Good food, not posh food
PUBLISHED: 09:55 03 March 2015 | UPDATED: 09:55 03 March 2015
Guy Taylor's plans for the Three Blackbirds at Woodditton are about keeping it simple, honest and local. Tessa Allingham met the busy farmer-landlord
You can’t expect to get much more than a grunt out of an arable farmer once the combines start purring and harvest begins.
You certainly wouldn’t expect him to get married, buy a lacklustre local pub, start a renovation project, manage a busy wedding and events season – and get harvest safely in.
But that’s just what Woodditton farmer Guy Taylor did in July last year. He’s about to have a long-awaited honeymoon (a month in Australia) with his wife, Georgie, which, he tells me, he’s looking forward to very much indeed.
Once restfully the other side of the world, Guy will no doubt reflect on the past, busy, few months. With luck, he’ll be able to laugh about the fact that, on being handed the keys to village freehouse, The Three Blackbirds, all the kitchen staff walked out.
“I was left with the keys dangling in my hands, it was incredibly stressful. We’d bought the pub as a going concern so we quickly got some agency chefs in and tried to keep things going. Then there was a huge fight and everything went a bit wrong.”
He decided to shut the pub for food, but keep the drinking side and the popular quiz and chilli nights going.
“I even cooked the chilli – but only once!” He grimaces, remembering how grateful he was for the timely arrival of his kitchen-competent Australian cousins.
Now things are a lot smoother. We meet in late January. It’s properly cold outside, but the dancing open fire, the wonky beams, old prints and judicious smattering of copper kettles, bring cocooning warmth to the 17th century pub. A coup has been to tempt chef James Barber away from the Brudenell hotel in Aldeburgh.
“James joined in November with his sous chef and chef de partie, and his girlfriend works behind the bar too,” says Guy. “We instantly got on and it was such a relief to have a ready-made brigade and no worries of fights breaking out mid-service!” Front of house is led by Tracey Hale and Joe Leddington, who stayed in management posts and were able to provide welcome continuity for loyal locals.
Buying the pub freehold is part of a bigger diversification project for the Taylor family. The award-winning Granary Barns on the farm at Woodditton are fast becoming a popular wedding, party and conference venue since opening in 2013.
“I have a brother and sister – we can’t all live off 800 acres of arable,” Guy says, accepting the inevitability of farming finances. “I always had in the back of my mind the idea of taking the Granary catering in-house, and now we have a pub with a great chef in place, that’s a possibility. The Three Blackbirds and the Granary Barns are a perfect marriage.”
Fortunately, the pub required little more than a lick of paint and general refreshing of the interior. The 70-cover dining room is separate from the bar, and there’s a 14-seat private dining area, the Gun Room. Guy is clearly comfortable in the environment.
“I’m not really a landlord, but I’m a true local and I love coming here. I’ll always recognise someone in the pub, so I make a point of chatting and getting to know new customers. Amy [Burns, operations director for both the Granary Barns and The Three Blackbirds] oversees things on a daily basis with Joe at the bar, but I’m always popping in.”
He spends plenty of time talking food with James too. The pair share an ambition to offer good, homemade pub food with a daily-changing specials board and main courses starting at £10.
“I want it to be good food, but not posh food,” says Guy. “I like the fact that people can come in for a sandwich or a sharing plate if they don’t want a full meal.”
As for James, he was ready for a fresh challenge after two and a half happy years at the Brudenell.
“I’m back home in west Suffolk now,” he grins. “And I’m cooking somewhere I would choose to come and eat. It’s unpretentious and comfortable, the food is straightforward, real and well-executed.” He seems delighted after years of focusing on fish (at Mitch Tonks’ renowned Rockfish in Dartmouth before the Brudenell) to be refinding his touch with hearty meat dishes, many first learnt while working for acclaimed chef John Burton-Race.
“I’ve been getting pheasant and partridge from Guy who has a shoot on the farm, and I’m doing an ox cheek recipe which I absolutely love. I’m getting such a thrill from cooking slow braised meat dishes after years of quick fish cookery!”
With the game season coming to an end as we speak, James is looking forward to putting succulent pork belly on the menu, and maybe a double-sided Barnsley chop from the flock at nearby Denham Estate. Guy is particularly excited at the prospect of seeing pigeon on a plate rather than preying on his crops.
Much of the ingredient sourcing is local – Lane Farm for charcuterie, Dingley Dell for pork, Newmarket butcher Eric Tennant for sausages, Denham Estate for lamb, Shipcord and Hawkston cheeses. Guy has promised game in season from the farm shoot, and lamb and pork from the family flocks and herds.
As the afternoon draws on, there’s a calm in the pub and Guy has a moment to sketch out some future plans – a beer festival and carnival on the late May bank holiday, complete with live bands, an open mic session and barbecue. Longer term, there’s some controversial planning permission for nine bedrooms to revisit.
But for now Guy has an important holiday to plan. Nothing should come between a man and his honeymoon, so I suggest he linger no longer . . .