To the manor Sorn

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Craig Grant may have travelled the globe honing his cooking skills, but he's never been more at home than now, running a village pub and turning out...

Craig Grant may have travelled the globe honing his cooking skills, but he's never been more at home than now, running a village pub and turning out restaurant-quality food, created from locally-sourced ingredients. alice whitehead reports

Sorn village, in Ayrshire, has remained comparatively unchanged over the last 200 years. Its 15th-century castle occupies an admirable defensive position on a cliff above the River Ayr. Ancient trout fishing rights still apply to the river, and game shooting continues to be a popular sport on the castle estate.

But time has not stood still for everyone. Chef Craig Grant has spent the last three years making his mark in the village at his pub, the Sorn Inn, which comes complete with "Chop House" and à la carte restaurant.

In January, the inn was one of nine premises in Scotland ­ and the only pub among them ­ to receive a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin 2005 Red Guide. "It's a typical country pub, but not typical pub food," says Craig, describing a menu that includes dishes such as vodka-cured queenie scallops with champagne jelly, or venison poached in tea.

Craig has had plenty of time to perfect his skills for such ambitious dishes. Though cooking started off as "just a hobby", over the last 20 years his creativity has taken him all over the world, from London's Park Lane Hotel, under French chef Monsieur Badier, to serving the glitterati at Langan's Brasserie, and then at Rookery Hall, in Cheshire, where Posh and Becks got married. He also spent three years serving guests on the QE2, circumnavigating the world five times and gaining knowledge of Thai, Indian and Far Eastern cuisine.

"Working on the QE2 was a very different experience from running my own place," says Craig. "We would cook meals for 500 people per sitting and we had a whole department that would source the produce for us. We didn't get much chance to put together a menu ourselves, but the upside was being able to go ashore and learn more about regional specialities."

It was Craig's mum who helped him finally realise his dream and get back to his roots in Scotland. "My mum was scanning the internet one day and saw the Sorn Inn for sale," says Craig. "She rang and told me, and I realised it was just what I wanted ­ a traditional country pub with lots of potential." And he hasn't regretted it since.

"It's great having my own place, because I don't have to answer to anyone. I can be myself and stamp my own ideas on the place and the menu," he says. "If a customer wants a particular dish I can provide it at a whim."

The Sorn Inn's location has had a strong influence on the menu, which is dominated by locally-sourced fish, game and meat. Sorn Castle has shoots throughout the year; and balls of shot, embedded in the tender flesh of cooked grouse, pheasant, partridge or duck, attest to this freshness. Other meat comes from Donald Russell, based in Aberdeenshire, who specialises in grass-fed, naturally-reared beef and lamb from small family-run farms. Grahams Dairies, in Bridge of Allan, and other local dairy cattle farmers provide the milk and cream.

But traditional ingredients are given an extra ounce of originality once prepared, and the attention to detail is evident. An Assiette of Breakfast comes with mini black puddings, pancetta wafers and quail's eggs, or there's a starter of black pudding fritters on creamed leeks.

Even simple condiments have Craig's stamp, with shallot jus, spiced carrot chutney, or asparagus and saffron butter sauce.

The menu is swimming with fresh fish too, with ceviche of trout served with keta caviar and red pepper essence, or pan-fried salmon on a bed of plum and cherry-tomato couscous, with ribbons of courgette and basil foam. A "fish supper", the traditional Scottish favourite, has been reworked for the pub environment, with king scallops in beer batter and chunky chips made from Ayrshire potatoes.

The meat side of things is no different. Chicken and smoked pigeon parfait is served with grilled brioche and a dollop of red-onion marmalade, while a pave of beef nods to Scotland with celeriac puree and celeriac chips. But Craig's world travel is also evident in other meat dishes, such as the soy-sauce-braised pork belly marinated in a Thai-style broth, with aromatic coriander dumplings.

The fact that Sorn village is short on com-petition must help keep trade brisk, but Craig is keen to insist that it's the quality of the food that wins over the customers.

"We get very little local trade so we rely heavily on people who are prepared to travel to eat. Being out in the sticks' means we have to work twice as hard to attract them and everything we do has to be spot on. We want them to have a wonderful experience so they'll come again or tell their friends about us."

For this reason, Craig has recently renovated the inn and reorganised the kitchen to make room for new equipment. Now the restaurant, which was once a haven for gaudy chandeliers, gilt mirrors and flock wallpaper, has been given a new lick of paint and a minimalist feel. "It's great to finally get it done, because when we first moved in we had to work with what was here," says Craig.

And trade is so good, in fact, that plans are afoot to replicate the Sorn Inn success elsewhere. "I'm looking at a few properties in Ayshire and have seen one I think would be perfect," says Craig.

"Customers from far and wide have really responded to the food here. My motto is good quality food, sourced locally and cooked to order, and I think other pub goers deserve the same elsewhere."

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