Words by Gaby Dyson
Few venues can truly attest to be as committed to provenance as Malcolm Church’s award-winning Bear & Blacksmith in South Devon…
“This time of year is my favourite time to cook because there’s so much you can do,” says Malcolm Church, Head Chef and Proprietor of The Bear & Blacksmith in Chillington. “We’ve got beautiful venison being shot right here on our own farm; there are brilliant root vegetables being harvested and some lovely fish in season. Yesterday, I made an oven roasted brill with a hazelnut crumb, celeriac puree, roasted veg and a rich lobster sauce – all sourced locally and as fresh as can be”.
It’s only 5 minutes into our conversation and I’m positively salivating. Malcolm and his team live by the ‘plot to plate’ mantra and as I sit and chat to this seasoned foodie, I quickly learn that everything he serves is proper homegrown grub – farmed, butchered and cooked onsite.
“I’ve just bought some fantastic lobster off one of the fishermen I used to fish with” he tells me, “He doesn’t charge me silly money, so why should I charge you silly money? I want people to be able to head to The Bear & Blacksmith and enjoy half a lobster thermidor for less than £15. Good food should be affordable.”
Malcolm’s foodie journey started out at sea, where he helped run a family business on a boat called The Salcombe Fish Wife. Day in and out, they would catch local crab and seafood to supply nearby Devon businesses. But through hard work and toil, a young Malcolm ended up injuring his shoulder and had to pack up his seafaring days aged just 16.
“To cut a long story short, I was having a pint at my local pub when the landlord asked if I fancied trying my hand out in their kitchen,” he recalls, “So, my very first job as chef was here at The Bear & Blacksmith cooking Sunday Lunch doing a full 45 covers. I just loved the buzz of the kitchen. I loved the vibe and wanted to learn more. Thankfully, the chefs were willing to teach me, so that’s where I began”.
Malcolm and his partner Claire are a true local success story. Starting off with just three and a half acres, a little polytunnel and a handful of pigs, they’ve grown their business to include a barn, nearly 70 acres of land and a string of local and regional accolades recognizing their achievements.
“People don’t always realize what goes on behind the scenes here at The Bear & Blacksmith” Malcolm explains, “We farm our own lamb, we farm our own pork and we grow our own vegetables wherever possible. It’s hard work! Last night, I finished up in the kitchens and I had to go down to the farm where there were stubble turnips to roll in the ground. I didn’t finish until midnight, when I finally got out of the tractor”.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Bear & Blacksmith is its commitment to provenance and quality ingredients. There will always be homegrown dishes on the menu and guests have been known to rave about the exceptional Devon lamb dishes. What’s their secret? They raise around 150 sheep on their farm and keep everything in house, from rearing through to butchering.
“The sheep are Claire’s domain,” Malcolm laughs, “She’s always wanted them”. He cites a long list of pedigree breeds from heart – many of which you’ll find on the menu – and it is abundantly clear to me that these guys genuinely love their animals. Only the highest quality meat is brought to the table and they are certain that it’s their commitment to proper husbandry that leaves guests wanting more.
“If you grass feed your sheep and you don’t force them – like large scale commercial farms – you’ll end up with a better product,” I’m told; “Yes, it takes about 10 months to rear a lamb, but when you then put that lamb on the plate it’s one of the best things you’ll ever eat.”
Down in Chillington, everyone gets involved in the farm and growing. “We’ve got polytunnels and we try to grow all our own veg. We grow runner beans, broad beans, potatoes, courgettes, red cabbages, green cabbages, black peppers, tomatoes, aubergines…”
The list goes on and on and anything that the team can’t grow on site, is sourced from other local foodie heroes, such as Martin Berryman in South Milton, just 3 miles away.
What’s on the menu?
While The Bear & Blacksmith will always be a country pub at its core – with a fiercely loyal clientele to boot – don’t expect to find a menu comprised purely of chips, pies and burgers. While they do offer a popular a la carte menu, featuring pub classics like burgers and fish & chips, diners are also treated to a constantly evolving specials board which is decided every morning and varies according to what is available on the day.
Malcolm maintains that the key to creating his big, bold flavours is good quality produce. “We love to try different things and different flavours. It’s all about playing and having fun. But when you know where your ingredients are from and you know the background of it, you’re halfway there.”
His love and passion for food is abundantly clear, but it’s his dedication to the community that is most admirable. “Many places will boast they are local, but they’re in it for the money,” Malcolm concludes, “They might not know where their meat is from and that’s not supporting the West Country, is it? I’ve been a farmer and I’ve been a fisherman. I know what goes into making quality food and ingredients and that’s why we do what we do.”
It’s a truly local, truly Devonian enterprise and as I sit and listen, I find myself getting pulled into the magic. If there’s one thing to take away from my chat with The Bear & Blacksmith, it’s that extraordinary flavours can be found right on our doorstep.
Interested in trying Malcolm’s ultra-local food for yourself? Head to thebearandblacksmith.com to book your table, or try your hand at Malcolm’s Lamb noisettes recipe.