Meet the brains behind the Cotswolds' Best Menu, The Priory Inn Tetbury

We love the Cotswolds and so it’s always a treat to attend the Cotswold Life Food & Drink Awards, this year held at Cheltenham Racecourse and attended by more than 550 esteemed guests. It’s the perfect opportunity to celebrate and showcase the good and the great from the region’s food and drink industry, including local producers and suppliers, small farming businesses, chefs, restaurants, pubs and hoteliers and people who care about the countryside and the future of our local environment.

As food fanatics, fiercely passionate about high quality ingredients, we were thrilled to sponsor Best Cotswold Menu and by extension, to champion the nutritious, locally sourced produce being transformed into superb flavours by three worthy finalists – The Priory Inn Tetbury, National Star College’s student training venture, the StarBistro and luxury country house hotel, Lower Slaughter Manor in Lower Slaughter.

Our hearty congratulations go to owners Tanya and Dave Kelly and their team at The Priory Inn Tetbury for scooping the acclaimed title. High commendations were awarded to Star Bistro and Lower Slaughter Manor.

We get the juice from Dave Kelly about his award-winning food ethos…

1) Tell us about The Priory Inn, your team and the experience you can expect to find if you visit.
The Priory Inn is a 14 bedroom hotel, restaurant and bar in a busy Cotswold market town. My wife Tanya and I have owned it since 2004, so this award-winning year represents a decade of business for us. We have a strong team of 22 people - our front of house team are selected on the strength of their personality and attitude, with experience coming a close second. Chefs are only employed if they have a genuine desire to immerse themselves in our 30 Mile Food Zone and are driven to do justice to the great local ingredients we buy. When you visit us your experience will be genuine, authentic and unpretentious.

2) You’ve just scooped the ‘Best Cotswold Menu’ award. What does this accolade mean to you?

We believe that the dedication and skill of our farmers and producers drives us to do justice to their food and drink. So, winning ‘Best Cotswold Menu’ means that all the results derived from creating a truly Cotswold Menu and showcasing the very best food in the region, is recognised as industry leading, and we are very proud of that achievement.

3) How important are your suppliers to your success? What’s your approach to sourcing ingredients?

It is not easy to source all your food locally with small suppliers (often farmers). You have to work extra hard in making the initial contact, tasting their products, establishing a relationship, often driving to collect, ordering individually and ensuring that the quality of food remains consistent.

We made a commitment to local food in 2008 by drawing a 30-mile radius around Tetbury and trying to buy all our food and drink from within that area. We are now at around 90% and our menus reflect these efforts.

When we take our staff on tours of the local farms, dairies, breweries and many others, we all recognise the common thread that runs throughout the small business owners and that is that they truly care – they love their products and they have an unparalleled pride in what they do and rightly so.

4) What can we find on your menu this month and what do you have planned for August and September?

This month the produce is bountiful! All the salad products are at their sweetest – tomatoes, cucumber and even salad leaves have a real depth of flavour (injected by sunshine) and they combine perfectly alongside our local cheeses such as “Fetish” (think Greek Feta) and mozzarella for a local slant on a Mediterranean salad duo.

This spring, we planted a delightful herb garden designed and planted by the “Queen of Herbs”, Jekka McVicar, and our chefs are now harvesting armfuls of fresh herbs daily to use in all dishes.

We are also kept on our creative toes by local gardeners who bring in their excess produce under our ‘Barter at the back door’ scheme where they exchange food for vouchers. Berries, courgettes and rhubarb are currently the big winners and anything that comes into the kitchen makes it onto the specials menu the same day.

As the year drifts into the autumn, the food takes on a new slant within our menus. We have mouth-watering local venison, slow-roasted game, autumn lamb and a multitude of earthy vegetables like wild mushrooms and early root vegetables including crunchy carrots and cauliflowers, perfect potatoes and parsnips, beautiful beetroots and crisp cabbages. The pudding choices use the many local apples, blackberries and plump pears, all oozing with ripeness to the core.

