A pair of proper pubs
PUBLISHED: 13:37 13 May 2014 | UPDATED: 13:37 13 May 2014
Tessa Allingham meets Mark and Sophie Dorber, owners of The Anchor at Walberswick and The Swan at Stratford St Mary
‘Freehouse’ – if Mark Dorber were to put together a collection of his favourite words, that one would surely top the list.
It would probably be followed by ‘gewürztraminer’, ‘hops’, ‘Bavaria’, ‘cabernet franc’ and an A-Z of the multi-syllabic and vaguely medicinal words that pepper the conversation of a person whose love of beer and wine borders – no, tips joyfully into – the obsessive.
At the end of our meal at the Swan at Stratford St Mary – the freehouse he and his wife, Sophie, have spent the last year bringing up to scratch – the table is submerged in a crystalline crowd of glassware. There are tumblers to taste the subtle, gently carbonated difference between Badoit and Mark’s favourite bottled water, Spanish Vichy Catalan, chunky goblets embossed with the Trappist Westmalle ale logo (it’s a surprisingly refined match for a bitter dark chocolate tart), and an army of wine glasses that have held the red-fruit spiciness of a Loire Valley cabernet franc, and headily aromatic gewürztraminer, a perfect match for a sweet pig’s head croquette with caper-raisin salad.
Such liquid abundance and variety is what makes the Swan special. As a freehouse, it’s a place where Mark can “get all his toys out at once”, unfettered by a brewer’s expectations, where he can enthuse and encourage customers to try something new. He points to the no fewer than 16 gins on offer behind the bar.
“There will be more too!” he promises. “I want to give customers a chance to taste the latest from the Trappist monks in Belgium, what’s coming out of the schloss in southern Bavaria, what’s new from Estonia and of course what Adnams are doing down the road.”
And then he disappears. Chef Steven Miles, fresh from three inspiring years at the British Larder in Bromeswell, is about to bring out a slow-braised, spicy, shoulder of locally-reared spring lamb. The challenge for Mark is to find it a perfect liquid partner, one beer and one wine.
Mark’s honed ‘palate memory’ means it doesn’t take him long. Domaine Grosbois Chinon ‘Clos du Noyer’ 2010, is a Loire Valley cabernet franc whose red-fruitiness makes it robust enough to complement Steven’s powerful flavours and cut through the lamb’s natural fattiness. Mark then pours a slug of Gordon’s Scotch Ale, and the pairing is sublime, the bitter-sweet caramel flavours refreshing against the lamb, and bizarrely warming at the same time.
Spring lamb round two is at the Anchor in Walberswick. Mark’s wife, Sophie, looks fondly at the joint of lamb in the roasting tray sitting on a heap of rosemary and whole garlic bulbs. It’s a family dish, one to be pulled apart, without ceremony, at the table.
“I love cooking this way,” says Sophie, her gestures and expression ones of generosity, “both as a chef and a mother [the couple have two children, Harry, 14, and Rose, 11]. Food should be about love and giving. That’s what I want people to feel when they eat here.”
Mark disappears again. We taste a Westmalle Dubbel from the Trappist monastery near Antwerp, and find its herby, fruity taste a perfect match for Sophie’s heartily-flavoured lamb. A gutsy Gigondas (see panel) makes an ideal red wine option.
For Mark it is second nature to consider food and beer or wine in tandem, and he has been meticulous in suggesting a beer and wine by the glass to go with every dish on his pubs’ menus. A founding director of the Beer Academy – the equivalent for beer of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust – he is particularly passionate about the amber nectar.
“Beer has actually many more complexities than wine,” he says. “It can be made with a variety of grains with varying degrees of curing from pale pilsner malt to jet black roast barley. The use of spices, herbs and hops, and the different life-affirming flavours that yeast can confer, make it, for me, the best long drink in the world, no question.
“I like to think that drinking a properly-paired and properly-kept wine or beer increases the pleasure in the food.”
Crucially for Mark, beer (cask, keg and bottled) is cellared at both pubs, allowing it to mature and settle on site before being served. For wine, an Enomatic wine dispenser – he has two at the Swan – is essential. The glass-fronted cabinet stores open bottles without risk of oxidization and at the correct temperature, so drinks can be offered by the glass without wastage.
Not that wastage was an issue on this occasion.