Ramblings..., Reviews

Helen Browning at The Royal Oak, Bishopstone – review 

It is tempting, when you find a gem of a pub lunch, to keep it yourself and sneakily return again and again merely to satisfy your own gastronomic desires and revel in the fact that no-one else knows about your secret. However, it is equally tempting to shout loudly and rejoice, to share your discovery with the world and tell anyone who’ll listen that they simply must try it. They must. Simple.

The Royal Oak had been on my radar for some time and I’d marked it out as a place to investigate as I’d read many great things and thought it sounded just like my sort of place. The little village of Bishopstone nestles beneath the flanking escarpment of the Ridgeway on the Oxfordshire/Wiltshire borders and is just the kind of place that one would hope, nay expect, a fine pub with an excellent kitchen. The sort of place for balmy summer barbecues, autumnal pints, and warming winter suppers. And, with The Royal Oak, the locals are blessed and lucky enough to have such a pub.

Helen Browning has a well earned reputation for excellence with regards to organic farming and animal husbandry and her farm is based in the village with pigs and sheep roaming the nearby fields. In fact, you can even book a farm tour and see the happy animals for yourself, although some diners may prefer to eat before they meet the meat. Some years ago, she took over the pub in Bishopstone and quickly established it as one of the places to eat in the area. And with organic meat and veg supplied on its doorstep, a network of excellent local and national suppliers, and an excellent selection of beers, ciders, and wine, it is no wonder that it quickly became a hit with rural gastromomes and discerning scoffers.

Annoyingly for me, it always seemed a little far from we usually stay for a gentle evening meal after a day walking the countryside, so for some time it seemed ever so slightly out of reach. I could have driven of course but then ale wouldn’t have an option. Or wine. And that wouldn’t do at all. However, while organising a pre-wedding trip for a friend, I discovered that they do offer a free land-rover ride home for up to ten people so I booked a table and made the necessary arrangements.

We arrived and were greeted like old friends, beer at the ready and some plates of homemade sausage to nibble at while the table was prepared.The Royal Oak is a Victorian building with a very snug interior and tables rambling around a generously sized bar. The menu is straightforward and tempting with an array of pig-based dishes as well as excellent sounding vegetarian and fish options. We ate a vast amount, drank a vat of wine and beer, and tumbled into the rickety land-rover for a bracing drive back to where we were staying.

It was only the next day I realised that while we were eating, the laughs and merriment had given way to silent, appreciate devouring of some of the best food any of us had had from a country pub. And I can safely say that, having returned several times since, The Royal Oak is up there as being my favourite pub to eat in in the country. No joke.

Roast pork belly

The sticky, tender spare ribs (available as a starter or main course) hint at oriental flavours and would satisfy even the hardiest BBQ fan. Their burger is fat and juicy and can be customised with extra cheese, pickles, egg, and bacon and is served with chips that rustle for your attention. A main of pork belly with root mash, roast potatoes, and cabbage consists of two hugely generous slabs of rolled pork, cooked slowly to produce tender, juicy meat that flakes apart as you cut through it. A rich, herby gravy and vast fluffy Yorkshire pudding complete this mighty take on a pork roast and a bargain at £15. Also highly recommended is the pig cheek ragu – outrageously tasty meat in a hefty sauce which fills all the corners and comforts the soul.

Puddings (all £7) are simple and wonderful – apple crumble, organic ice cream, sticky toffee pudding were all jostling for attention on a recent visit. The sticky toffee in particular is a thing of true beauty with a decadent toffee sauce soaking through a rich, spicy sponge and topped with a scoop of organic ice cream. The stuff that dreams are made of and tasty ones at that.

Glorious sticky toffee pudding

All the staff, and especially the landlord, are friendly and jolly – happy to chat or recommend anything that is enquired about, be it how the pig racing went or whether we should listen to the blackboard and try the organic ale on offer (we did, it was amazing).

They (rightly) get busy at weekends and it is worth booking ahead if you’re making a special trip. There was a relaxed and pleasing sense of mild irreverence that immediately appealed and this is part of what makes the place so good – no pretensions, no snobbery, just passion and pride. And that is something lacking in many eateries in the world right now. So if you want to eat in a genuinely friendly environment which serves consistently excellent and lovingly prepared food, head to The Royal Oak and rejoice – we always do.

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Ramblings..., Reviews

The White Horse Inn, Woolstone, review

Creamy wild mushrooms on toast

Creamy wild mushrooms on toast at The White Horse Inn

Many apologies for my absence of late – I haven’t forgotten you nor indeed vanished in a BBQ-induced fug! Slow the recovery from pneumonia is…

Whenever we go camping we treat ourselves to a meal at one of the local pubs. Obviously my ability to get out and about into the countryside has been somewhat hampered of late but I was able to drop by an old favourite quite recently and was very glad I did.

The Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire is certainly not lacking in idyllic village pubs that serve food. Almost every hamlet you pass will have a sign extolling the virtues of their particular local haunt and why you should stop and eat there immediately. Interestingly enough however, most of the claims in this area do appear to be pretty accurate – in a world where more and more pubs are putting the kitchen before the beer and generally resulting in more and more opportunities for terrible cooking, generic menus, and trend-chasing, this is worth taking note of.

The White Horse is located in the almost achingly beautiful village of Woolstone – a mixture of black and white timbered cottages, 18th century stone farmhouses, and a babbling brook that trickles through the centre. The pub takes its name from the Bronze-age chalk figure carved into the downs that rear above the village and over the last few years it has been carving a reputation as a serious contender for best eating pub in the area. And there is some seriously stiff competition – Helen Browning’s magnificent Royal Oak in Bishopstone and the Blowing Stone Inn in nearby Kingston Lisle to name but two.

The first time we ate at The White Horse we not particularly impressed – the food was fine but overly styled and underly flavoured as if the chef had been watching too many episodes of MasterChef and not bothered to taste the food before it was delicately arranged on the plate/slate/board. A lemon chicken that tasted too much of lemon and not enough of chicken but looked like it had come out of a food-styling manual, scampi and langoustines that cascaded out of a bucket of chips but tasted like they’d come from a supermarket – these were conundrums that were coming out of the kitchen. All style, no real substance. That, however, was in 2011 and things have since changed in a big way and now the careful and exact presentation is matched by flavours that sing and dance around the palate in happy harmony. Don’t get me wrong – there are no Michelin pretensions here, no foams, airs, sous-vides, or the like, but there is serious, straightforward cookery that takes pub staples and makes them deliver beyond expectations. A starter of wild mushrooms in a creamy garlic sauce was rich and satisfying but still perfectly judged as a first course – a delicate parmesan crisp complimented the lovingly cooked fungi and added a nice bit of extra crunch. Likewise the duck pâté was beautifully smooth and served with a simple salad, chunky toast, and a zingy chutney that brought the whole dish together.

Roast chicken thighs with salsify and tarragon sauce

Roast chicken thighs with salsify and tarragon sauce

Mains also deliver – mushroom-stuffed chicken thighs served with salsify (a tricky root to get right), buttery mash, and a lick-the-plate-clean mustard and tarragon sauce was expertly cooked and consequently devoured in minutes. Lamb three ways (roasted rump, crispy belly, and slow-cooked shoulder wrapped in pancetta) on a bed of spring cabbage, beetroot, and sweet potato was brought together by a wonderful light minty sauce that also had us chasing the final dregs around the plate.

Lamb Three Ways

Lamb three ways

The lamb itself was delicious – the shoulder was so tender that the pancetta could barely keep it from falling apart on the plate and the crispy belly was a triumph. In a similar vein the Board of Piggy is also worth investigating with a lively combination of confit belly, smoky fritter, and black pudding served with crispy sautéed potatoes and a serious whack of braised red cabbage that will leave even the hedonistic pork-lover full and happy. There are also more traditional pub favourites like fish and chips, steaks, and a lunchtime menu offering burgers and sandwiches. And maybe next time we’ll give that scampi and langoustine dish a second chance – you never know. The vegetarian options are possibly a bit less imaginative – baked mushroom or a butternut squash ravioli – but if the meaty mains are anything to go by (or indeed, that mushroom starter) they should prove to be a cut above expectations.

Puddings-wise the selection is limited but not under-thought – the treacle tart with ice-cream was a true wonder with thin, short pastry and a generous filling, served hot with a toffee ice cream melting on the side. From the description it should have been far too sweet but was actually just right. There is also the inevitable cheese board or ice-cream selection but there is nothing wrong with that – I recently opted for the classic combo of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate and it was exactly what I wanted – nostalgic, simple, satisfying.

After a few years of visiting the area, The White Horse has definitely become a new favourite and is well worth seeking out. They recently installed a vast wood-burning pizza oven in the garden which is fired up twice a week (must try and time our next visit right so we can try it) and the Sunday roast is fantastic, a vast platter of lamb, beef, and pork, rich gravy, fluffy Yorkshire pudding, and seasonal vegetables plonked in the middle of the table for everyone to dive into. Again, the vegetarian options are a bit unimaginative and I have to say I’m not sure I’d choose a vegetable stir-fry as a Sunday main but perhaps I should be a bit more adventurous.

Or just stick to the meat and stop worrying…

The Board of Piggy

The Board of Piggy

All of this great food is served in a friendly pub environment with a decent selection of ale and cider and a pretty decent wine list. Prices are between £5 and £8 for starters and mains range from the mid-teens to early twenties (the fillet steak tops the list at £25.95) which is pretty representative of the area in general and with food cooked this well is certainly value for money.

So if you find yourself rambling the South Oxfordshire Downs or are looking for a new destination for a decent country dinner, find your way to Woolstone and visit The White Horse – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

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