12 April 1996

KENTISH COB NUTS GET CHOC CHIC UPGRADE

At the turn of the century some 7,000 acres of cob nuts were grown in Kent but today a mere 250 acres, remain. Grower Rory Clark is keen to conserve what is left of the cob nut industry and add value to the crop. Tessa Gates met him on an ancient plat

A SUNNY spring morning with just enough breeze to swing the catkins, a lark singing overhead and the first primrose unfurling its pale petals underfoot makes an ancient cob nut plat in Kent seem the most perfect place to be. But first find your plat – for these traditional growing areas are fast disappearing.

"Unfortunately when people buy houses with a little bit of land, they tend to grub out the trees and turn it into a paddock for a pony," says Rory Clark, who with his business partner Alexander Hunt, is one of the biggest cob nut growers in Kent – with 10.5ha (26 acres) producing 10-15t a year.

There are about 60 growers in the Kentish Cob Nut Association and total annual production is between 50-60t. The trees grow well on poor, well drained ground and are virtually disease free but everything about the industry is labour intensive, with pruning, picking and packing all done by hand. The Countryside Commission is now keen to rescue ancient plats and offers grants towards this.

"I have had a grant for this one," says Rory, standing amid the catkins at Peckham Hurst, an area badly damaged by the storm of 87 but now well trimmed and productive. "The Countryside Commission was particularly interested in this as six acres is large for a plat. The trees here are probably a hundred years old and the ground will be a carpet of flowers in a few weeks time as we do not use any chemicals and are not allowed to under the terms of the grant."

Rorys interest in cob nuts began 12 years ago while still at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. "When we started cob nuts were sold locally, literally at the roadside, or in Covent garden. Then about five years ago we started to get the supermarkets interested and that has been very successful, with about half the crop going to them," explains Rory, who is also a land agent.

The nuts have a very short season, from early September to late October, and there is an obvious need to add value to such a small-scale and labour intensive crop. "We thought about making biscuits and fudge and even pickling them, like walnuts, but this seemed the best idea," says Rory, proffering a smart white box with a silver logo and the inscription Plattinums. Inside, glossy, dark and delicious, are roasted Kentish cob nuts covered in quality plain chocolate.

"I went to Charbonnel et Walker for the chocolate, as they are the best. The combination of chocolate and cob nut gives a sensational taste and has been enthusiastically received by everyone who has tried them. This is our trial year but I have hardly had to sell them at all. In fact we are in danger of running out," says a delighted Rory.

Plattinums cost £5.95/125g box and are extremely more-ish. The Victorians relished cob nuts with port as an after dinner delicacy and Rory recommends that his chocolate coated ones should be served with the coffee.

For stockists contact Plattinums (0171-629 6069).

The Victorians considered Kentish cob nuts to be a delicacy and Rory Clark hopes that his chocolate-coated cob nuts will win an appreciative modern day following.