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Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne catches up with a popular village gastro-pub
The Fox and Hounds
High Street, Barley, Royston SG8 8HU
IF luck has anything to do with running a village pub-restaurant, Aaron Clayton of the Fox and Hounds in Barley has it. Having recovered from a fire that struck the historic building just after he and his team had started renovating it, he went on to win the equipment to enable him to introduce hot-stone cooking, having already decided the business couldn't afford it. Now he has achieved another ambition, to find a freehold where he can expand on the ideas begun at Barley. This will be at Bramfield, just outside Hertford, hopefully by this summer.
Aaron and the team, including head chef Harry Schenk, arrived at the Fox and Hounds in September 2007 but within weeks suffered the fire that closed them down until the second reopening last July. However, things are looking up. Says Aaron, 'We are pleased with progress. After we reopened after the fire, we had a fully refurbished pub with everything in place to grow the business. The past six months have been very good.'
Part of the reason may be Aaron's no-nonsense approach, which includes a dislike of labels. 'Some people like the term gastro-pub and some don't,' he says. 'It doesn't really fuss me how people categorise us but the important thing now in a pub is the food trade; you can't survive, especially in a village, on just the drinks business, so that's where we put our efforts.
'We are not a massive pub chain with lots of staff, and the menu is decent, simple, fresh pub food supplemented by lots of specials from Harry, some of them gastro and some fine dining; all offered on one menu throughout the bar and the restaurant for winter, although we'll split the operation again for summer.'
Most of the winter menu is on the hearty side, with venison, pigeon and pheasant, all from the Ashridge Estate at Berkhamsted; plus 'pretty much all the meat' coming from Leech's butchery in nearby Melbourne. Mains are supplemented by a choice selection of desserts such as sticky toffee pudding with custard, Dutch apple pie and chocolate brownies.
The hot-stone idea is turning into another winner according to Aaron. 'It was something we had thought about but the kit is expensive and we had said we wouldn't do it,' he says. 'Then we won all the equipment at the Restaurant Show in a prize draw, so we thought why not? We organised local tastings so see what people thought of it and now we have people phoning specifically to order a stone meal.'
Other signs of success include the arrival of sous chef Eric Lange to assist Harry with the food offering and of a South African couple, Johannes and Christina, as front-of-house managers. The pub side of the operation continues to offer three real ales plus speciality beers such as Hoefgarten and Leffe plus the usual lagers, wines and spirits.
As well as giving the Barley area a foodie pub to be proud of, the Fox and Hounds project is a useful grounding for Aaron's next development, the Grandison Arms at Bramfield, soon to be renamed simply The Grandison, which in the boss's eyes comes with the great advantage of being a freehold.
He says, 'We started by looking around for a freehold property for a couple of years, went to the banks with a business plan and everything else and at the time, even though there was no turmoil like now, they said to us you haven't the business experience to go into a freehold, the best thing is to find a leasehold and then come back to us, and that's exactly what we did.'