From Scotch eggs to mulled cider how 300 year old pub has adapted to 2020
- Credit: Camden Archives
"There are a lot of Bulls in the area" says Ollie Pudney chef and co-owner of The Bull & Last.
"Even the customers get confused. They come in only to find out they are meant to be at the Bull and Gate or even the Bull and Bush on the other side of the Heath."
Legend has it that the pub in Highgate Road got its name from a charismatic coachman careering up the Great North Road, who would shout 'Bull' then 'last' because the inn was the final stop as you left London.
First mentioned in documents in 1721 as 'Ye Last', it was originally set back from the major toll road with a drinking trough for horses out front. In the 1820s it was run by comedian Joseph Munden, but was rebuilt in 1883 after a fire.
When Henry Jenkin Gotto took over from the Lion Brewery, there was a stable yard and coach house at the back and a pub at the front. In the 1970s it was run by the well liked Jack and Joan Mason who hosted gatherings of men's pond swimmers the Highgate Lifebuoys on Sundays after their weekly swim. Then in 2008 it was the turn of a quartet, two finance partners plus Joe Swiers front of house, and ex Richard Corrigan chef Pudney in the kitchen. It was their second venture after their pub in Putney and had just completed a 17 month refurb when the first lockdown struck.
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"We have opened the pub four times this year," says Ollie - we speak just after London went into Tier 3. "We reopened in late Feb only to close four weeks later. It's disappointing that pubs and restaurants have been following strict measures - we have been running a pub as a restaurant - and that people can get on a packed tube and queue outside H&M but not bring their family for a meal. Retail is a massive sector but so is hospitality."
Undaunted, they offered take-aways through the lockdowns; hearty steak pies, Sunday roasts, flagons of beer and Scotch eggs with mulled cider for Heath walkers.
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"I am staying fairly positive," adds Ollie. "We've had such a long journey. We love our building and wanted to restore it to its days as a grand coaching inn. There was a complete overhaul, new kitchen and six upstairs rooms all done very nicely named after famous locals like John Keats and Lady Somerset. We are fortunate to be on the edge of the Heath with a loyal customer base. It has been humbling how they have supported us during lockdown, coming to help us out by grabbing something."
After the Michelin finery at Corrigan's, Ollie wanted "to do something more relaxed". "I've always loved pubs, in the early days we used to go to The Eagle and Anchor and Hope and St John's, I was inspired by that 'nose to tail' eating."
But he's just as inspired by growing up in Leigh on Sea with a grandmother and mother who were both "amazing cooks".
Describing his seasonal dishes as "classics with a few changes. Big, bold flavours, heavily British meets French and Italian," through Swiers' background on a Yorkshire beef farm, they rear and butcher their own beef, using every bit of the cow.
"This year has had its challenges but I feel optimistic. It's been a slog to keep opening the pub, looking after the staff, and flipping to take away. But hospitality has always been adaptable, you have to keep adapting."
Pudney has contributed recipes to a beautifully bound book about the pub's history. Fans can now try their blueberry cheesecake sundae, banana sticky toffee pudding, hare ragu, smoked haddock macaroni or "killer scotch egg" at home.
Buy a copy of The Bull & Last (Etive Pubs £30) in the pub and you get a golden voucher for a free scotch egg which Pudney promises is "nothing like those beige things you buy in Tesco".
"In the early days we would have a pile on the bar which would be gone in an hour while people waited in the queue for Sunday lunch. It's funny that they have now become a substantial meal."