Friday, 17 August 2018

The Packhorse Inn, Little Longstone

It's all very easy to swan around the country, as I am wont to do, visiting high-profile ubergastropubs and Michelin-starred tasting menus, and declare self-confidently that British food is the best in the world. I do, for the record, think that British food is the best in the world, but then I go out of my way to target the ubergastropubs and Michelin-starred tasting menus and do my best do avoid anywhere serving chicken pesto panini from a laminated menu. The measure of a proper healthy food culture isn't - always - what's going on at the top end, but the kind of experience you have at your local pub or high street bistro, and the brutal truth is, in this country traditionally much pub food, and most high street bistro food was - and largely still is - not putting too fine a point on it, shit.

But recently I've noticed a few interesting developments. On a weekend break in Canterbury a few months ago, having been spoiled rotten in the Corner House on a Sunday afternoon, we braced ourselves for the inevitable laminated panini menu on a Monday evening with half of the city - including the lovely Goods Shed - closed. And yet the pub we found ourselves in purely because we liked the look of it from the outside, the Thomas Becket, turned out made their own pies, and very nice they were too.

And a couple of weeks ago in Wiltshire, attracted partly by the medieval charm of Shaftesbury's King Alfred's Kitchen and partly because it was bucketing down, and expecting nothing more exciting on offer than some microwaved scones, we were unexpectly served a truly exceptional Bakewell pudding and a stunning treacle tart, made fresh (so we were told) every morning in house. It's worth noting that neither of these places would be on any foodie lists, and barely make a song and dance about their food offering themselves, but are just quietly getting on with serving good, fresh produce with a minimum of fuss. Perhaps I'm imagining things, but I get the feeling it's getting increasingly easy to find places making an effort with their menus, and increasingly rare to be subjected to laminated menu panini.

So to the Peak District and another pub that you probably won't have heard of - the Packhorse Inn, in Little Longstone. Pubs like this - quaint, ancient, dark and cosy - are the single most important reason I couldn't live in any other country (well, that and Bovril) and I would have been more than happy sheltering from the driving rain in their stone-flagged front room even if the food had been, well, laminated menu panini. But what was this? A chalkboard menu with things like "wood pigeon pie", "dressed crab" and "raspberry and almond tart"? Local cheeseboard? Local butchers and bakers name checked? Someone here was trying.

And it was all worth the effort. Dressed crab - probably bought in from a local fishmonger but there's absolutely nothing wrong with that (have you ever tried dressing your own crab? Really not worth the hassle) - had a good amount of brown meat in it and a nice dollop of house mayonnaise spiked with paprika. It was absolutely the kind of thing you want to be given when asking for dressed crab, and well worth a paltry £6.50. I mean, the ones from Waitrose bulked up with egg are £4.

Wood pigeon pie - well of course we ordered that - was quite unneccessarily lovely. Inside a puff pastry casing lay some tender, medium-rare slices of seared pigeon breast, bound with a thick, meaty sauce. There was something vaguely artificial about the texture and Heinz-y taste of the sauce, but rather than being offputting it just gave it the tinge of nostalgia, and anyway I'm pretty sure they weren't using granules. £6 this was, for a proper homemade game pie.

Whitebait were also beyond reproach, a good amount of tiddlers, lightly breaded and enjoyably crunchy, with a chunky tartare dip. I realise it's difficult to mess up whitebait, but still.

The rabbit pie was a thing of beauty. A homemade pastry casing (so we were told), buttery and light, containing a rich, creamy filling with lots of chunks of rabbit. With this, some superb chippy-style chips - because all pies are better with chips - and a thick gravy - because all chips are better with gravy.

Lamb rump with ratatouille and red lentils was nice enough, though possibly not quite up to the standard of the pies. The topping of rocket was the first thing to get my back up, though I suppose they weren't to know I despise the stuff with every inch of my being. But ratatouille is never a particularly inspiring thing when not applied to Disney movies, and lentils can do one as well. However, the lamb was tender, it was all seasoned well, and the person who ordered it had no complaints so let's just leave it at that.

Three huge, excellent local sausages (from New Close Farm, about 10 min drive away) on a mountain of mash was my own main course, and very pleased I was with it too. Like the rabbit pie it was soaked in a straightforwardly enjoyable thick gravy, and a load of peas, and if you can't enjoy sausage, mash, gravy and peas then there's something seriously wrong with you.

Somehow we found room for the aformentioned raspberry and almond tart, homemade (of course) and served alongside Bradwell (10 min drive away) ice cream. And yes, I know not everything local is guaranteed to be wonderful, but anywhere going out of their way to not use the usual Brakes Bros. type suppliers at least has their heart in the right place, and should be recognised.

A lot to like, then, and not much to fault at all. Oh, a side of vegetables was pretty ordinary - slightly overcooked and unseasoned - but that was hardly about to ruin our day. The Packhorse were turning away group after group of ramblers and locals during the course of our lunch and you don't have to be a genius to see why - the food, the setting, the charming service, and the local Thornbridge beers all added up to what for many people will be the platonic ideal of a country pub. True, the food isn't spectacularly world-changing, but it's at the level every pub should at least be - comforting, well-priced, served with heart. In its own way, I enjoyed my lunch at the Packhorse more than many other more elaborate - and more expensive - restaurants, and I've had a lot of elaborate, expensive meals recently. Sometimes I like elaborate and expensive. And other times, I will sit in the Packhorse with a pint and a pie, while the rain hammers down outside.


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