Muddy boots and Champagne flutes
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Best friends Ben Davenport and Sam Darling took the bull by the horns, charged in and created the pub of their dreams
The hog’s been roasting since 8am, the beer’s chilling, the late-April sun is playing ball. Festoon lights are strung through the willow, haybales arranged, seats for the band too. Doors to the garden are wide open, and the pub’s crooning playlist of Paolo Nutini, Fleetwood Mac, and Mumford & Sons et al is about to be replaced by the irreverent energy and musical creativity of East Anglian band Foreign Locals.
It’s party time! A year since they opened The Bull Freehouse at Troston, best friends Ben Davenport and Sam Darling are celebrating a full 12 months as publicans, for the first time running a business they own in a building they own. They’re relaxed, ready for the 6pm start. The smell of roasting pork folds round the garden, and no doubt slips down the road too, like an aromatic invitation. Home-made milk buns and apple sauce are prepped. Ben even has time to nip out for a haircut.
The Bull had languished, empty of life, let alone parties, on the crossroads in Troston for nearly three years. “But now it’s a nucleus of laughter,” says Sam. He laughs – he and Ben do that a lot. “Muddy boots and champagne flutes,” he says later on, adopting another’s phrase to describe their aim to appeal to drinkers and diners alike. They still “do things properly” but in a youthful, easy way (Ben’s in his mid-30s, Sam a decade younger). It works: the team are just as at ease with out-to-lunch guests arriving smart for a three-course meal and a catch-up, loosened by a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and then whiskies, as they are at the bar pulling pints, selling crisps and sharing party stories.
“We’ve been so lucky,” says Sam. “The village has wrapped us in a protective blanket.” Residents have become regulars, so too personnel from the Honington RAF base a mile away. Local farmers have helped haul away fallen trees (they also provided the bales for the party) and, in time-honoured village tradition, people bring garden gluts – courgettes, currants, apples – to the kitchen door. “We swap favours for Aspalls!” says Ben. “We feel part of the community and I love that the pub is connecting people. One regular has even bought a house in Troston because of us. Came for a burger, bought a house.”
A straightforward menu of five starters, mains and puddings changes daily with head chef John Parker – he’s just 25 – running the kitchen. As long as there’s always a form of fish and chips, a steak (maybe a flatiron, or a sirloin to share served with everything you’d expect), a Bull Burger in its milk bun, and a cheeseboard, the menu is up to John and his team.
Asparagus, slender spears of purple and green varieties, receive the lightest of grills. White asparagus is peeled into curling ribbons. There are slivers of savoury gran padano cheese and a peppy balsamic vinegar. A confit egg yolk is plumply golden, ripe for asparagus or pieces of a Rascality Roll to be swooped through it (John uses house-brewed Rascality Brewing beer in some of his loaves). Chicken and guinea fowl terrine is seriously meaty, but it’s John’s rye toast, sweet-sharp chutney and bitter red chicory leaves that layer the dish with flavour. The same goes for the tenderly cooked wild bass that’s bolstered by the chilli-paprika heft of chorizo and patatas bravas. It’s generous in portion, generous in flavour. Smokey aubergine is roasted down to fleshy softness and comes with orzo pasta, a classic sofrito and charred peppers; it absorbs the flavours hungrily, as aubergine does.
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Braised chunks of rhubarb, still with bite, are tucked up with pieces of blood orange, and there’s delicious tartness to a cheesecake mousse. Caramelised puff pastry does its texture thing, and cubes of genoise sponge offer up excellent juice-absorbing qualities. Panna cotta whispers of the chamomile running through it; more in evidence is a sparky mango and pineapple salsa with a walnut crumb balancing sweetness. This is appealing, unfussy food to get stuck into - good pub food.
Drinks are Hamish McClellan’s bag. The front of house manager is nuts about whisky and has built a notable list alongside wines that range from simple pinot grigio to push-the-boat-out Meursault. He runs the on-site Rascality microbrewery too, making One Brow Brew, Bull Liquor, and Hair of the Frog bitter. The brand name’s a bit of fun, referencing a documented 1830s case of beer theft from the pub, and what the judge deemed ‘rascalitous’ behaviour. Ask Hamish for the full story. Ask him, while you’re at it, about the story behind his One Brow Brew which involves a few beers one evening, a deep sleep, and the shaving of his right eyebrow by ‘friends’.
