Google tells me there are around 52,000 pubs in the UK. So to be named Great British Pub Of The Year 2016 is a big deal. But can The Bull in Ditchling really be that good? This was something I was happy to investigate.
On first impressions it was everything I expected it to be – an upmarket village boozer with low beams and lighting, an open fire. A cheery hello from manager Molly, who’s pulling pints behind the bar, and quick to ask if we’d like one too.
We quickly spot four ales from Sussex-based Bedlam Brewery on tap, which is hardly surprising as the pub and brewery are owned by Dominic Worrall, so we go for two pints of their excellent Pale Ale (£4.90) but far from just stocking his own beer, they also had Longboard, Curious Brew, Brooklyn, Landlord and guest ales on offer.
We could’ve sat in the charming restaurant but this was an evening with one of my drinking buddies and to spend time together without a bar somewhere in view would, in all honesty, be a bit weird for both of us.
The menu has a wide range of modern takes on classic pub dishes. For starters my friend went for Braised Oxtail (£8), served on top of a carrot and turnip mash, which visually looked like an island circled by an ocean of delicious oxtail consommé. This could’ve easily been too filling for a entree but was portioned just right. I had Smoked Cheddar Leek & Potato Tart (£7) and was pleasantly surprised to find was, despite the singular title, was actually two deep mini tarts that, when sliced opened, spilled nice chunks of veg into a tangy sunblushed tomato salad.
It’s an expectation of country pubs to source their produce locally these days and The Bull definitely didn’t let us down. All their meat, game and poultry comes from Sussex or Kent farms, the fish caught from Brighton and Newhaven, and many of the herbs and vegetables from their own garden. With all this in mind we were looking forward to the mains.
I decided to go with the Confit Pork Belly (£16) and wasn’t disappointed with the large portion that was topped with a thick piece of crunchy crackling. And if this felt like an over-indulgence it was balanced out by pearl barley wrapped in a Savoy cabbage leaf, garnished with fennel-pickled apple. Black pudding was also crumbled around the plate, inviting me to take a piece with every fork of meat or barley. My friend took the fish route, choosing Smoked Poached Haddock (£14). Before trying it we questioned whether having the potatoes spiced was entirely necessary, but when mixed with the soft yolk from the poached egg, proved to be a lovely touch.
While we digested, we grilled Molly about The Bull and found out they beat 1,600 entries to win their award. They’ve also raised £3,000 for a local pre and infant school that has lost it’s government funding, and are extending the pub to add an extra 40 covers to the 70 they can already take.
For dessert we spoiled ourselves with Apple, Cinnamon & Raisin Crumble (£6.50) with a scoop of their homemade vanilla ice cream, and Buttermilk Pannacotta, served with squares of Pistachio Cake & Raspberry Sorbet (£8), which, like everything else we’d eaten, was nothing less than superb.
The great thing about The Bull is that you can instantly tell everyone who works there is rightly very proud of what they do, and while I haven’t tried all the remaining 51,999 pubs in Britain, I feel fairly confident in saying you’d do well to find a better one.
The Bull is at 2 High Street, Ditchling, East Sussex, BN6 8TA