Brown's Beer: What London pubs could learn from a Welsh plate of cheese
Beer guru Pete Brown sings the praises of a plucky Welsh pub’s cheesy social experiment
In a pub in North Wales there’s a very interesting experiment going on.
To get philosophical for a minute, politics and the governance of society is dictated by the competition between two opposing theories about human nature.
The first is that humans are essentially selfish creatures, motivated by competition, and that the overall good is best achieved by each individual looking out for number one, taking advantage wherever they see it.
The second is that humans are essentially social creatures, who generally work together and rely on the approval and friendship of others. They do unto other as they would want done to themselves, giving freely in the hope of receiving something in return, and not being discouraged by the occasional bad apple who takes advantage. Ultimately, people work together for the greater good, from which everyone benefits.
The Blue Bell in at Halkyn, North Wales, is a very special pub, having been named Pub of the Year numerous times by various organisations and publications. It does all the things you’d expect of a great pub, and more: there’s obviously a great range of beers and ciders, all perfectly kept, and an intriguing selection of malt whiskies. The pub’s website lists all the beers and ciders that are on now, those that are coming on next and those that are arriving soon, and there are detailed tasting notes of every single one, lovingly written by the landlord, Steve Marquis.
If you didn’t happen to see these, Steve had shot glasses lined up behind the bar and will foist as many sample tasters on you as you need before you’re happy to make a decision.
This is a pub with a strong local following, but it’s also an unofficial tourist centre, full of leaflets for local attractions, supplemented by Steve’s inexhaustible local knowledge – he has good contacts with pretty much anyone doing anything interesting nearby.
There are events every night of the week, including a live folk session on Thursday, Karaoke Friday and jazz on Sunday. Increasingly we need to be given reasons or excuses to go out to the pub, and there’s always a good excuse to pop into the Blue Bell.
The only thing it lacks is a kitchen. There was one until summer 2012 when, a year after the village post office closed, the Blue Bell decided to reopen inside the pub.
So people have to get a bit inventive when it comes to offering food.
Every Saturday, the Blue Bell runs a ‘Cheese and Pickled Night’. Steve Marquis probably doesn’t see this as a sociological experiment to determine which of the two theories of human behaviour and well-being outlined above is more prevalent. But that’s exactly what it is.
The idea is simple: anyone visiting the pub on a Saturday night is invited to bring a block of cheese with them. You don’t have to – you won’t be refused admission or service if you don’t.
It does pay to plan ahead though. There’s an excellent cheesemonger in the Saturday market in the nearby village of Mold, but you need to get there before about 4.30pm when he closes up. We were a bit late and had to go to Tesco instead. We went to the cheese counter and my friend Bill asked something along the lines of, ‘What can you recommend?’
The teenage girl serving behind the counter replied, ‘Dunno, I only eat normal cheese.’
‘‘Normal’ cheese? Hang on, do you mean cheddar?’
So Bill and I turn up, a little shamefaced, with our block of supermarket cheddar. Like everyone else’s cheese it disappears into the back bar area, where Steve’s wife Ness is hard at work. At about 8.30, silver foil plates start emerging, each loaded with a variety of cheeses, every cheese with a little flag stuck in the top to say what it is. The pub provides crackers, butter, plates and knives. By the time the spread is complete there are various jars of homemade chutney too, and even a couple of cakes that people thought might nice to bring along.
There is no charge for helping yourself to a plate of cheese, and you don’t have to bring along any cheese of your own if you don’t want to – you can just dig in. Even people chancing across the pub for the first time who have no idea about Cheese and Pickled Night are invited to help themselves.
And that’s what makes the experiment fascinating.
As I sit there making my way through my third plate of cheese, I try to imagine pitching this idea to other publicans back home in London. In my head, they’re not too keen on the idea. ‘Nah, it would never work round here,’ they say, ‘people would just take the piss, not bring anything and just help themselves to as much as they can carry.’
I’m not sure, so I decide to observe.
The event is well established now, and most people in the community know about it. Anyone wanting free cheese knows they can come here and take advantage, and some people do.
If the balance of humanity is generally selfish, then these people will outweigh those who have brought cheese, and the table is going to empty pretty quickly. On average, people will eat more than they brought, and those who were generous are going to feel aggrieved.
Instead, by the end of the evening, when everyone in the pub has eaten enough cheese to give them a night full of nightmares even more colourful than the Stilton-inspired one I had last week where I was Bob Mortimer but it then became apparent that I/Bob was a secret agent who had lost his memory and his mind and been institutionalised for years until the memories returned and I/we/he made an escape and went on the run on one of those theme park little toy trains – sorry, oversharing – anyway, when everyone had had their fill, the table was still groaning under the weight of cheese.
On average, even taking scroungers into account, people had brought far more than they could possibly eat.
Was this simple altruism on the part of Steve and Ness Marquis? Not when you see how busy the bar was all night.
The Blue Bell Halkyn is more than a pub: it’s an institution that restores your faith in humanity. And we can always do with a bit more of that in London.
Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week. Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.