Sunday, 6 June 2010

IN PRAISE OF THE GASTROPUB


I have just returned from what can justifiably be described as a "slap-up lunch", at a country gastropub called The Bull at Wimborne St Giles, Dorset. This is the sister establishment of The Anchor at Shapwick (near Kingston Lacey), also in Dorset. Both are what I would call "finds". Dorset seems to be quite well off for interesting country pubs, which have been gentrified and gastro'd and turned into good places to eat for dinner or Sunday lunch. Both The Bull and The Anchor seem to have undergone their transformations fairly recently, for the paintwork (all muted Farrow & Ball colours) and interior decoration are new and fresh, understated and quietly stylish in the country style. Both places have spare interiors, scrubbed tables, fine linen napiery, and excellent menus.

It seems to me the main feature of the Gastropub is a menu offering robust, hearty dishes made with fresh ingredients, locally sourced. Often the menu will include traditional dishes with a twist, and a cheeseboard featuring local cheeses is always to be looked forward to.

Today I ate scallops with black pudding and bacon, belly of pork with butter beans and green sauce, and meringues with custard, rhubarb and hazelnuts, all washed down with a pleasantly sharp Pinot Grigio. My son, who at almost 12, is beginning to develop a reasonably educated palate (living with me helps!) chose the roast beef, which was pink and succulent, with red cabbage, parsnips and carrots. There then ensued a contest to see who could eat a teaspoon full of English mustard, and then horseradish. I won, of course. I am not afraid to eat spicy or hot food, and my son was impressed that I didn't even break into a sweat.

The Eagle on Farringdon Road, claims to be London's first gastropub, established in the 1990s, when city pubs were still full of suits knocking back fizzy beer, and pub food was a curling cheese and pickle sandwich or the ubiquitous "ploughmans". It can boast some famous alumni, including Jamie Oliver, and Sam and Sam Clark, owner-chefs of Moro. When you eat there, it's easy to see how Jamie and the two Sams were influenced in their particular, and personal, styles of cooking, for The Eagle specialises in the hearty and robust. The first time I ate there, on a hot July evening, en route to a concert at Earls Court by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, I had grilled squid bruschetta with tomatos, rocket and coriander. It was fantastic, especially washed down with a pint of chilled continental lager. I "borrowed" some elements of this delicious combo to create my "hommage" to The Eagle, my Eagle Salad (sliced tomatoes, rocket, fresh coriander and thinly-sliced raw fennel). On another occasion, I ate an "onglet" of beef, which is a nice, fat pice of steak, shown a flame and then sliced to reveal its mouth-watering pinkiness within. It was served on a bed of those lovely mediterranean waxy potaoes, and a generous dollop of homemade aioli. Even better when accompanied by half a bottle of good Barollo.

The Eagle is near to The Guardian's offices and its clientele is an interesting mix of journalists and media-types, designers and city folk. It's a little off the beaten track and seems to be thankfully free of the beer-swilling city traders who might frequent other places closer to the trading floors. Its decor is simple and unpretentious: the chairs are old church chairs, complete with slots for hymn-books, and the tables are dark with old varnish. Upstairs is a small art gallery.

Many pubs will undergo a transformation, only to re-emerge as a "gastropub" or "dining pub" but somehow they don't always get it right. To me, a gastropub should be unpretentious, offering good but not showy food. It does not need plasma screens and Sky Sports, nor invasive music. It's a bonus if the staff are knowledgeable about the food and wine list, but not obligatory. Discreet, efficient service is all I ask for.

When I was a student, we used to frequent The Double Locks on the river Exe, on the outskirts of Exeter. Anyone worth their salt who has been a student at Exeter University, will know this pub. It used to offer (and may still) a full English breakfast with a pint of beer (the perfect reward after three solid days of Finals exams). It was also the place where I first tried brown bread ice-cream (see earlier post). In many ways, it was a gastropub before the term was invented and became fashionable. The Locks, as we used to call it, served the most fantastic garlic mushrooms with Stilton, and its lasagne was truly amazing, with a thick, herb-laced ragout and a layer of bubbling, creamy cheese. I nearly always had this with a pint of Wadworth's 6X. Fully tanked up on good food and ale, we would wobble home along the towpath in the dark. The Double Locks has a sister pub, The Turf, situated further along the Exe estuary in a beautiful location by the river and a appetite-inducing hike from the city centre.

Returning to those Dorset pubs, which are fine places and definitely worth a visit or three, I should also mention The Museum, at Farnham, near Blandford Forum. So-called because it was once the ad-hoc museum of the same Pitt-Rivers who set up the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford, it is a cosy place with an open fire in the winter (complete with slumbering labrador), hunting prints, dead things in cases and a room full of stag skulls. The menu is very fine, if somewhat overwhelming - the dishes are vast and I always come away from a meal at The Museum feeling faintly guilty at having over-indulged so much. That said, it is a fine place to eat, with cheerful Antipodean waiting staff. And the last time I ate there, I sat at the next table to the actor Michael Gambon.

The Eagle can boast its own cookbook, and there are plenty of guides to gastropubs around the UK, including a good one by Diana Henry. I have eaten at quite a few of them and they have been consistently good. Many also offer accommodation. My favourites are:

The Eagle, Farringdon Road, London EC1
The Pilot, Chiswick, London W4
The Anchor, Shapwick, Dorset
The Bull, Shapwick, Dorset
The Museum, Farnham, near Blandford Forum, Dorset
The Angel, Hindon, Wiltshire
The Wookey Hole Inn, Wookey Hole, Somerset
The Nobody Inn, Doddiscombleigh, Devon
The Double Locks, Exeter, Devon
The Turk Locks, Exe Estuary, near Exeter, Devon

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