A growing passion at Sibton
PUBLISHED: 10:56 16 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:20 20 February 2013
Neil and Gill Mason fulfilled a lifelong dream when they bought the Sibton White Horse and started to win awards for their food. Now they are starting to grow their own produce too! Charlotte Smith-Jarvis went to find out more.
Neil and Gill Mason fulfilled a lifelong dream when they bought the Sibton White Horse and started to win awards for their food. Now they have taken the dream one step further by starting to grow their own produce too! Charlotte Smith-Jarvis went to find out more
With the crisp chill of Januarys winter winds lingering, and months of excess, gift wrapping and credit card bashing from Christmas behind us, we all need something to look forward to.
And nothing is more inviting at this time of year than a traditional pub with soothing, hearty food and a genuinely warm welcome, which is just what you can expect to find at the Sibton White Horse Inn, a two time winner of Best Food Pub at our annual awards ceremony.
Found in the charming rural hamlet of Sibton, a hop, skip and jump from the A12, the pubs reinvention over the past few years as a foodie destination, is all down to enthusiastic husband and wife team Neil and Gill Mason.
Its always been a dream for the couple to work in the hospitality industry. Neil has a real passion for fine foods and designing dishes, while Gill has long harboured a desire to own and run her own B&B.
After selling their successful print and design company in 2000, and continuing to work at the firm for three years, Neil got itchy feet and the duo decided that the time was right to set out on the road and accomplish their ambition.
Initially, Neil and Gill trawled the length and breadth of England looking for the perfect small hotel. But after a fruitless search they turned to pubs and coaching inns, deciding that if they could find a pub in an idyllic location, they might be interested.
Neil said: This place came-up and we werent that interested, but we came and took a look and fell in love. It was down to the location, and the building had an immense sense of character.
It was going to be a considerable undertaking but we could see the potential. What we deliberately set out to achieve was to make this a traditional pub, focusing heavily on good food with a proper bar atmosphere.
And this is what the couple have managed to achieve.
After shutting for a week, gutting the building, renovating and changing the menu, Neil and Gill have turned an ailing pub on its axis and breathed new life into the business, with impressed guests visiting from as far away as Essex to enjoy the exceptional food and traditional country pub atmosphere.
The White Horse has the real feel of a quintessentially English inn. Inside, the pub is rustic yet inviting, and dark, but in a comforting, homely and snug kind of way.
The main bar and dining room were built in the 1580s, while an original building from the 1300s on the site (a mortuary) is believed to have been burnt down, with the odd ghost rumoured to have been sighted in the dining room (although not by devout sceptic Neil).
There is a real sense of history here. The whole building is riddled with ancient beams, all most likely salvaged from decommissioned ships, which dictated the size of the rooms, and were fiercely fought over by builders.
The stone floor is original, as is the exposed brickwork and theres even an original door lurking behind one of the dining seats.
Then theres the pice de resistance, the glowing embers of the log burning stove, which bring a mellow ambience to the bar.
The intimate dining area has its own fireplace too, and has a lighter feel owing to the double aspect windows. But when dusk falls the candles come out and the beautiful ceiling lanterns are turned on to create a setting that is ideal for romantic suppers.
A few steps up from the bar, you find yourself in the gallery. This semi segregated space overlooks the bar and lends itself to parties and private functions, while retaining the feel of being at the heart of the pub ambience.
Its really good to go out and pick the produce. Its much better than buying it in and you can really tell the difference
Neil is keen to show off the gardens. Along the way he shows me the cellar, which is illuminated at night-time so that guests can look down and see the original Roman flooring.
The outside space is skilled landscaper Neils baby. The whole area has the feel of a mixture between an English country garden and a Mediterranean trattoria, with verandahs wound with climbing plants, and lush greenery.
Theres also a fascinating old cart lodge that Neil hopes to turn into a small wedding venue in the near future.
Now to the food, and where better place to start than outside at the vegetable patch?
A relatively new venture, the series of raised beds glows with green and is bursting at the seams with fresh winter veg from jewel-like red cabbages, to emerging cauliflower buds, lettuce and the ever present medicinal scents of hardy cold weather herbs.
The garden plays a massive part in the menu at the White Horse, as Neil, Gill and their chefs are completely dedicated to using as much local, fresh and seasonal produce as they possibly can.
Were very much field to plate, said Neil. You can see that when you look at our menu. The chefs special always takes into account what is growing and available if we cant buy it here we wont use it. We use all local meats, including some from local shoots, and at the moment have a local wild deer delivered every week.
Its not fancy, its not pretentious and its not over-complicated. But what the food is at The White Horse, is British, local, seasonal, fresh and hearty just the type of thing you need to eat when the weather is unforgivingly hand-numbing.
Michael McMullan (aided by seasoned chef Paul Heneker) joined as head chef last summer from Cumbria, having worked in kitchens from the age of 14 and his love of food and Suffolk ingredients shines through in the menu. He said: Its really good to go out and pick the produce. Its much better than buying it in and you can really tell the difference.
The menu reads like a report card of whats at its peak at the moment. All of the vegetables are in season (and most likely picked that day) and the meat dishes come with a description of their provenance.
Roll in after a winter stroll for a cockle-warming lunch at the inn. There are large plates such as grilled gammon steak from Docking Hall in Metfield coupled with free range eggs and hand cut chips (8.25), or lighter bites including sandwiches (from 4.75) on fresh homemade bread with fillings ranging from roast rump of beef with horseradish sauce, to roast peppers with melted brie and red onion marmalade.
Starters from the main menu include freshly made soup with homemade bread, a pretty prawn and crayfish jelly on dressed leaves with truffle cream (4.75), and a savoury ham hock terrine (5) served with apple and raisin chutney.
Fill up on main courses of prime red poll, 28-day hung sirloin steak from Emmerdale Farm in Darsham (16.50) which comes with accompaniments of hand cut chips, buttered field mushrooms, oven baked plum tomatoes and a cracked black pepper jus, or perhaps pan-seared Gressingham duck breast (13.50) with parsnip mash, sauted carrot, sugar snap peas in sesame seeds and a red wine jus.
There are always vegetarian options available too, which could include cherry tomato, courgette and butternut squash tart (9.50) topped with halloumi and served with new potatoes and garden leaves.
Children are well catered for, with smaller portions of the dishes available for them on request. And the team are always happy to cater for dietary requirements where they can.
If youre a pudding kind of person youll be in for a treat this winter.
Get your teeth around plum tarte tatin with clotted cream, white chocolate cheesecake with strawberry compote or sticky toffee pudding, all priced at 5 each.
Accompany this with an aromatic Italian ground coffee or sweet dessert wine, starting at 1.70 for a 50ml glass.
And dont forget to try out one of the regularly changing real ales. This is another love of Neils and there are always four on tap to wash down your meal.
The real recipe for success as well as food, of course, is in a pubs service. The White Horse prides itself on being helpful, friendly and flexible to ensure that every time you visit you want to come back again and again.
As well as being a great place to eat and drink the inn is of course also an inn.
Gill has done a great job with the six rooms of accommodation, which are placed in their own outbuilding looking out to the large green.
There are four doubles, one twin and one single room, all of which are ensuite and have a contemporary, country style about them with their neutral tones, panelled walls, chic leather sofas and crisp linen.
The rooms have been given a four star silver award from Visit Britain and are the ideal place to stay if you want to have a few drinks with your meal.
Talking about taking on The White Horse, Neil summed up by saying: We meet some fabulous people and they are very appreciative of what we do here. People come back because its friendly, inviting and at least one of us is always on duty.