Open Arms welcome new look Verulam
- Credit: Archant
It’s good to be liked. When George Fredenham and Gerald Waldeck took over the Verulam Arms in 2010, people would knock hopefully on the pub door and ask: “When are you opening?” Even though St Albans has some 55 pubs, drinkers have their favourites and there was solid support for the Verulam at 41 Lower Dagnall Street.
The regulars had to be patient. Behind locked doors, George and Gerald were busily transforming the 19th-Century pub. When it finally re-opened it was known under the new title of The Foragers at the Verulam Arms, with a new concept in pub-running and food.
It may have come as something of a shock for older customers but they were assured it would remain a pub that happened to do excellent food – it hasn’t become a restaurant. When I went to meet George and Gerald, I immediately felt at home, as the three of us share German ancestry. Our families came to Britain in the mid to late 19th centuries.
While Gerald – like me – is a Londoner, George is from Harpenden and went to Verulam School. Gerald ran a bakery in London until he retired while George worked, he says, as “a management consultant in emerging markets”. As I had only a small notebook, I thought it best to avoid asking him to explain the job and concentrated instead on the pub.
The new Verulam is bright and airy, with pastel shades, polished wooden floors and tables set out for either casual drinking or for dining. As you enter, the bar with its handpumps and keg founts, makes it clear that the name may have changed slightly, but the Verulam is still somewhere to drop in for a good pint.
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The food side is not a modern add-on. The Verulam started life as a hotel in the 1850s when Thomas Telford was employed to improve the major coaching route from London and that ran via St Albans to Holyhead. Telford cut a new road straight through the centre of the city and the Verulam was built to cater for the carriage trade. The Earl of Verulam was one of the investors in the hotel and as a result it carries his coat of arms.
When the train line from St Pancras reached St Albans en route to the north, the coaching industry rapidly collapsed. The Verulam lost its stables and the hotel became redundant. It was turned in to a simple pub and remained so until the Foragers arrived.
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Becky Alexander has written about the food side of the pub and I shall not tread on her toes. Suffice it to say that Gerald and George have a passion for organic food and ingredients culled from the wild, to such an extent that one of the brewers that supplies them, XT in Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire, is experimenting with a beer that uses a plant called ale hoof or ground ivy. This recalls the medieval period, before the widespread use of hops in brewing, when all manner of plants and herbs were used to make beer bitter and to balance the biscuity character of malted barley.
The real ales on the bar are rather more conventional: Taylor’s Landlord from Yorkshire, Young’s Bitter form Bedford, and 3 Brewers Classic English Ale, from the latest new brewery in St Albans. They also have regular beers from Buntingford and Oakham.
As well as using plants and herbs in the food, George and Gerald adapt them for drinks such as sloe gin and crab apple brandy. They source their ingredients from woods, a local organic farm, or, with the farmers’ permission, from the edges of agricultural land. They also have the free run of the Earl of Verulam’s estate at Gorhambury, which rather neatly squares the historical circle.
Some of the wild ingredients currently in use are listed on a chalkboard in the bar: nettles, vetch, wild mustard, sorrel, and knotweed. These are used by head chef Tommy Forrester in his large range of dishes.
George and Gerald stress that customers are free to just drop in for a beer. “Many regulars work in London,” Gerald says. “They come in for a pint or two and may then move to a table to eat.”
I can see the attraction. As nettles and hops are members of the same plant family, I fancy nursing a pint of Classic English Ale and then sampling nettle, hogweed and feta filo pie, served with a tomato and cucumber salad, finished with wild majoram and balsamic dressing. It’s got to be better than veggie lasagne.
The mention of 3 Brewers, based at Symondshyde Farm, off Coopers Green Lane, prompts me to report that as well as supplying a number of pubs in St Albans, the brewery’s beers can now be bought to take home in convenient mini-kegs. As well as Classic English Ale, a new beer has been added: Golden English Ale (3.8 per cent), the first beer in Britain to use a hop called Cascade. It’s an American hop but is now being grown in Herefordshire.
Cascade is famous for the powerful citrus note it gives to beer and I look forward to sampling a brew made with the English variety. 3 Brewers’ beers for take-home are available from Cellar Door Wines, Unit 1, Verulam Industrial Estate (01727 854488).
*Follow Roger on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.