For the many of us who have never been to a Jail, the phrase ‘jail food’ instantly evokes images of things we’ve seen on the TV in the past.
It varies between the shoving of the final meal for the condemned through the hatch in the jail door or in the case of the hit US series Prison Break – the eating of dinner in the communal area as you try to avoid the gaze of T-Bag.
Whatever the image the phrase evokes for you, it’s safe to say what doesn’t spring to mind is high class cuisine. Then along came the redevelopment of Bodmin Jail into a luxury hotel, brand new tourist attraction and the site of today’s sampling – the brand new Jolly Hangman Tavern in the site of the former administration building of the once-derelict Jail.
Now, while this was one part of the building that survived the demolition men and eventual ruin, in keeping with the rest of the development it’s been given a ‘touch of class’.
A new addition to the tour of Bodmin’s cuisine map which includes everything from the traditional takeaway to Thai restaurants, this is one part of the new Bodmin Jail development that along with the attraction is open to those who may not afford to stay in the luxury hotel it shares its floor space with.
The Jolly Hangman Tavern is also run by the same team that runs the hotel meaning that even if you’re just dropping by for a bite to eat, you get the five-star service treatment without a night in the cells.
Given it’s just reopened after going into a coronavirus induced slumber, it seemed to be a good time to see what it’s all about. So that’s what we did – Cornwall Live went along to try it out and meet the team behind the Jolly Hangman Tavern.
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Situated in the Jail’s old administration building, the Jolly Hangman Tavern is in keeping with the rest of the Bodmin Jail redevelopment. Namely, the respect of the history of the building while making it contemporary and enjoyable for even the most discerning of customers. Indeed, the indoor space of the tavern is something I’m much looking forward to enjoying when it’s allowed to reopen.
But as you probably already know, it’s April 2021 and at the moment everything’s outdoors and with that in mind, it’s just as well the weather when we visited was clear blue skies and only a smattering of clouds.
Today’s taste of the Jolly Hangman would come from their sizable outdoors area, featuring large picnic-style benches perfectly sized for a household or support bubble. Upon arrival you’re greeted by the historic entrance to the Jail, now the attraction entrance and immediately after entering, you know you’re amongst history with the beautifully preserved buildings sitting nicely alongside the newer constructions which tastefully blend in with those which came before it.
Now we’ve established the scene that is set for our taste of the Jolly Hangman, it’s time to turn to the food. Having a browse of the menu, the first thing that struck me is just how much of it is Cornish produce. Everything from the meat in the burgers to the tea and coffee sold is Cornish and as a proud Cornishman, that is something that greatly appeals to me.
Obviously, the menu had Cornish pasties and as my waistline testifies, I’m something of a pasty connoisseur so today wasn’t a day for my favourite taste of Cornwall. Instead, I opted for the Jail’s ‘Belmarsh Bacon Buster’.
The menu describes today’s meal of choice as: “Legend has it that a Chaplain of HMP Belmarsh visited Cornwall and brought the famous bacon buster burger to the Governor of Bodmin Jail. It has all the glory of the Jailer’s choice cheeseburger with the addition of lashings of crisp bacon – not for the faint-hearted”. Probably just as well I had skipped breakfast.
After being served one of the terrific Cornish Tea’s ranges of teas, I was very much looking forward to seeing the burger and when I arrived, I wasn’t disappointed. A six-ounce burger complete with a sumptuous burger sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and bacon in a toasted brioche bun, it was a challenge to eat due to its size, but the cacophony of flavours really hit the spot.
Accompanying it was a side of fries. Now, we’ve all been to places where there’s too much salt, not enough or where the fries are too cold or too hot. Not these, these were just right. Crisp to the taste and perfectly salted, they may just be the best fries I’ve ever enjoyed from somewhere as they were delightful. You could certainly tell it wasn’t a packet of chips you could buy from a supermarket.
Alongside that was a helping of delightfully crunchy slaw. I have a love-hate relationship with coleslaw or slaw and often I find it too heavy in sauce, other times not enough. Much in keeping with the burger and the fries, it was just right. I learned in a conversation with the chef during my visit that all they sell is carefully taste-tested by their team to ensure it’s right for the Jolly Hangman and you could tell it’s a recipe that’s been carefully finessed.
Cheap, quick fast food this is not and the prices on the menu reflect this so if the price is your main concern, you may find yourself looking at the menu and howling with outrage. However, it actually compares quite competitively to other places in the town that aspire to a similar quality; yes, it isn’t the cheapest but you get a remarkable amount of quality for what you pay for which isn’t the most unreasonable, considering.
It’s not one of those places where you pay a fortune and get a portion smaller than you’d get in a happy meal, either. To put it into perspective, even with my well-trained appetite and the fact I’d missed breakfast, a dessert taste was a stretch too far.
Meet the Team
With this being a brand new addition to Bodmin’s culinary map, I thought it important to meet the team behind it to find out the story behind the food on the menu.
The last time we came to the Jail for the tour of the Bodmin Jail Hotel, we met Resort CEO Rajesh Joshi who told us about how the items supplied to those staying in the hotel ‘were 95% sourced in Cornwall, ranging from the china the tea is served into the toiletries’. So was it the same for the publicly accessible restaurant?
This time, we would be in the company of the manager of the Jolly Hangman Tavern, Kate Rutherford and her very attentive team of waitresses who I noticed through the visit really went the extra mile to ensure everything was as good as it could be, providing exceptional customer service that you’d expect from a high-end establishment. Everything from the presentation of the meal to the location was careful and tasteful.
She told me that like the hotel, everything where possible came from Cornwall. She said: “Absolutely everything that is possible to be Cornish, is Cornish. There are some things, such as the coke on the tap that obviously it isn’t possible to source locally but absolutely everything we can is sourced as local as possible and it’s really important to us that we support local producers wherever we can. It’s our aim to get to 100% Cornish produce across all our major lines as soon as possible.”
Like the Bodmin Jail Hotel, it’s not just the food that’s sourced from Cornwall. In my conversation with Kate, she also revealed how the attraction of working at such a historic venue attracted her to Cornwall over a year ago.
She said: “While I grew up in the North East of England, when Rajesh (Joshi, Resort CEO) approached me over a year ago to come and lead the team at the Jolly Hangman Tavern, the opportunity to be part of this truly exciting development was one I could not resist taking up. It’s been a strange time to start up a new restaurant and while we had spells of being open last year, I’m really hopeful that it’s the last time we’ll have to close.
“The reception we’ve had from locals so far who have visited us, especially in the last week has been amazing. There’s a real sense of people loving the fact we’re here and enjoying what we offer. It’s really good to be here, part of the community and I’m really looking forward to welcoming visitors to Cornwall too when the pandemic allows.”
Indeed, throughout my visit, there was only a smattering of people enjoying the sunshine as well as the food and drinks on offer. However, I feel that with food this good, an environment this spectacular and not to mention the jail’s attraction and hotel set to reopen next month, I think my next visit might be somehow busier.