Fighting the good fight...
PUBLISHED: 09:50 31 October 2013 | UPDATED: 09:50 31 October 2013
Christo Tofalli locked the doors of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Abbey Mill Lane and cracked several bottles of champagne with his staff when he heard the ancient hostelry had been named the best pub in St Albans for the second year running in the city's food and drink awards.
“We had a good night!” he grins. “When we heard we’d made it to the shortlist of six pubs, we never thought we’d go on and win the top prize again.”
It’s a remarkable achievement. St Albans has 50 pubs – that’s more per square mile than any other town or city in the country.
But the Fighting Cocks is special. It’s in a striking location on the edge of Verulamium Park and lake, and just downhill from the imposing bulk of the abbey. It’s officially the oldest inn in Britain – that’s according to the Guinness Book of Records. Not everyone agrees with that but it would be a mistake to allow controversy to overshadow Christo and his team’s award and the brilliant job they’ve done in restoring the pub’s fortunes.
Christo comes from a Cypriot family but he was born in this country and lives in Radlett. He helped a friend out in the Cat & Fiddle in Radlett and enjoyed the work. But, he says, he wanted to be more than a barman and jumped at the chance to run the Fighting Cocks when the lease became available in 2011.
“We took over in April that year and there was a whirlwind of activity,” he recalls. “Everything had to be renewed – electrics, plumbing, the kitchen and the beer lines all had to be renovated.”
The Fighting Cocks is a listed building and you can tell its age from the low, beamed ceilings, standing timbers, an inglenook fireplace and wooden partitions. But age takes its toll and Christo had a lot of back-breaking work to do before the pub met his high standards.
It’s owned by the large pub company Mitchells & Butlers and Christo has to source his beers through the company. In the past the Fighting Cocks had a restricted beer list but Christo has thumbed guide books and studied websites to develop a range that should suit the most demanding tastes.
He’s clearly been successful, for the head office staff of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, will hold their Christmas party in the pub – and they don’t come much more demanding than that. Christo will rise to the occasion with more than a dozen beers available. At the moment his regular list includes Purity Ubu and Warlord from Warwickshire, Gathering Storm from the Leeds Brewery, Rudgate’s Zest is Best from York and Mole Catcher from Moles Brewery in Wiltshire.
Christo is also a chef and works in the kitchen as well as behind the bar. He’s passionate about fresh, local food. “When we took over, people said we should ‘go bistro’. I said you can’t do that to the Fighting Cocks – it’s the country’s oldest pub and it should be wrapped in cotton wool.”
He’s overhauled the menu and – chips apart – buys all the ingredients locally. In the large pub garden he grows carrots, garlic and squash, with herbs nurtured in hanging baskets. He sponsors Earthworks, the St Albans-based charity that gives young people experience of horticultural work, and sources ingredients from there. A neighbour in Radlett is a spice blender and Christo uses those skills to make a range of sausages, including Cumberland sausage with Italian sage and a Cypriot-inspired oregano sausage.
The Fighting Cocks is a hive of activity, it’s a great success, it offers great beer and food and it creaks with history. But – and the question can no longer be dodged – is it Britain’s oldest pub? The Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham also claims the title, as does the Bingley Arms in Yorkshire.
Suggestions that the Fighting Cocks dates from AD 739 are almost certainly wrong as that was the year the abbey was founded. It was licensed as an ale house around 1600 and was known as the Roundhouse and the Fisherman before acquiring its current name.
But one thing is beyond dispute: it’s a great, vibrant pub, officially the best in St Albans.
*Roger Protz edits the Good Beer Guide. Follow him on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer.