Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Gourmet Dining in the British Countryside

England never used to be a place you would come for gourmet food. We were a lot more famous for comfort food – fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and good old-fashioned steak and kidney pudding (which incidentally I find anything but comforting, but that is another story). Then, about twenty years ago, the United Kingdom’s tastes began to evolve. Nouveau cuisine was no longer something to be feared. People began writing about food, talking about food and embracing dishes previous generations would have turned their noses up at.

It was a quiet revolution and it took rather a long time. To begin with, all the places that served more adventurous cuisine were in the big cities, and even as recently as a few years ago, small towns were not the place to look if you wanted a special meal. But times have changed and these days even little places in the countryside have some fabulous restaurants. From gastropubs in tiny villages to five star restaurants in market towns, British cuisine has undergone a transformation so immense that it is now almost unrecognizable. Indeed, there is even a movement afoot to get us all back to cooking “good old fashioned dishes” as some folk worry they may disappear.

I for one do not think that Shepherd’s Pie is under any immediate threat, and even in the poshest gastropub you will still usually find a ploughman’s lunch on offer, albeit one made with locally made artisanal cheese. What delights me is the wonderful meals that can now be had in the tiniest of places.

There is a little village in Staffordshire called Rolleston-on-Dove that boasts not just one, but two fabulous restaurants. Dovecliffe Hall is a Georgian house dating from 1790 set in seven acres of beautiful grounds. It is gorgeous inside, with a beautiful staircase, paneled halls and huge rooms. As for the food, well, it is quite simply magnificent. I’ve been going here for over ten years and am always so impressed by the variety and freshness of their constantly changing menu. One of the things they are famous for is a bread and butter pudding that I have actually heard described on more than one occasion as “better than sex”. (Not ever by my husband I hasten to add!) Now I certainly would not go that far either, but I do have to admit it is very good indeed. The chef has lightened this traditionally very heavy dessert and served it with a crème anglais and caramel sauce that is quite beyond delicious.

If that does not appeal, there is always the restaurant at the wonderful Brookhouse Hotel just down the road. Set in a William and Mary house dating from about 1690, this is another place to go for the most delicious of food. Over the past few years, I have enjoyed everything here from beautifully cooked traditional Sunday lunches to gourmet evening meals. I defy you to resist their dessert trolley, which offers such a huge selection of decadent choices it is almost overwhelming.

An hour or so away on the Welsh border, the little village of Shrewsbury also boasts some wonderful places to eat. The Chamber restaurant, part of the Prince Rupert Hotel, might look like a pub, but its dishes could never be described as pub grub. Their moules mariniere are the first I have ever been served where every single mussel was open and the sauce was perfect for soaking up with pieces of crusty bread. They offer a huge selection of main dishes including some very inventive vegetarian choices, and again, their desserts are wonderful. Traditionally heavy British desserts, such as Sticky Toffee Pudding and Ginger Pudding, have been lightened and served with delicate sauces. Delicious! Also at the Prince Rupert, you will find the Royalist Restaurant which offers a more formal setting but equally delicious food. Their menu offers everything from seafood to vegetarian choices, and uses lots of locally produced foods. The desserts do not disappoint either.

Even in the tiniest of places you can find wonderful culinary gems. For example, not far from where I live in Berkshire is a tiny little place called Tidmarsh. The pub there is called the Greyhound and the building dates from the thirteenth century. It has been a pub since the 1600’s. Not a place you would expect gourmet food? You would be surprised. Try their Chicken Liver & Armagnac Pate with Plum & Apple Chutney as an appetizer and you will be delighted. As for main courses, the menu offers a huge choice of delicious foods from many different cuisines. And if you are after something more traditional, their beer battered fish and chips are made with beer freshly pulled from the taps at the bar. Many of their desserts would not look out of place in the finest French restaurant, but they also include versions of traditional British favourites including crumble with custard and Sticky Toffee Pudding.

Or journey down the Thames to Moulsford, a tiny village in beautiful countryside and dine at The Beetle and Wedge Boathouse. Set on the riverbanks that inspired famous books like “The Wind in The Willows” and “Three Men in a Boat”, this restaurant offers a unique dining experience. The older part of the restaurant, which is downstairs, offers an open charcoal grill where delicious dishes are cooked before your eyes. In the conservatory upstairs, floor to ceiling windows offer wonderful views of the Thames riverside. Again, the menu is wonderful, offering a huge range of beautifully prepared dishes. New twists on traditional favourites like Liver and Bacon sit alongside more European dishes and even dishes from further afield like their yummy Crispy Duck on a Ginger Rissotto Cake with Plum Sauce. Although I cannot personally recommend the Liver and Bacon, every other dish I have eaten there has been wonderful, particularly the seafood dishes cooked on the charcoal grill. Again, many of their desserts are lighter twists on traditional British favourites. Their Sticky Toffee Pudding is not to be missed.

If you do enjoy good food and good eating, England is definitely a place you should visit. And although London, Birmingham and other big towns offer some fabulous dining experiences, do be sure to venture off the beaten path to some of our small towns and villages. You will be very glad you did.

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