16 October 2016

By Food Writer Mark Taylor (first published in the Western Daily Press)

“I hate the term gastropub, it sounds like it could be an intestinal disease,” laughs Dan Brod, pulling a foaming pint of locally-brewed Beckford Phoenix beer in the stylish bar of The Beckford Arms at Fonthill Gifford in deepest Wiltshire. Co-owner of this award-winning pub-with-rooms, and also its sibling pub The Talbot at Mells near Frome, Brod concedes that the term ‘gastropub’ is still the best way to describe his two establishments, which serve high quality food in a relaxed and traditional pub setting.

“For me, food has been at the heart of the country pub ever since they were probably introduced to Britain by the Romans as roadside food stops for marching armies.“After that, coaching inns developed as places to rest horses on long journeys, with rooms being an integral feature. In that respect, we aren’t really doing anything new, but what we do try to do, is do everything well.”

On the edge of the Fonthill Estate, just 20 minutes from Stonehenge, The Beckford Arms is one of the new wave of country pubs, which have been boosted in recent years by serving high quality food. With a large garden and eight bedrooms, the pub attracts visitors from all over the UK, but it is the food, served in the bar, restaurant or private dining room, that makes The Beckford Arms stand out among the constellation of outstanding South West gastropubs, many of which are now picking up accolades including Michelin stars.

The menus at The Beckford Arms are seasonal and showcase the very best local producers and suppliers, as well as produce from the pub’s own abundant kitchen garden. Sticking with tradition, you can nibble on homemade pork pies with your pint in the bar or order from an a la carte menu that features home-smoked wild salmon, locally caught trout or, when in season, game from nearby estates. A typical meal here might start with Exmoor venison terrine, apricot chutney and toast, and continue with crispy shoulder of Boyton Farm mutton, smoked lamb sausage, white bean puree and fried wild garlic or pan-fried Brixham hake with beetroots from South Petherton.

Such a choice of gastronomic delights would have been virtually unheard of in rural pubs 20 years ago, and only the preserve of top-end restaurants chasing Michelin stars, but that has all changed as chefs leave the cities to work in rural pubs with closer links to the farms and producers.

For co-owner Brod, the pub’s rural location means that there is a limited local population so, from a business perspective, it has to be a destination as well as a local community hub.

“We know we have to keep standards high and prices reasonable to keep not just our regulars from staying regular, but also to attract visitors from further afield. As well as producing great cooking, I believe it is actually great hospitality that is at the heart of everything we do – that’s what distinguishes us as a pub and, unlike many places, not as a restaurant masquerading as a pub. Our focus on hospitality and high quality at reasonable prices across everything we do has been a good formula for us during the recessionary years and we have seen our sales strong when most have suffered. In the end, this means we are able to be a vital outlet for the best of local producers and that we can maintain 80 stable jobs serving our local communities. But we know we can never be complacent and must always be looking to improve. This year, we are also looking for at least two more sites so we are optimistic and excited about the future of the country pub.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Tom Blake, who worked for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage before taking up his position as head chef at Somerset pub The Swan at Wedmore. “Everyone still loves a good pub, whether they live in a city or the countryside,” says Blake, whose dishes include chargrilled Ruby Red beef burger, Keen’s Cheddar, onion and chilli relish, remoulade and hand-cut chips, and whole roast Lyme Bay gurnard, chorizo potatoes, fennel and lemon salad. I think the combination of a decent sized bar, a fantastic restaurant and simple but beautiful rooms are all essential to make a pub work in the sparsely populated countryside. We’ve been surprised and delighted by the level of interest in fresh and genuinely local food. Many of our customers know or recognise our suppliers and the quality and range of great produce available in Somerset is fantastic. Our biggest battle, oddly enough, is recruiting good staff both front and back of house to keep service standards up.”

Sam Pearman runs The Wheatsheaf at Northleach and The Chequers at Churchill near Chipping Norton, two acclaimed gastropubs in the Cotswolds. He says that although the key to great pubs is good old-fashioned hospitality and well-kept beer, good food is vital for rural pubs to survive.

“Our aim has always been to be consistent first and foremost, and we have seen our food sales grow and grow since we opened. We have sprinkled a few ‘classics’ on our menus, which deliver quality and value, and this means the team can deliver them consistently and the customers come back regularly for them too. Pubs are hugely important to the community these days and key events and partnerships with the community are essential to maintaining business through the year.

“Quite often we use the ideas of the local community to create our calendar for the year and that way they are involved from start to finish. In some circumstances, our customers assist in promoting and running the event itself. This sort of thing is a good way of bringing people together and I think that’s why people see pubs as important. Of course, there is a minority who don’t like pubs to be successful and prefer pubs to be quiet and ‘for locals only’ but clearly this doesn’t stack up any more as the competition is too strong.

“Having bedrooms at The Wheatsheaf helps massively and we tie in room sales with local shooting and wedding venues, which is a huge part of our turnover. We also have breakfast revenue and a reliable trade in the restaurant – we find most of our guests stay in our rooms and then eat and drink with us, too, and that all adds up.”

And it’s not just the owners and chefs who have noticed the huge up-turn in business for country pubs serving restaurant-quality food.

Rochelle Venables, editor of The Good Food Guide published by Waitrose, points out that 20% of the venues in the latest edition of the guide are pubs. It’s a growing trend that has resulted in the book now featuring an annual Top 50 pubs list, recognising the huge volume of reader feedback on great meals eaten in British pubs.

She says: “One of the biggest trends we’ve seen in the past few years is the rise of a new breed of hostelry – pubs whose kitchens stand at the very heart of their operation. What they are doing may not be radical, but with their commitment to quality local produce, good-value, seasonality and the celebration of great British dishes – even if it’s just a Scotch egg at the bar – they often represent the best of this country’s cooking. Pubs such as the Kingham Plough in the Cotswolds or The Treby Arms in Somerset show us how it’s done, ticking all the right pubby boxes while pulling rabbits out of hats in the kitchen.”

According to Jo Bruce, an industry expert, food is more important than ever in Britain’s pubs and it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

“Pubs saw the biggest growth within the eating out market during the recession,” says Bruce. “With the trend for casual dining, and many people now having more ‘treat spend’ in this post-financial crisis era, the growth of food sales in pubs looks set to develop even further. “Food has helped good licensees develop their businesses and thrive, by helping attract a wider demographic of customer. Research shows that 42% of people eat out once a week, so there is a big opportunity for pubs to take an even bigger slice of the market.”

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