The new country local? Preston Six Bells

PUBLISHED: 11:25 14 June 2016 | UPDATED: 11:25 14 June 2016

Six Bells Preston St Mary

Six Bells Preston St Mary

Archant

What should a village pub be like in the 21st century? Tessa Allingham drops in for lunch at the The Six Bells, Preston St Mary

Six Bells Preston St MarySix Bells Preston St Mary

They may be nameless, but that doesn’t make the pair of Gloucester Old Spots at the back of The Six Bells any the less special to John Tremayne.

“I call them my girls,” he says tenderly as we pick our way over the long grass to meet them. “If ever I have a difficult service – it sometimes happens – this is where you’ll find me, just giving them a scratch, spending some time with them. I’d like to have some hens out here, maybe a few more pigs. Ducks are lovely too.” Winston, John’s “ugly mutt” part Lakeland terrier, part lots of other breeds, strains at the lead, desperate to get as close to the pigs as we are. John loves animals, adores his dog even more than he does his pigs. Winston must love having this space, I venture, after living in London.

“Actually, London is great for dogs, there are tons of places to walk them, the heaths, the parks . . . Winston’s actually put on a couple of kilos since being here.”

John, with Winston, and his wife and three-year old son, has lived above The Six Bells in Preston St Mary since last September when the family relocated for John to become the pub’s head chef. The refurbished 15th century village local became the first country outpost of the London-based ETM Group, a collection of 14 city pubs and restaurants run by Tom and Ed Martin whose parents live in the village. The Martins bought the pub several years ago leasing it to tenants until deciding to have their sons include it in the ETM fold. The aim with The Six Bells, I am told, is to “redefine the country local”.

Six Bells Preston St MarySix Bells Preston St Mary

The interior (original beams, open fires, oak panelling, timber floors, exposed brickwork, candles, and Farrow & Ball paint tones) is fairly predictable of Suffolk’s upscale country pubs – though the extraordinary array of taxidermy and the vast brass bull’s head over the mantelpiece are unique touches – but it is nonetheless attractive for that. The service under manager Damien Massey is faultless, welcoming without being obtrusive, and plenty of locals or passers-by do drop in just for a drink.

While the looks and feel are undoubtedly lovely, it is, however, John’s cooking that defines this place.

A starter of octopus makes a change from ever-popular chicken liver parfait (though that is on the menu and comes with pear chutney and John’s homemade sourdough bread). The fish is tender, the flavours of the sweet peppers, peppery rocket and gently-salty brandade sit happily together. The colours are uplifting too this grey day, and a scattering of breadcrumbs stops the dish from being too ‘soft’.

Meat features strongly among the main course options, all of it, whether a Longhorn steak, a Red Poll beefburger, or piece of lamb rump, bought through Lavenham Butchers. Chargrilled fallow deer loin, utterly tender, dark pink and juicy inside a caramelized crust, is a generous plateful and like the octopus marries flavours harmoniously – sweet cubes of roast pumpkin sit well with mushrooms and an intensely syrupy sauce. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Greg and Gareth [owners of Lavenham Butchers]. They know their business really well and always get me fantastic meat that’s been reared well,” says John. “And the beef from Bridge Farm in particular is as good as I’ve ever had.” For non-meat eaters, cod bought from the Lowestoft day boats – as is most of the fish – is served with clams, leeks and samphire, or you could choose the earthy flavours of gnocchi with wild mushrooms, Swiss chard and truffle.

Six Bells Preston St MarySix Bells Preston St Mary

A lemon posset is everything a posset should be – creamy, lemony, sweet and light with none of the clagginess that can sometimes beset this classic. Chocolate-lovers could go for a burnt white chocolate cheesecake with blackberries or rich, smooth dark chocolate pavé with salted caramel ice cream. Rhubarb soufflé with rhubarb ice cream and shortbread offers a slightly lighter finish.

“Of course I try and buy locally when I can, but what’s more important to me is to cook things well, with care, and to make them taste good.” John’s style is direct and honest, he likes to buy great ingredients and use them to create dishes that he himself would choose to eat. He makes everything from scratch and is, in particular, a fine baker, a skill honed while working at Ben Tish’s central London Spanish restaurant, the Salt Yard. He also had a brief stint at Michelin-starred Arbutus before joining the ETM Group, working at one of the group’s City properties, the White Swan on Fetter Lane. He is looking forward to the abundance of summer and early autumn already. As we walk back from the pigs he indicates apple trees, the emerging stems of rhubarb, wild strawberries and damson trees.

“I love preserving. When I first came here to look round I picked the damsons and took boxfuls back to London. We had Suffolk damsons on the menu for months. I love the idea of growing ingredients that I can cook with outside my back door, and being able to step outside and pick fruit from the hedgerows.”

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