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Ham is where the heart is for dynamic duo

Peter Brown from the Publican’s Morning Advertiser came to visit in March 2014

HAM IS WHERE THE HEAT IS FOR DYNAMIC DUO

Why Anthony and Claire Kitching’s splendidly simple cheese and charcuterie outlet is a winner.

Sometimes the best ideas are so simple you can’t believe that no-one has had them before. Other times they seem utterly insane when you first hear them. And sometimes, they’re both.

Occasionally, I come up with ideas for new beers, breweries, even pubs. I daydream for a bit, then forget about them, or start a business plan and then realise I don’t have the skills. Or maybe I get a bit further down the road, then realise that pursuing the idea would mean I wouldn’t have time to write anymore.

One such idea occurred to me on a guided bar crawl around the Kenyan capital Nairobi, away from the tourist areas. Lots of bars had butcher’s shops at the front. Where our pubs might have a flower-boxed bay window, fresh carcasses faced the street. Inside, men in bloodstained whites stood in cages with small counters facing into the pub. If you were going to pick up some meat, it made sense to stop for a pint. And if you fancied some barbecued ribs while you were there, the grill was always hot.

Beer and meat together just seem to make sense, not just as a good food and drink pairing, but spiritually and philosophically. From the spit roast of the Georgian pub to the modern-day carver, it’s a combination that has always had an irrational level of appeal.

So when I saw a boarded-up pub in the town of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, 30 yards from the market hall, just up the road from the cattle market, I had a flash of wooden bar running into a tiled white space, beer pumps giving way to a meat case, a bacon sliver at the end of the back-bar. Trust me, it would have been amazing (and no-one has come up with a better idea – the last time I was in Abergavenny, the pub was still closed).

Now someone has come up with a far better version and the meat and beer idea that is so good I’m not even jealous. Well, not that much.

Friends of Ham is just a short ramble away from Leeds railway station. As its name suggests, it sells a lot of meat. It also sells a lot of beer. Very good beer, and very good meat.

‘My husband and I went travelling for a couple of years after becoming disillusioned with London’ says Claire Kitching, who opened the bar in July 2012 with husband Anthony.

‘We fell in love with ham bars in Spain, and beer in the US. When we came back we found Kernel Brewery had opened in Maltby Street Market in Bermondsey, south London, making beers like the ones we’d been drinking in the US. In the railway arch next door to Kernel was the Ham and Cheese cO. The market soon became a Saturday afternoon hangout for us with our mates, chewing the fat over beer and meat.’

Eventually the Kitchings moved north and found brewers like Magic Rock – in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire – making similar beers. Yorkshire had many great breweries, but little in the way of charcuterie. Twin passions came together, and Friends of Ham was born.

It’s the kind of place that lifts the heart of anyone who lives well. The narrow main bar is clean and bright, decked out in plain, simple wood. Cask ales and craft-keg beers line the bar alongside a small charcuterie area dominated by a Spanish-style jgmon stand. Legs of ham hang above the back-bar. A tall fridge contain craft beer from Yorkshire as well as other, less important places both here and abroad (though some would say anywhere outside of Yorkshire is abroad).

The menu consists entirely of cheese, charcuterie, and combinations thereof, with sundry olives and almonds in support. Charmingly you can choose from Spanish cheese and ham (sourced from their friends down in Bermondsey) or Yorkshire equivalents that are just as good. As well as the beers, there’s a smart wine list and a great sherry selection.

What I love about this place, apart from the excellence of its food and drink, is that it is an expression of the passions of the people who run it. I can imagine other operators looking at this site, shrugging their should and saying ‘no kitchen’, and walking away. And I can certainly imagine other operators looking at what the Kitchings have achieved here (it’s one of the most talked-about bars in the north) nothing what they’ve mangled to do with food without cooking anything (some of the meat and cheese boards sell for £15-£17) and ripping off the concept with cash-and-carry cheese and ham, believing punters will be fooled.

With great product knowledge, true passion, and a careful selection of suppliers and products, this is a super-premium bar concept that could work well in almost any space. It’s so simple. So why does it seem like such a genius idea?

If they don’t open a branch in North London soon, I might have to move back to Yorkshire.

page 14-5, No.141

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