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.
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.
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.