Friday, 29 March 2019

The Swan, Bampton, Devon

Dinner two of our little weekend jaunt to Devon took place at the Swan, in Bampton. Where the Mason's Arms had been unapologetically high-end, with its Michelin star and petits fours, set in an idyllic thatched cottage miles from anywhere, Bampton is a more normal (albeit quite pretty) functioning Devonshire town, with a butchers, greengrocers and fish & chip shop, and acccordingly, the Swan itself is a friendly and unpretentious little spot. Though not as ridiculously beautiful as the Mason's (I'm sure they won't mind me saying), it's still an attractive place to be. And as for the contrast in styles, think of the difference between the Freemasons at Wiswell (experimental, innovative modern cuisine) and the Parker's Arms (traditional pub food done incredibly well) and you're not far off.

After an expertly-constructed Negroni (my control variable, and I have to say the Swan's was slightly better than the Mason's) the first snack was a scotch egg. The Swan are participating in next month's Scotch Egg Challenge at the Canonbury, and based on this example I'm pretty sure they stand a good chance of winning. With a good crunch from the breadcrumbs, a meat layer (involving Bury black pudding) which was thick enough to provide texture but not to be cloying, and an absolutely perfectly timed egg with a lovely runny bright orange yolk from local chickens, this was basically unimprovable in any area. Oh, and a cracking home made piccallilli too. Results will be declared on 10th April; expect to hear their name mentioned.

We ordered a few things from the bar snacks menu as starters, firstly these plump prawns in a nice greaseless batter, and homemade mayo...

...a very generous bowl of hummus, where the slight disappointment of being served slightly dry flatbread was made up for a genuinely lovely chunky hummus, all buttery and salty and full of flavour. This 'snack', costing £2.95, could have fed about 6 people.

You have to love anywhere going to the effort of pickling their own herrings. These were healthy, robust things - "chewy" sounds like too much of a criticism, they just had a good solid texture and a lovely sweet/sour brine. Pickled onions and capers added a bit more texture, and were also lovely.

Best of the mains was this cod, a brilliant bit of seafood cooking boasting a crisp skin, bright white flesh falling into defined flakes. The fish itself was more than enough to justify the price tag, but topped with potted shrimp and surrounded by artichoke purée and artichoke crisps, not to mention some sea herbs, there were all kinds of colours, flavours and textures to enjoy. This is one of those dishes so thoughtfully constructed and perfectly executed you'd hardly want for another way of serving cod, anywhere.

A shame, then, that the other mains fell a bit flat. "Massaman vegetarian curry" was an odd name to give to a bowl of ratatouille and noodles. I supposed there's nothing to stop them serving ratatouille and noodles, but had "ratatouille and noodles" been on the menu, the chances of us ordering it would have been pretty small. Without a discernable trace of any of the usual massaman ingredients (chilli, fish sauce, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shrimp paste etc. etc.) it was a bland, and deeply weird main course.

Two-thirds - specifically the top two thirds - of my steak & kidney suet pudding was lovely. A nice soft suet casing, rich in fat and flavour, huge chunks of kidneys and slow-cooked beef shin inside, in a rustic thin gravy, powerfully flavoured and seasoned, there was nothing not to enjoy. Until you reached the bottom-third, where for whatever reason the beef and kidneys turned into bullets and the suet went the texture of cement. So yes, a shame, but clearly from the flavour and texture of the majority of the thing, had it not been overcooked at the bottom it would have been a very nice steak & kidney pudding indeed.

But! We didn't stay disappointed for long. A dessert of treacle tart was sublime - just the right balance of sponge and sugar, not too dense or insubstantial, and a delicate pastry crust just holding the whole thing together. And with it, clotted cream ice cream with a fantastic smooth texture and rich dairy flavour, every bit the perfect foil for the tart. This would make a fine addition to any top gastropub dessert offering.

So I can't be too hard on the Swan, despite a couple of slip-ups. This is, after all, a proper community pub, popular and rightly so with locals and tourists, serving an accessible and unaffected menu of pub favourites and for a very reasonable amount of money. True, it didn't quite do enough to get itself into the very top tier of my own personal top 50, and I'd like to have seen a few more local game options (there's a specialist game butcher just around the corner) and shellfish (even just a plate of oysters) but I'm not about to tell a Bampton pub that I know their audience better than they do. Oh, and the upstairs rooms are spacious, well-specced and come with free sweets, and I've not slept better in a strange bed for a long time. And when it was time to leave, I wish I didn't have to. And I suppose that tells you all you need to know.



Anonymous said...

On the subject of unpretentious country pubs with amazing pub food, when you're next in East Yorkshire I implore you to go to the Jolly Farmers in Leavening. I regularly dream about the rabbit pie.

Andrina said...

Just wanted to say that I'm enjoying your intelligent, well-written blog very much Chris