Using our wood burning oven, one of the favourites for us has to be our truly local pizzas. The ingredients are 100% from within 30 miles of Tetbury. The base is made from Shipton Mill flour, the best mill in the UK, the mozzarella from Alham Farm, a buffalo and dairy farm near Shepton Mallet, charcuterie from local artisan charcutiers Native Breeds and Trealy Farm, and our tomato sauce is made by Tracklements. Inspired by the seasons, we have recently developed a summer pizza with strawberries, spinach and blue cheese – the pizza is a perfect canvas to showcase delicious ingredients.

5) What trends are making their way into your kitchen and onto your menus?

There is a trend in well-managed, forward-thinking restaurants, which many British chefs and organisations that govern industry standards are finding hard to accept. That trend is to move away from fussy, manicured “rosette standard” food which focuses on the way a dish looks, towards simple food that focuses on the taste and flavour – that resonates deeply with us, because it is reminiscent of something earthy and good from our past.

6) What sorts of drinks do you stock behind your bar and what are your bestsellers?

The drinks that we stock are almost all local to The Cotswolds. We proactively rejected all branded mass-produced lagers, stout, cider and wheat beer in favour of a family-owned and managed micro-brewery in Bourton on the Water – The Cotswold Brewing Company.

Of course it is easy to stock beautiful real ales and the great Uley Bitter is our house ale, accompanied by two guest ales.
We have Cotswold Gin and Vodka which are great sellers, Bramley and Gage liqueurs, and our wine list is driven by a Cirencester business which meets our ethical standards by buying its wines from small family-owned vineyards where the quality of the produce is their passion.

We lead our sparkling wine offering with a locally-grown, award-winning Brut and Rosé from a six-acre vineyard, Bow-in-the-Cloud, just over five miles from Tetbury.

7) Have you noticed any change in your customers’ behaviour or purchasing habits?

The trend over the recent years has been a growing expectation amongst all customers to ensure that they receive quality in all transactions and a high value for money proposition. They are loyal purchasers if they do not feel oversold to and can rely on consistent quality.

Over the last five/six years, we have completely moved away from any fixed price menus on the big occasions such as Valentine's, Mother's Day and New Year's Eve. This is in response to our customers wanting to make the same value choices on those special days as on all other days. They certainly don't want to be forced into over-spending because the restaurant believes it can get away with this. We are consistently sold out a long way in advance of all these special occasions – doing it our way.

8) What features do you believe are essential for creating a memorable, recommendable experience and how do you achieve this?

Firstly, through the food – it is crucial for a dining experience to focus on real tastes and true flavours, letting the food speak for itself by starting with great, fresh, local ingredients. Secondly, the service – served by genuine people who are interested in the food and care about their customer's experience, who go out of their way to make them feel valued. Thirdly, the atmosphere – cosy and candle-lit in the colder months, bright and breezy in the summer.

9) How important is community and celebrating the fruits of the Cotswolds in maintaining fully booked rooms and full tables at lunch and dinner times?

The community is at the very heart of our business and was always the foundation for our model. Our suppliers are also our customers and recommend us to their friends and families. We have many local gardeners regularly bringing us surplus produce from their gardens and allotments, local artists display their work on the restaurant walls, local singer-songwriters play acoustic music every Sunday night and we charge no entry fee, resulting in a special community atmosphere. Alongside our focus on sourcing almost everything locally, this means we have a strong loyal following for the restaurant and many repeat customers in our rooms.

10) If you were Prime Minister for a day, what issues would you tackle and what solutions would you enforce?

I would try and influence the Common Agricultural Policy to encourage small-scale artisan food and drink producers through subsidies, rather than throwing the money at the mass-production-intensive farms.

Anything that has a local, cultural relevance via food and drink production would receive the subsidies previously doled out to the big boys: dairy farmers turned cheese makers; speciality organic flour millers; the finest fruit and vegetable growers; expert bee-keepers and hedgerow jam makers; artisans devoted to English vines; small-scale farmers who take great pride in their animals' welfare and meat quality.

24 July 2014