Being interested, as I am, in local food and drink, it is hard to ignore the Bell and Bear in Emberton. This pub, run by Jon and Sophie, has been championing local food and drink for years now and for the last two years has won the "Best Use of Local Produce" category in the Milton Keynes Food and Leisure Awards. It would be hard to imagine anywhere else winning this award if up against The Bell and Bear because they really do work very hard to utilise the very best of local food and drink.
I can't remember if it was Laurence from Virtual Orchard or Dan from Concrete Cow Brewery that first pointed me in the direction of Jon's pub. The Bell and Bear stock both Laurence's cider and Dan's beer, amongst their collection of local alcoholic beverages. Indeed, only this week they celebrated their 1000th different real ale. When I met Jon a few years ago he explained about his passion for all things local, how he sourced the ingredients for his restaurant as locally as possible and how some of it was even supplied by enthusiastic locals from the village. Even the bread is baked daily by Gareth from Amazing Grains just a few miles away in Olney. That's not just local, that's "micro-local". Take a look at their website to see their acknowledgements to their trusted local suppliers.
This week I ended up in a twitter conversation with a bunch of other local foodies who were suggesting a meet up for a meal at The Bell & Bear on Thursday. Eating out midweek hadn't been in my plans for the week but this was a tempting proposal - the combination of conversation with other local food enthusiasts and a chance to sample the menu at The Bell & Bear. So with a bit of juggling and family negotiations, off I went.
It is an easy drive out of Milton Keynes to Emberton and the pub is just a few metres inside the village. The entrance to the car park is a little tricky to spot when you are driving and it is a tight fit between the old buildings to the back of the pub but there was plenty of parking space available. I entered the pub via the front door that took me straight into the small restaurant area. This is a small space with just a few tables so it is recommended that you book a table if you want to eat. I could see our table set for 8 but no one else around yet so I went through into the bar area to wait there. At the bar I spotted Gareth, clearly a comfortable regular as well as supplier of bread.
I met with Bob from The Good Times Cafe and we were soon joined by Matt from OMG Hot dog, Gordon from Urban Grilla, Franzi from MK Biergarten, and Mr Fitz. Now assembled, we went through to the restaurant and made ourselves comfortable. Jon came out to greet us and put some faces to names for those he had not previously met.
Our meal started unexpectedly with a shot glass of tomato soup compliments of the house. I have spent a great deal of time processing tomatoes one way or another but I have never tasted another tomato soup with such as depth of flavour. I'm guessing there was quite an array of other ingredients behind it but the overall experience was tasty tomato.
Next came our starter. I had opted for the beef and I thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The beef was amazingly tender and complemented beautifully by the watercress and homegrown nasturtium leaves and the other blobs of flavour on the plate. My favourite bit, however, were the delicious shallot rings. I have recently finished watching the latest series of Master Chef and this plate of food looked like something John and Gregg would enjoy tucking into.
I had lamb for my main course and once again I was served a beautifully presented plate of food. The serving staff, by the way, were excellent: polite and helpful but not overly fussy. By this point we had been joined by Niraj, not a food producer but an enthusiastic local food customer. During the main I was engaged in some intense foodie conversations with Niraj and Mr Fitz and I confess I did not give the food my full attention but nonetheless, I particularly remember enjoying the tender lamb, stacked on a bed of mash, some roasted leeks, wild mushrooms and a tasty gravy. I'm a huge gravy fan and this one (probably not called gravy but a "jus" or a "reduction" or something) was tasty but I would have liked more of it.
At the end of the main course a couple of the guests needed to leave and I thought for just a moment as to whether I was done or if I wanted to stay for dessert but it wasn't a difficult decision to stay. The chocolate option sounded divine but my attention was drawn to the poached peach. This was duly served, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, some raspberries, toasted almonds and honey. The ice-cream was so tasty I would have been happy with just that but the warm peach was a dream too. Opposite, Bob enjoyed the chocolate option and next to me Gordon tucked into a selection of cheeses, washed down with a half of Woughton Orchard cider.
Everyone who knows me knows that I like to cook and I can produce some fine tasting food. Sometimes when I go out to eat I find myself thinking I could have cooked it better myself or at least done it at a fraction of the price. However, after a meal at The Bell and Bear that was not what I was thinking at all. It's a bit like being able to paint your own fingernails but knowing the difference between that and a professional manicure. I came away feeling properly pampered.
All in all a very enjoyable evening. The company was good and it was nice to be able to drone on about local food without the audience tiring of the subject, and the location and food was just perfect too. So if you fancy indulging in some top quality food, where every ingredient has been carefully sourced and considered then I can't recommend the Bell and Bear more highly. There is no where else quite like it.