The Farmers Arms is one element of an all-encompassing hospitality venture set within the Devon village of Woolsery. Amanda Afiya samples the menu, which aims to reflect the local landscape
There’s something rather magical about the north Devon village of Woolsery. With its Norman church, village pub, convenience store and chip shop, on first impressions it appears like any sleepy parish at the heart of a broader farming community.
But over the past few years, Woolsery has undergone a remarkable transformation, thanks to Michael and Xochi Birch, founders of social networking site Bebo, who have breathed new life into the village following a multimillion-pound regeneration project.
The San Francisco-based tech entrepreneurs sold Bebo to AOL in 2008 for $850m (£642m), later purchasing it back for $1m (£765,000). With familial ties to the village (Birch’s grandmother was born above the village shop), the Woolsery Project emerged following the Birches’ purchase of the dilapidated, Grade II-listed Farmers Arms in 2015, succeeded by multiple key acquisitions since.
Today the project includes the 17th-century Farmers Arms, the Woolsery Fish & Chip Shop, the Village Post Office and Shop, four guest cottages located in the village centre, a hotel set within a Grade II-listed Georgian manor house, expected to open in 2022, and a farm.
The Farmers Arms opened in September, having been transformed by Hannah Lohan Interiors and Emily Harmon, the Birchs’ trusted aide, into a handsome pub and restaurant with two bars, a dining room, a lounge and a garden with outside seating.
The bars offer hearty dishes such as a roast pork, stuffing, caramelised onion, rosemary and Bramley apple ketchup sandwich (served with chips, £8.95), while the West Barn features a handful of formal dining tables and a lounge area. The light-filled Shippon operates as the main restaurant. Richly coloured fabrics, art and playful taxidermy create an individuality stimulated by its inspirational owners.
All things culinary fall to Ian Webber, whose CV includes working at St Martin’s on the Isles of Scilly with Patrick Pierre Tweedie; with Terri Boswell (also known as Thérèse Theodas, the sculptor behind the Catey statue) at Combe House near Honiton (now the Pig at Combe); and for six years with Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park in Chagford, where he became head chef.
“Michael’s classical training and the influences on him from his mentors meant it was almost like working with those chefs myself,” says Webber. “It was like a finishing school for me.”
There are two menus available – the rustic, traditional bar menu, and the more refined à la carte menu served in the restaurant, West Barn and 10-seat private dining room.
Webber, who grew up in Honiton, is passionate about local sourcing, but his priority is to serve “delicious food in an unstuffy, accessible environment”.
He explains: “I like to use ingredients that have a link to our location, but I’m open to anything. Everything has arrived here at some point if you look at the history of ingredients, so what is truly British?”
A good illustration of this is the restaurant’s starter of mackerel, apple, turnip and Cornish pepper (£10). “Jenny Hayns, our head grower, is an amazing gardener. She has cultivated Cornish pepper – many people know it as Tasmanian pepper – but it has been grown here so it has the local terroir,” explains Webber.
Among the dishes that Webber is most proud of is a dessert of sea buckthorn, pink peppercorn, tarragon and hibiscus (£9). For this dish, Webber creates a pyramid of sea buckthorn parfait, pink peppercorn and hibiscus sorbet, sea buckthorn fruit leather, sea buckthorn curd, pink peppercorn glass tuile, tarragon powder, tarragon oil, tarragon shoots and ground pink peppercorn.
“Desserts as a whole are the most complete part of the menu. We challenge ourselves with ingredients new to us; sea buckthorn is perhaps the hardest to marry flavours to – we just keep trying different ingredients together,” he says.
Webber is enthusiastic about the growing potential of the nearby 92-acre farm: “To be able to produce the ingredients relevant to the area for me to cook, well, it’s a chef’s dream. The Woolsery Project’s potential is huge – preserving the future of the village for generations to come and keeping the area as a whole at the heart of it.”
From the menu
• Birch Farm egg, wild mustard leaves, mallard, onion £10
• Mackerel, apple, turnip, Cornish pepper £10
• Pickled butternut squash, hand-dived scallop, cardoon £14
• Cod and smoked mussel, smoked mussel emulsion, purple sprouting broccoli, elderflower buttermilk £18
• Higher Hacknell hogget, ramson, nettle, three-cornered leek £20
• Semi-cured duck, myrtle, beetroot, blackberry £20
• Dark chocolate, Devon sorb apple, smoked chestnut, raisin £9
• Caramelised medlar, sloe, Vulscombe goats’ curd, rosemary £9
The Farmers Arms, Woolsery, Bideford, Devon EX39 5QP