my career. The simple but calculated approach he takes to cooking over fire is astonishing to follow. Magnus Nilsson, head chef at Fäviken restaurant in Sweden, with his strong belief in only using ingredients from within his surroundings and using age old Scandinavian preserving techniques to see himself through the year, is another inspiration.

What’s best about cooking over fire?

Food ought to be simple and ours is, seasoned with smoke and a few select spices. I love how simple cooking over fire can be, we don't use any fussy techniques but rely heavily on the quality of our ingredients and even the quality and type of wood we use to cook over.

Flickering flames are a real focal point to any of our events - feeling the warmth of the fire, the smell of the smoke, the sparks and the crackles, all whilst their supper unfolds in front of them.

Any ‘surprise’ ingredients you think particularly benefit from an open flame?

Greens, greens, greens! Purple sprouting broccoli, quickly blanched and then grilled hard over a grill with slightly blackened, crispy gnarly edges is a pure delight followed closely by some hispi cabbage treated in the same way. Tossed in lashings of butter, a little crushed anchovy, garlic and lemon - it's quite simply gorgeous! Cooking over fire is most definitely not just about large cuts of meat and fish.

Which ingredient should people be using more of in Britain?

Game. It’s the ultimate free range meat. It’s full of flavour, super versatile and completely underrated. Find yourself a local shoot and buy up freshly shot game in season and it will really help support the local economy and conservation. One of the health benefits of eating this beautiful meat is that it carries a lot less fat, as the animals have worked hard foraging on local flora through their lives. This “terroir” really adds to the taste.

Do you have a favourite season?

The wild garlic season, from March to June, is one of the best times of year for me. We will endeavour to use it in as many dishes as we can, whipping it into pestos, baking atop a focaccia, sautéing stems and pickling the flowers and seeds. It really is super versatile and, if prepared well, you can reap the rewards until the following season.

Are there any producers you find yourselves returning to time and again?

Where to begin?! Charlie and Richard Keen from Etherley Farm, near Dorking, produce high quality free range poultry all year round, including some really, really stunning duck. I grew up just around the corner from them, in Forest Green, and Charlie has been a supplier of mine for years, way before The Salt Box was an idea in my brain box.

Surrey Wildlife Trust graze Belted Galloway cattle (lovingly referred to as the Oreo cows) on Box Hill, which we have sourced from The Dorking Butchery for events, and it’s amazing.

Tillingbourne Farm and Smokery’s trout features heavily across our menus, mostly cured in lashings of gin from Distillers of Surrey. We slice it ultra thin and serve it with our incredibly moreish green sweet chilli.

We also admire the work of Crumbs Brewing for turning leftover Chalk Hills Bakery bread, which would otherwise be destined for the bin, in to a winning range of beers. We use their Bloomin’ Amber ale to bake carrots with hay and caraway, which we then char on the plancha for that smokey edge.

Have you had any favourite supper club venues so far - and is there a wish list of unusual locations to come?!

Working with the team from WeFiFo in their private woodlands on Leith Hill and at their HQ in Sussex is always tons of fun! Collaborations with local farmers, cooking their meat on site for a truly farm-to-plate meal, always makes for a really cool event too – helping to reconnect people with what’s on their plates.

There was recently talk of floating a pontoon on a lake to run an epic supper club, but you’ll have to watch this space to see if that happens!

If you had to choose one, what’s your proudest achievement to date?

Our proudest achievement so far has to be winning Newcomer of the Year at the 2018 Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards. It was a great honour to gain this accolade and we are so thankful for the ongoing support of everyone we have had the pleasure of feasting with so far and who has followed us on our journey

How do The Salt Box enjoy spending time off?

Well, it doesn't happen very often, but when we do get a good chunk of time to ourselves then we will usually head back to Northern Italy, where Beckie grew up, soaking up the sun, incredible food and a glass or three of red wine.

If we do manage to squeeze an afternoon off, then you will probably find us tramping around the Surrey Hills with a hearty picnic, always looking for inspiration amongst the trees.

Finally, what can we expect from The Salt Box in 2019?

This year is brimming full of new collaborations and exciting ideas. Not least the launch of our new woodland home at Priory Farm in Surrey, where we will offer a wide variety of courses and dining events, all in the great outdoors surrounded by crackling fires. We are also progressing the educational side of our business: teaching small groups how to cook over open fire, taking children and adults alike on a journey to discover the immersive world of the great outdoors and encouraging a life in meaningful contact with nature.

Tags: Game meat supper clubs

Crowdfunding a woodland cookery school

Having been nomadic since they started, hosting supper clubs and cookery classes in venues across Surrey and the south east, The Salt Box now have a permanent base at Priory Farm in Nutfield. To complement this, Beckie and Christian are set to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help establish a Woodland Cookery School for adults and children at their new home. The campaign will launch on April 14, 2019. Watch this space.