Fresh from the farm
PUBLISHED: 11:40 11 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:40 11 August 2015
Tessa Allingham eats out at Ben's Restaurant in Bury St Edmunds, and meets a young entrepreneurial owner who knows the meaning of 'local'
Pics plus basic map indicating Bury St Edmunds pleaseYou could be forgiven for thinking that Ben Hutton is in a rush. He’s just 22 and, having finished school, dismissed the option of drifting through a gap year, and whipped through a zoology degree at Leeds University, he is running a gratifyingly busy restaurant in the heart of Bury St Edmunds.
The cynic in me was cautious when the restaurant opened just before Christmas last year after a brisk five-week refurb. Twenty-two? No experience beyond pocket-money shifts at the Norton Dog and Centre Parcs, albeit shifts that took him through all aspects of hospitality management? Let’s just see how it goes.
Five months on, humble pie eaten, I sit down to chat with Ben. It’s 6pm and Friday evening service is about to begin in this contemporary, light-filled, youthful restaurant, where giant paintings of cows loom from behind the bar, and ceilings are hung with quirky light fittings. It’s a fun place, comfortable and unfussy. The kitchen, headed by Jim Sloman, who came from running his own lobster shack and delicatessen on the east coast of Scotland to be head chef at the Norton Dog before moving to Ben’s, sounds busy, but Ben is generous with his time, calm, unflustered. Fridays are busy, and though the weekday evenings (Tuesday-Saturday evening and lunch at weekends) can be quieter he regularly turns customers away on Saturday evenings and Sunday lunch.
Share the secret, I urge. Ben wants me to understand first that this restaurant was not opened on a whim. Hardworking, animal-loving teenage years on the family smallholding and in the hospitality trade have coupled with an entrepreneurial energy and a firm belief that people should be able to know where ingredients are from and how they were farmed.
“People care more and more about what they’re eating, where it was from and who produced it. The problem is that the word ‘local’ is misused sometimes. Here, we deal directly with the farmers or producers and that’s what makes us stand out.”
Indeed, Ben truly lives this ethos, using his family’s own smallholding to supply much of the pork and some of the lamb on the menu. “About five years ago Mum bought a couple of pigs which we kept on rented land near our house. She wanted something different from shop-bought meat. That worked well so we got a couple of sheep for meat, then some alpacas for wool.”
At first, they sold sausages to friends and family, but word spread and they now have six breeding Oxford Sandy and Black sows, several Kunekune pigs – “perfect fat content for sausages!” – and are about to buy a few Jacobs sheep and Dexter cattle.
Other suppliers are credited in detail – Sutton Hoo for free range chicken. Pheasant, partridge and venison in season from local gamekeepers. Blythburgh for the belly pork, rabbit and pigeon shot locally. Fish landed at Lowestoft and bought through Wyken Provisions. The Friendly Loaf, using flour milled at Pakenham, delivers fresh bread daily, and three Suffolk cheesemakers supply the types you’d expect, including Shipcord, Hawkston and Suffolk Gold.
I try the restaurant out on my three teenagers. This is definitely a place to come with meat-lovers. Rose, our carnivorous youngest, doesn’t hesitate in ordering rump steak, very, very rare. It’s from a herd of predominantly grass-fed Sussex cattle reared on the Deersbrook Farm near Braintree. It is deemed delicious, the meat seriously pink but the fat cooked through, full-flavoured and sweet. The roasted tomatoes and asparagus spears wrapped in smoky bacon, considered an optional extra by Rose, are devoured by the rest of us.
Will, 15, needs volume so opts for the burger with Suffolk Gold cheese. It fully fills a gap, a mayonnaise mixed with shredded leaf, poky red onions and fresh tomato adding to the juicy mouthfuls. Ben keeps the ingredients of his barbecue sauce a secret, but it has that sweet-sour-spicy punch that every burger needs.
Eldest daughter, a pasta freak, goes for the spinach, mushroom and ricotta cannelloni and ends up dipping her fork into Will’s barbecue sauce – she likes things with more punch than this dish delivers. The sausages, made by Ruse and Sons butchers in Long Melford to Ben’s recipe and using his pork, are exceptional, meaty, dense, the real thing. A pile of apple and cabbage mash, and red wine and shallot gravy gives sweetness, a scattering of toasted almonds crunch, pieces of bacon smoky saltiness. It’s a simple concoction, but an example of how the most ordinary of ingredients can combine to delight. To finish, a rhubarb and crème patissière tart with gooseberry compôte and a ginger tuile has all the right balance of sweetness and bite, and a silky-smooth honey and vanilla pannacotta is paired perfectly with a crunchy almond shortbread.
Ben is about to extend the compact wine list in the light of customer comments.
“People are asking for more choice and for more expensive wines too, so we’re working with Coggeshall-based wine merchant Peter Watts to create a new list.” He’s unlikely to stop selling the range of local drinks on offer, though – sparkling wines and rosé from Giffords Hall, Aspall’s cyder, Calvors lager, Greene King beers.
Service from Rebecca, Ben’s girlfriend, and Heidi, one of the team of college hospitality students that Ben employs was spot-on, friendly and informative without being intrusive. So, the million-dollar question – muddy boots or front of house smarts? Ben sits comfortably on the fence.
“I helped on the farm during uni holidays and I love everything about being out in the field with the animals, but I love talking to people too, and I’ve always liked working in pubs and restaurants.
“We’re only open in the evenings during the week so I spend most of the day on the farm then clean up a bit for the evenings – I’ve got the best of both worlds!”
Ben’s Restaurant, 43-45 Churchgate Street, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1RG 01284 762119
Selection from the menu
Asparagus and Suffolk Blue cheese tartlet, mixed leaf, balsamic syrup, £6.50
Black pudding, chorizo and poached egg, red onion and apple salad, £6.50
Wild Suffolk rabbit and chorizo casserole, juniper dumplings, spring vegetables, colcannon mash, £16
Trio of Jacob lamb (braised shoulder, pan-fried liver, grilled cutlet), dauphinoise potatoes, seasonal vegetables, rosemary jus, £17
Chocolate orange brownie, vanilla cream ice, sugar-coated walnuts, dark chocolate sauce, £6.50
Sticky date pudding, toffee apple cream ice, salted pecan caramel, £6.50
A bottle of house wine £13.40
Other reasons to visit . . .
Delightful, relaxed, family-friendly restaurant
Portions are generous
Located in the medieval heart of Bury St Edmunds, a stone’s throw from the cathedral
Youthful and contemporary, spacious and light, but with an impressive commitment to local sourcing.