Chef Mark Blatchford, who made his name in the high-profile settings of Claridge’s and Racine in London and Soho House in New York, is now working in a more tranquil setting. The Beckford Arms, a former coaching inn on the edge of the Fonthill estate in south Wiltshire, near Salisbury, has been converted into a restaurant with a bar and rooms.
It’s some setting. I pass a magnificent arch at the entrance to the estate and a lake and vista that would make a perfect backdrop to any Jane Austen adaptation.
The Beckford Arms itself is less engaging but has a surprisingly elegant staircase dividing a comfortable sitting room from the bar and restaurant beyond. The aroma of burning logs and freshly smoked food hangs in the air, while dogs and small children seem to be everywhere.
I meet Blatchford after a lunch of twice-baked goat’s cheese soufflé and a creamy rhubarb and ginger fool, accompanied by two local beers, Butcombe and Keystone. I compliment him on looking much slimmer than I last saw him in London.
He says “it’s not as easy to find cooks here as it is in London, so I’m having to work a lot more shifts than I used to. But I love it.”
He also loves being close to local farms. One provides him with eggs and dairy products while the other breeds the distinctive Red Poll cattle that make excellent steaks and burgers, as well as selling him cheaper cuts that go into cottage pie and steak and kidney pudding on the bar menu.
Two more subtle differences affect how Blatchford and his young brigade prepare the food here. “The biggest change is having far more space. Rents in London and New York are so high that every inch of the kitchen is mapped out. It’s not like that here. We installed a grill in the kitchen, which we call the ‘Beast’ because of the heat it generates. It has proved very popular but it’s so powerful it needs a lot of room.”
The bar also provides extra cooking space. Blatchford has installed a spit on top of the reconstructed fireplace, and a couple of chickens are roasting there in the evening. Blatchford has been smoking his own bacon, pork belly and hams up the chimney.
At dinner, by combining these ingredients with pigeon breasts smoked in a hot smoker he built for the kitchen and with quince from the garden, Blatchford produces a memorable first course of hot smoked pigeon breasts, chimney-smoked bacon, baked quince and walnut dressing. Only the last ingredient is from outside his new domain. Equally impressive, and good value, is a poached leg of mutton with creamed leeks and capers (£11).
The other advantage of the country for Blatchford is that it provides an antidote to the stress of a busy kitchen. “When things get a little bit fraught here, I can just tell one or two of the chefs to walk out of the back door, take a stroll and calm down. It’s very effective. I know because I’ve done it myself. And you definitely can’t do that in London.”
The only disadvantage, he says, is that he can’t easily enjoy what he used to like most about living in north London – walking out of his flat, meeting friends and choosing one of the many cooking styles on offer in the capital, eating well and learning from them.
However, there are plans to fix the problem. With his two partners, Charlie Luxton and Daniel Brod, Blatchford has converted this formerly closed pub into a thriving restaurant with eight bedrooms. Their aim is to find more pubs, although Blatchford is adamant at least one has to be in London so he is never too far from its restaurants.
The Beckford Arms, Fonthill Gifford, Tisbury, Wiltshire, tel: +44 (0)1747 870385; www.beckfordarms.com