But seriously, to reach the point of serving lunch and dinner four days a week and Sunday lunch till 4pm - and pouring drinks for those five days - has taken endeavour and belief. Ben and Sam’s plans to take on The White Horse at Thelnetham – it was to be their first solo business together – faltered with lockdown. The pair had become firm friends from working at the Fritton Arms on the Somerleyton Estate, and The Oaksmere near Diss. When The White Horse fell through they both headed to The Hoste Arms, Burnham Market, to work that blindingly busy Eat Out to Help Out summer of 2020. They held on to their dream, though. “It was either brave or stupid, given the pandemic. But we love pubs, we love working in them, we love being in them,” says Sam. When The Bull crossed their radar in July, it felt right.
The sale was finalised in October. Sam and Ben moved into rooms upstairs to save money and time, and Hamish joined them. Works began on what ended up being an £80,000 renovation project. Stories of nails embedding in hands and feet as they did groundwork during that Covid-ridden winter make for painful listening. “I remember standing, freezing and wet in sideways hail, waiting for Postcrete to set for the picket fence,” says Hamish. “We pulled together for five months, 18-hour days. We were knackered and filthy, but we still had a laugh every day.”
He’s grateful now to be focusing on making beer and talking to guests about food, wine, and even cigars (there’s a humidor on the bar) – and proud of the garden. Support from Woolpit Nurseries has been invaluable, so too the regular plant care by a Troston gardener keen to help. A young hornbeam hedge wraps round a small terrace, and there’s a fledgling veg patch with rhubarb, chard, currants, spreading strawberries, borage, and an awful lot of chives. Sapling apple and cherry trees prettify an awkward corner with flourishing blossom. The magnificent willow remains a fine centrepiece.
Inside, the original ‘kitchen’ consisted of two chip fryers and a domestic oven so the space was gutted, a wall knocked through to create an open pass, decent equipment bought. “We’ve been there. We know what it’s like not to have a good oven or glasswasher,” says Ben. The Lockdown Pizzeria takeaway became popular - it kept the kitchen productive and some money coming in, but funds were tight, loans and savings stretched to the max. “We said, ‘great, those four pizza sales mean we can buy those wine glasses, or repair that window,” says Ben. “We were skint. Enthusiasm kept us going.”
In April 2021, the doors opened on a ‘labour of love’ pub with a sense of humour and stories to tell. The deep blue walls are classy, so too a leather banquette in the dining room, and antique Chesterfields in the fire-warmed bar. “They were our one extravagance,” says Ben. Nods to the pub’s name include little toy bulls dotted here and there, a bull’s head sculpture made from driftwood above a fireplace, cowhide rugs. Facebook Marketplace was the go-to for old books and quirky prints; the table in the centre of the dining room is Sam’s.
It's been a year worth celebrating, despite everything. There’s even been a small profit, a few thousand pounds that has paid for garden furniture and more kitchen kit. Next step? “We’re ambitious,” says Ben. He won’t be drawn, but there are plans for further pubs. “We’ll get there. We’re too bloody-minded not to.”
From the menu
House-pickled stone bass, parsnip cream, fennel, garden herbs £8.50
Harissa-spiced lentil & coconut soup, garden herb oil, black onion seed roll £7
Roasted duck breast, braised duck leg cottage pie, asparagus, mixed peas, black garlic purée, red wine jus £28.50
Cauliflower & chickpea curry, black rice, naan bread £13.50
Braeburn apple & mixed berry crumble, Madagascan vanilla ice cream £7
Peanut butter parfait, roast banana bread, banana purée, smoked peanuts & cocoa nibs £9
The wine list opens at £18.50. Rascality Brewing beers are on the pumps from £4.50.
The Bull is open Wednesday-Sunday. Food is served 12pm - 2.30pm and 6pm - 9pm (12pm - 4pm Sunday). Quiz night is the first Tuesday of the month, and the Lockdown Pizzeria will return occasionally over the summer. Look out also for a Beer Festival on the Jubilee and August bank holiday weekends.
Details at thebullfreehouse.com or @thebullfreehouse