Monday, 29 June 2015
The Kingham Plough, Cotswolds
On the first evening of a weekend out of London, lulled into a false sense of security by the general comfortable loveliness of the Cotswolds, I broke my own golden rule - "do your research". Perhaps in Madrid, or Istanbul, or Bangkok you can wander travel-sore and weary from your hotel/AirBnB/tastefully-restored-14th-century-farmhouse (delete as appropriate) to the nearest bar and be happy with the results, but this has never been true of the UK and definitely isn't true of Shipton-under-Wychwood. The pub we found ourselves in on Friday night was certainly handy, being barely 50ft from the front door of our accommodation, but the expensive frozen rubbish they served, reluctantly and only vaguely in relation to what was ordered, was a timely reminder that good food is never guaranteed no matter now nice and low and oak-beamed your ceilings are. Lesson, for the umpteenth time, learned.
So Saturday lunchtime had a lot riding on it, but from the very first moment it was clear the Kingham Plough, a brisk 5-mile walk away across some of the more spectacularly lovely scenery this country has to offer, was altogether a far more worthwhile affair. In the tradition of fine old country gastropubs there is an a la carte menu, with starters around £11 and mains around £25 geared towards the kind of budget you find in these parts. But far more exciting was a truly vast "snacks" menu, ranging from Scotch quails eggs to a steak & ale pie, and covering pretty much any item you'd ever wanted to see on a pub bar menu inbetween. George Orwell's perfect pub The Moon Under Water may not have ever existed, but had he been alive today this would be his point 6 met entirely, surely as perfect a pub snack menu as anyone's ever written.
Writing it is one thing though, making a reality of it quite another, but it's my pleasure to report that the Plough walks the walk just as well as it writes a menu. It's the little things you notice first - house "cereal" bread (not entirely sure of the definition, maybe they meant the bran flakes on the crust) came warm from the oven and accompanied by Holmleigh Dairy butter, which was so rich and orange it looked like a slab of Red Leicester. This is a part of the world obsessed with dairy - Stinking Bishop, Barkham Blue, Berkswell and the various lovely goat's products from Brockhall Farm are all not a million miles away, and in fact Kingham itself, a tiny village home to no more than a couple of hundred people, has its own artisan cheese maker Rodger Crudge. Oh, and the Plough has a milk vending machine in its beer garden. For emergencies, like.
Prawns in a branded Hook Norton pintglass were lovely and sweet, with an aioli just garlicky enough. Pork pie was a perfectly formed little thing, generously filled with plenty of pig and summer herbs. I'd have preferred piccalilly to the "ploughman's pickle" it came with (actually more of a chutney), similarly the "homemade ketchup" presented alongside the otherwise stunning sausage roll. Homemade ketchup falls into the same category as homemade brown sauce or homemade hot buffalo wing sauce - it's an awful lot of effort to put into something that will end up still tasting worse than the stuff you can buy off the shelf. So why bother?
Mushrooms and snails on toast was perhaps the most universally admired of the snack dishes - there's something so incredibly right about the marriage of snails and mushrooms; flora and fauna that shared an environment in nature and now share a plate. "Soily" is usually used as an insult when used about food, but the more benign "earthy" doesn't cut it in this situation either - the combination of bread, butter, snails, mushrooms, thyme, was like eating a salty slice of the rolling Oxfordshire countryside. Perfectly balanced, and addictively packed with flavour.
Cotswold Rarebit was another pleasant twist on a classic - a thick mixture of what were (presumably local) cheeses mixed in with (presumably also local) beer. Thicker and less potently alcoholic as some rarebits I've tried, it was still very easy to enjoy. So too were some simple grilled asparagus stalks, dipped into a pot of hollandaise.
Lamb shoulder bun with cucumber & mint relish could probably be accused of being the most left-field, rather knowingly trendy whilst everything else had been so tastefully traditional, but was a hugely generous portion for £6.50 and came in their own glossy house baked buns. And for the sake of curiosity we even tried a couple of dishes from the a la carte, a wonderful chargrilled Cornish mackerel fillet, with various foraged sea vegetables and an impeccably balanced oyster mayonnaise, and a moist, complex Chicken Wellington. This is obviously a kitchen very happy operating at any budget.
The success of the mackerel made us think that there was more on the a la carte worth investigating, so to save any tricky um-ing and ah-ing we just decided to order everything under desserts. And boy am I glad we did, because whoever's on pastry at the Plough is doing a quite remarkable job. House ice creams, made with the same Guernsey cattle milk from the nearby vending machine, were just about as perfect as it's possible for ice cream to be, rich and velvety with not a hint of crunch and in a variety of powerful, seasonal flavours.
Elderflower and goat's curd cheesecake was also very top-end stuff, and wouldn't be out of place on any Michelin-starred menu. The citrussy notes of goat's curd and elderflower are a perfect match, and I liked the clever little jelly they'd managed to get to set on top of the cake.
Dark chocolate & cherry Arctic Roll was a dense and exotic play on techniques and texture, and though chocolate and cherry is hardly a groundbreaking idea, it worked because every element was as good as it can be. The roll itself was particularly interesting, as when you cut a slice with your knife it briefly revealed a shiny frozen interior that changed to dark and matte before your eyes, like in those old school science videos of anonymous lab technicians cutting through a block of pure sodium.
And then the best soufflé I can remember eating in a very long time. Neither too eggy or too light, not too sweet or too greasy, it was an utter strawberry soufflé masterclass, completely unimprovable. Everyone on the table agreed that in a meal of many contenders, this was the winning dish, something that you could have paid €50 for in a 3 star Parisian hotel restauarant and still been happy. So not bad, really, for £9.
In many ways, I'm glad we had that awful first meal on the Friday. I wasn't glad at the time, of course, I wished we'd run a mile in the opposite direction, but now I've put a bit of distance between myself and leathery steak and rancid onion rings I can appreciate that if nothing else, we should never take good food for granted. We may never be a country where the minimum standard is anything more than mediocre - we'll never have the tapas bars of Madrid or the street stalls of Bangkok, and crappy frozen chain pub food may always be a stick for lazy tourists to beat us with. But for a country that for so long could offer nothing more than crappy frozen food to suddenly be home to artisan cheese makers, passionate producers, local breweries and even the odd restaurant as good as the Plough, well, to be honest, that'll do for now. And just think where we can go from here.
Photos by Hannah