Suffolk farmer, James Buckle, explains how purchasing The Bildeston Crown and meeting chef Chris Lee has made one of his dreams come true.
The Buckle family farming business started in 1973, moving to Semer in 1976. The original 120 acres is now in excess of 3000 and whilst primarily an arable farm, many fields have been returned to water meadows and parkland for grazing Suffolk Sheep, Red Polls and yes, to complete the Suffolk Trinity, Suffolk Punches. All regularly compete in the annual Suffolk Show and this year won the Cup for the Champion Red Poll Cow.
What makes this Suffolk farmer just a little bit different is that he is also the proud owner of The Bildeston Crown, which recently won the category of “best small hotel” at the Tourism in Suffolk Awards and subsequently took the same category prize in the East of England rounds qualifying it for the national awards later in 2009. In buying The Bildeston Crown some five years ago, James Buckle quite simply, started the process of making one of his dreams come true.
James explains: “My initial thoughts were to restore this wonderful Grade 2* listed former coaching inn and re-establish its purpose as a place for good food, drink and local employment. However, at the back of my mind was the vision that we could to do so much more. In The Bildeston Crown I had the opportunity to develop my own outlet from which to sell my very own produce. In reality this has proven a little naïve but I still get a huge amount of pleasure from seeing meat from our own red poll herd on the menu, Manor Farm rapeseed oil in the kitchen or even, vegetables from my mother’s garden.”
This vision moved nearer reality when James met chef Chris Lee, who has developed a reputation for his innovative style, winning a personal acknowledgement from The Good Food Guide and securing The Bildeston Crown’s restaurant Three AA Rosettes, the only venue in Suffolk with this status. Times reviewer Giles Coren was equally positive with praise, calling the Bildeston Crown “the best little progressive kitchen in Suffolk” (Times 19 April 2008).
Chris is happy to admit that working for a farmer has its benefits: “I consider myself fortunate to have a boss who recognises the strength of the team here at the Bildeston Crown and gives us such a free rein. Where he does get more involved, however, and quite rightly, is in sourcing excellent local produce and that is really valuable. How many chefs can boast that they are using meat farmed just down the road on the owners’ land? As chefs we enjoy seeing the boss take such great pride in what he farms for us to use and the resulting dishes we create to showcase what we truly believe is Suffolk food at its very best.”
There is, however, a third person in this great fusion of farming and hospitality. James gives full credit to the talents of his livestock manager, Michael Mumford, who is responsible for the welfare of the 80 strong red poll herd. The indigenous breed is smaller than average and takes nearly three years to finish and so even keeping pace with the demands of the Bildeston Crown is an impossible challenge … at least for now.
James happily muses that only in the previous week, a whole red poll was consumed by his various hospitality businesses. “I had immense satisfaction to see one of my farm-reared animals not having to leave Suffolk and indeed only travel a matter of miles in the whole process of preparing it for the table. In one week this animal was enjoyed in various forms by diners at The Bildeston Crown and produced 800lbs of beefburgers for the meal at the Essex & Suffolk Hunt team chase and the Bonfire Night at The Lindsey Rose.”
Red poll meat is most definitely gaining in popularity and James considers it as totally positive that competitors are following suit and featuring it on their menus and local butchers are happy to market this very individual breed as a brand. But then this is James Buckle’s very own “field to plate” dream come true.