The Mason's Arms is in prime Devon hunting country, so it's no surprise that chef-proprietor Mark Dodson should be thinking of putting game on his autumn menu. Apart from being seasonal, it pleases the locals, who make up a hefty percentage of the dining clientele.
Our conversation took place in mid-October, and although the Devon shoots hadn't really got under way, Dodson had already tried out a duo of partridge and pheasant as a special on the menu, to good effect. "It was pretty popular," he tells me, going on to explain, with satisfaction, that he has lined up a good game butcher to add to his suppliers.
"Richard Guest, the head chef at the Castle in Taunton, came in the other week for a meal and he put me on to his guy in Taunton (S&M Meats). I've had pheasants off him and he's getting some venison for me," says Dodson.
Taunton, although in neighbouring Somerset, is still within spitting distance because of the Mason's Arms' location on the edge of Exmoor in north Devon. The town's proximity to the inn - and, therefore, the low mileage on delivery - helps to keep produce costs down.
But prices of game meat are generally much lower in the West Country than in the Home Counties, where Dodson used to work.
"I got the partridge for about 1 a bird in the feather - we used to pay around £3 a bird when I was at the Waterside Inn [Bray], although that was oven-ready. But it's still a lot cheaper even having to pluck and clean them ourselves," he says.
The duo of partridge and pheasant was served with seasonal root veg (parsnips, celeriac), confited shallots and Brussels sprouts. Another special, of partridge alone, went out with butternut squash pure (sometimes shredded cabbage, depending on supply of the squash), bacon lardons and a brunoise. It has also proved popular.
Dodson's aim is to build game into the menu as specials options, in order to be completely reactive to the vagaries of seasonal supply, which also means that the produce will be ultra-fresh.
While not knowing precisely what he will do until the produce lands on the kitchen table, he has plans to use fruit with the venison when it arrives ("poached pear, or maybe quince") with a bit of acid to contrast the fruit's sweetness provided perhaps by a pepper or a blackcurrant vinegar sauce. "The other thing I'd like to put on is a ‘feather and fur' duo - venison or hare with one of the birds," Dodson tells me. "It's a classic way of eating game."
Of course, having game on the menu offers a great opportunity for upselling some higher-priced red wines against dishes. Not that the Mason's has an overpriced wine list - it ranges from £14 to £56.
Actually, there has been a shift in ordering patterns already as the weather tips into autumn and towards winter. "People are much more into reds now," says Sarah, "and we've also been gradually broadening our list from mainly French wines, which we inherited when we bought the business, to a more international one which includes a lot more New World options." Among the new bins is a Merlot from Washington (a 2001 Stimson Estate Columbia Valley), which has been doing steady business.
When we last talked, the Dodsons didn't know what to expect from the autumn in business terms. They'd had a dream start to their new life as proprietors of the Mason's Arms, being fully booked pretty much all the way through the summer on the back of a great review in the Telegraph and good local newspaper coverage.
Another mention - in the Independent on 1 October in a feature on Michelin chefs heading for the sticks to open up pub-restaurants - probably fuelled an unexpected mid-October rush.
"We've just had a phenomenal week, but what's good is that they were all local people with Tiverton and Barnstaple numbers," says a surprised Sarah. With average spends of about £21 for lunch and £28 for dinner without wine (which would add on between £4 and £10 a head), the chances of repeating September's gross turnover of £25,000 look good.
Extra cash means new equipment: a new dishwasher (Hobart) and a new fridge (True), the former costing about £2,520, the latter about £1,200.
"Everyone was over the moon when I told them about the fridge - and if we have a good autumn, who knows what the staff can look forward to," jokes Mark.
The story so far…
- The property: Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon
- Bought: 21 June
- Owners: Mark and Sarah Dobson
- Purchase price: "Close to" £695,000
- What is it?: 13th-century inn with small bar and lounge, plus 18-seat restaurant
- Rave review: By Jan Moir in the Daily Telegraph, 30 July, which resulted in turnovers of between £6,000 and £9,000 in the weeks following publication - well above projections
- September turnover: £25,000 (gross)
- Target annual turnover: £275,000 (gross)