Review: The Bury St Edmunds and Farmers Club offers more than ploughman's for its private members
When the Bury St Edmunds and Farmers Club contacted my editor to do a piece about its food and the club, I jumped at the chance.
Though I follow them on Facebook, I knew very little about the private members club in the heart of the town and I was eager to find out more.
I had a preconceived idea of old men with pipes, in the spirit of Phileas Fogg, discussing world affairs in smoking jackets and club slippers.
And, with 'farmers' in its title, that they would be eating pork pies, ploughman's and pasties - both of these would be completely debunked by the end of the day.
On arrival in the club's beautiful open garden area just off Pump Lane, I was greeted by committee member Nick Law and club chairperson Karen Ridgeon, the first female head of the club in its history.
Completing the trio was head chef Tom Laflin, whose cookery CV includes Ravenwood Hall Hotel, Jimmy's Farm and The Oaksmere in Brome - with names like that I already knew I was in safe and highly gifted hands.
As Tom headed off to the kitchen, Karen and Nick gave me a tour of the Grade I listed base of this special club.
Walking around the rooms, including its 14th century Lower Lounge with 16th century fireplace and Jacobean wood panelling from Hengrave Hall, to the very light and airy Club Room where we would be eating later, Karen explained the club's history.
Founded in 1947, by a group of farmers and businessmen, the not-for-profit organisation now has around 450 members, as well as a small business centre with offices and meeting rooms and hosts around 12 to 16 weddings a year.
Karen said: "We want to show the club is not just for farmers. A lot of people move to Bury in their 40s, 50s and 60s and it is difficult to start meeting new people and in a place like this you can get to know others around the town."
The club has a range of options to join, including business, individual, dual and even under 35 membership rates.
Karen continued: "We have about 450 members now, before Covid we had around 525, and though numbers are picking up again it would be nice to get around another 100 members.
"Just to bring something else to the club - a different input, fresh ideas to help drive the club forward and people with varying backgrounds to possibly bring something new."
With the tour completed, we were then sat at our table after giving chef free rein on a six- course menu.
Our first treat of the day was a foamed Jerusalem artichoke soup with bacon - the crispy thin salty bacon on top complimented the flavourful earthy soup and was a brilliant beginning.
The foaming from the kitchen's espuma gun gave it such a light airy touch without losing any of its gorgeous artichoke taste, I enjoyed it so much that before I knew it my espresso cup was empty - the sign of a good course well done.
As that course was taken triumphantly away, the chat around the table turned to plans of increasing the club's membership.
Nick explained that they were hosting two receptions for interested people wanting to be members on June 10 and July 1.
He said: "We are hoping by doing this it will give people a chance to come here, learn more about the club, its history from Karen and becoming a member.
"One of the members once told me it was a little oasis in the centre of Bury and it really is that."
Karen added: "I think some people do not know we are even here and that they think they cannot join, that is why we need these events - we have these lovely rooms, a rich history and want to be able to share this with more members."
With that, the next dish was soon at our table - pan-seared scallop, with a minted pea puree, chorizo, black pudding crumb and a pan jus.
The scallop's beautiful sear gave a smoky flavour that complimented the sweetness of the pea nicely.
With that the bold crispness of the meat crumb against the soft plump scallop and that hit of spice from the chorizo really did sing right out of the bowl.
Tom joined us from the kitchen for this course and it gave me a chance to ask him why he took the opportunity to take charge of the kitchen at the club.
He said: "I have free rein here to experiment and I am quite lucky that I get to play around, because the menu changes every week, I can go with those ideas and take influences from any country I want to as well.
"We all have the same focus here, to make the club the best it can be for our members, and I hope with what I am doing that is helping that."
The next dish we tasted made me envious of the members if this was a sample of what Tom provides for them - braised pig's cheek with pickled gooseberries and endive.
This without a doubt was the stand out dish of the day.
The six-hour slow cooked meat was succulent, so soft and melt in the mouth I could have eaten it with a spoon.
The acidic sharp flavour of the amazing gooseberries, using Tom's own 50-50 vinegar and sugar pickling recipe, completed a partnership like no other - it was a true master stroke finished with the bitterness of the endive.
It was a dish with a simple look but the levels of flavour which banded together really showed Tom's magnificent methods.
He said: "For me it is an old classic of braising pork and then we have twisted it with the pickled gooseberries, which I find cuts through the decadence of that cheek.
"With my dishes, I like people to look at the components of the dish and think will this go together and then after they taste it they see what I see."
I really did see it all with this, I enjoyed it so much it lasted a lot less time than I would have liked and I could have easily eaten that over and over again.
As Tom returned to the kitchen with our plates, Nick explained how he felt the chef was an integral part of the club's future ambitions.
He said: "He is a very good ambassador for the club, so enthusiastic about every thing he does and regularly comes out to the guests, giving them a very special experience.
"I go out quite a lot to eat in Bury, but now with Tom joining the club I feel here is one of the nicest places to eat in town and he and his team are making that happen."
Pan roasted skate wing, buttered samphire with chablis, warmed cockles and preserved lemon was our next offering and was a true taste of the sea on a plate.
The skate and the cockles marrying together with the generous portion of buttery samphire which was then cut sharply with the lemon - this brought silence to the table.
It really made sure, with its brilliance, that I did not put down my knife and fork, even for a drink of water, until the plate was cleared.
With classic dishes given to us before now, the next dish that followed gave a true insight into the experimental mind of Tom - Parma Violet panna cotta, English strawberries, strawberry leather, baby mint and tarragon granita.
The bright purple panna cotta held with its perfect signature wobble and the floral flavour of the sweets was enhanced by actual pieces of them inside.
The sweetness of the strawberries and the leather played its own part to the dish with the delicious tarragon granita's coldness bringing a temperature difference to focus the mind with every spoonful - one of the craziest dishes I have ever tasted but true to Tom's ethos it did work.
With the taster menu coming to a close, the chef had one more gorgeous trick up his sleeve - dark chocolate tart, with raspberry sorbet with chocolate soil and chocolate pebbles.
This final flourish of a dish showed the pastry talent of Tom's kitchen - the dark chocolate was luxurious, the pastry wafer thin and crisp to the break, the sorbet giving freshness as any excellently executed sorbet should and the chocolate soil and pebbles giving that textural crunch the dish needed as a finish.
Having found out so much about the private club, which sits in plain sight in Northgate Street, one of its secrets is now out, and that is Tom Laflin.
I just hope the collective push for more members works, so that chef can give others the same happiness he gave me when I closed the door to the Bury St Edmunds and Farmers Club behind me after that meal.
To find out more about the club and its upcoming reception events, go to www.bsefc.co.uk or call 01284 750969.