Tom Blake is using his ingredient-focused experience from the River Cottage at this Somerset pub, says Russell Brown
Even as village pubs go, the White Hart at Somerton has been around for a while. It has been trading since the 16th century in various guises, the most recent of which is after its acquisition by the Stay Original Co, formerly the Draco Pub Co. A major refurbishment in 2013 brought the pub right up to date with eight contemporary bedrooms, a spacious bar, dining area and outside seating.
Executive chef Tom Blake oversees the wider group food offer, with the Swan at Wedmore and Timbrell’s Yard in Bradford on Avon coming under his control.
This responsibility is set to grow with the group’s recent purchase of the Kings Arms Hotel in Dorchester, expected to open in early 2017. Blake works closely with each individual head chef on the menus, but they all have his style as a hallmark.
Blake spent his early career working mainly in pubs around Bristol and Bath before starting his own events catering company. He readily admits that this was a project that presented far more challenges than he anticipated. Two years later, an opportunity arose to join the team at River Cottage and Blake went on to open the second branch of River Cottage Canteen in Bath. It was through his work there that he met Rob Greacen, a director of the company and one of the three co-directors at Stay Original. Blake joined Stay Original to launch its first property, the Swan, in 2011.
Talking about his time at River Cottage, Blake says: “It was the ethos that I really learned; it allowed me to find a cooking style that is based around the ingredients.
I have never used a water bath.” In fact, Blake became, in his words, “obsessed with cooking on wood” and this is certainly evident from the menus. Even the full breakfast is listed as ‘from the wood oven’. Blake says: “The wood oven is a key feature of the kitchen, but does require greater skill from the chefs. It is about managing the heat and is a very ‘touch and feel’ method of cooking”.
The menu is dictated by the seasons but has perhaps become less rigid as the company has grown. Blake says: “When you cook on a very seasonal basis, you are always looking forward to the next thing. At the moment I am looking forward to getting the first pheasants of the year on the menu. This is one of my favourite times of the year, particularly for vegetables.”
The menu covers breakfast through to dinner, from 9am until last orders at 9.45pm.
Homemade jams, marmalades and breads feature at breakfast and, at lunch, a prosciutto, ricotta and rocket pizza (£11) cooked in the wood oven is topped with Castelanos air-dried ham, Westcombe ricotta and rocket.
Slow-roasted belly of Gloucester Old Spot pork, fennel and sea salt crackling, three bean cassoulet and black cabbage salsa (£15.50) is one of the top sellers and is also cooked in the wood oven. Dinner may feature whole wood-roasted Lyme Bay plaice, gherkin, caper and dill butter, Charlotte potatoes and spinach (£18.50). Fish is supplied by Samways Fish Merchants in Bridport and Blake says that hake is his best seller.
New menus are a continual collaboration with the head chef, Jack Stoodley, who started with the company as a chef de partie three years ago. He then moved to Timbrell’s Yard as sous chef before returning to the White Hart to take up the role.
The pub serves a real mixture of locals, customers from the surrounding area and people stopping en route to Devon and Cornwall.
Families visiting Millfield, a nearby independent school with 900 full-boarders, are also a good source of business for the pub. The brigade totals six and they serve around 30-40 dinner covers Monday to Wednesday, with that number rising to between 60 and 100 at the weekends. Guests can eat in any of the pub’s areas and it can seat around 110 covers in total.
Blake has seen his role change hugely as the company has developed; there are now 18 chefs (with more needed) and his focus is on training and menu development. He holds regular training sessions with the chefs, focusing on different areas such as seasonal products or desserts.
He says: “Recruitment is so tough, you have to put everything into the
people you have got. It is gratifying to see people who have moved on come back again.”
From the menu
• Vanilla yogurt, Cheddar strawberries and granola £3.90
• Gloucester Old Spot sausage ciabatta £6
• Slow-baked beetroot, mozzarella, pesto, nuts and seeds £6
• Slow-roasted Gloucester Old Spot pork belly and truffle mash, baked shallots, butternut and celeriac fries £15
• Grilled halloumi and autumn vegetables, chickpea chilli, crispy kale, tzatziki and pickled red cabbage £12.50
• Chargrilled Ruby Red beef burger, Wookey Hole Cheddar, bacon jam and hand-cut chips £12.50
• Chocolate and salt caramel tart, thick cream and honeycomb £7
The White Hart, Market Place, Somerton, Somerset TA11 7LX