DON'T PANIC!!Fred Laband discovers a pub that is reinventing itself.
On the recommendation of a fellow ALE magazine correspondent, I decide to take my vegetarian friend for a treat. It has been a long week and we all deserve it. Let's go to the pub. Well, it is a pub and it isn't...
It is quite a mild evening and The Five Bells in Burwell is brilliantly lit. It is inviting and the welcome is warm. There are 3 parts to this pub. On the right is the drinkers' bar, with Sky Sports. In the middle is the lounge and on the left is the main eatery. We hedge our bets and go middle. Fay has a large Pinot Grigio (13.5%), Keith asks for a lager I have never encountered by the name of Staropramen (Czech, 4.8%) and Nicola, who is kindly the driver, has Diet Coke (0%). Keith's lager is frothy and is served in a tall bell shaped glass. Keith becomes nostalgic and he explains how the tulip shaped rim delivers aroma to the nose.
The hand pumps deliver Greene King IPA (3.6%) and guest Brain's Merlin's Oak from South Wales. I opt for St Edmunds (4.2%) and must say that this is as good a pint as I have had in a while; zesty, crisp and quenching.
We are ushered to our table which garners a giant red wooden R. Only I decipher that this signifies that we reserved our table. There is no paper menu. The choices, most between £8 and £10, are on slates dangling from the wall. The men both opt for steak and ale pie. Fay, the non-meat-eater, salivates at the prospect of roasted butternut squash and dolcelatte tart. This, we are told, is made by the landlord's wife who is also a vegetarian. Nicola finds it impossible to look beyond gammon, egg and chips.
The food takes a while, but we are not in a hurry. I go to the bar for further drinks, this time taking a pint of the Merlin's Oak (4.3%). It is rich and treacly and deeply satisfying. I get chatting to Stephen, the landlord, who tells me that if I had come yesterday, I could have had Timothy Taylor Landlord (4.3%) which apparently sold out in record time! In times where pubs are closing all around us, Stephen has brought about many changes at the Five Bells. In his first 6 months, food has become more important, with an increasing reputation for vegetarian fare. In the daytime, the lounge becomes a café where teas, cakes and light meals are available. Stephen has tremendous plans for the barn area to the rear of the pub, where conversions are well under way to make a function room and wait for it... a CINEMA! Early as 2013 we should be able to go for a pint and a movie! This is courageous and will no doubt involve some investment. I have no doubt that this pub is reinventing itself and could prove a blueprint for others...
We could talk more, but the food is here. The gravy is as dark as tar, and pours like it too. The piecrust is very buttery and there are large chunks of beef. Fay's tart looks wonderful, but I am alarmed when she steals a brussel sprout from Keith's plate. For some reason, I thought that a vegetarian would not go for sprouts?! She informed me that the vegetables were al dente; I must agree that they were on the firm side. We all liked them though. Nicola's gammon was very attractive, the egg had lovely runny yolk and the side salad was colourful.
Of the half dozen or so desserts, I go for bread and butter pudding, while Fay, Keith and Nicola conspire to order 3 brownies. I find mine rich and steaming, but ultimately my portion is over generous! The brownies are a moist and rich chocolate hit with outstanding Cornish ice cream.
Suitably filled, Keith relaxes and remarks how lovely the furniture is. Indeed, this could make an entire article in itself. Our host Stephen tells us that the "settle" hails from Romford and it was an absolute bargain. If you need quirky furniture, then Stephen knows where to go!
The Five Bells has plans for a beer festival in early 2013. Clearly, not all pubs are in a downward fight against destiny, so in the words of Corporal Jones, "DON'T PANIC!"
Warm BeerGrumpy Landlord
If you don't believe me come in and find out
This challenge, chalked on a blackboard by the entrance of to The Ickleton Lion, could not be further from the truth. The fact that they feel able to poke fun at themselves in this way is perhaps indicative of the confidence and success that tenants Chris and Mirela currently enjoy.
The 300-year-old roadside building is a joy to the traveller's eye. On a winters day I would recommend first entering through the roadside doorway into the tiny snug where blazing log fire awaits. Turn right into the low ceilinged, half-timber paneled seating area and then to the rear of the pub, where a small bar appears to be constantly populated by regular customers.
The welcome is warm and the beer is cold - perhaps a little too cold, but then this is a Greene King tied pub that has won both Cask Marque, and the coveted (by Greene King tenants) Head Brewers awards. I've noted that the judges for these awards would appear to like their beer cold. The ubiquitous Greene King IPA (3.6%) is on offer, but fortunately so are three other beers, two from the Greene King list (Old Trip and St Edmunds) and one guest beer St Austell, Proper Job (5.5%), I opt for the latter and am not disappointed.
Based on a 19th century recipe, Proper Job was awarded Gold by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) in their National Beer Competition 2010, and I can tell why. It is a refreshing dark golden beer, full of citrus, with a hint of pineapple, the dry hoppy finish is not overwhelmingly bitter, but is balanced with a malty sweetness -just the way I like it! I have another.
In a rare quiet moment I get a chance to talk to Mirela about the pub and their future plans. There is no doubt that getting the beer right, both in quality and in variety, is one of their main objectives. We edge around the limitations of the Greene King tie. It appears that the brewery is loosening its grip just a little. In the summer the pub held a successful beer festival, and the likelihood that the 3 guest ales will all be from other brewers in the near future seems quite high.
Food, of course, is another priority, and I've got to say this is the area in which the pub excels. A timber framed extension, also warmed by a log fire has been converted into a dining area, which spills out into the bar area during busy periods. The Lion caters for those who prefer traditional food; the fish and chips is extremely good value, and for those who like to be a little adventurous; tempura prawns is my favourite starter, all at reasonable prices and all in generous portions. The puddings list displays similar variety, ranging from spotted dick with custard to the chef's specialty cheesecake of the day. The Sunday two and three course menus are proving to be very popular so it is advisable to book in advance.
The Ickleton Lion is the sort of pub that I imagine going to after a long winter ramble, when snow is on the ground and ice in the air. A place to warm, dry out and relax. It feels almost like home