An English Gastropub Crawl
It used to be that you'd drive the English countryside despite the food, not because of it. Traveling from pub to pub, Stephen Heuser finds out just how deliciously the times have changed. Even bangers and mash has gone upscale.
As evening falls, the parking lot starts to fill up. Couples and families from the surrounding towns converge on the Riverside for dinner. They pack a room whose walls and heavy ceiling beams are garlanded with dry hops and hung with enough rustic objects to supply an antique fair. When I sit down for dinner, my head grazes a bugle.
The farm country of Herefordshire is quietly emerging as one of the best places in Britain to eat, and my dinner is like a map of the neighborhood: pork medallions from a pig raised nearby, gravlax made with trout from the nearby river, vegetables plucked a few yards away.
At night, I pull on a sweater and sit on the grassy terrace behind the stable. The sky is remarkably clear. The Milky Way stretches overhead; I see one shooting star, then another. At moments like this, it's hard to imagine that anything of much importance has changed in the past 400 years.
The Riverside felt remote, but it turns out I've only scratched the surface of remoteness. I've left Herefordshire, crossed the massive Severn River, and twisted my way into the highlands of West Somerset. Sue Hinds, at the time one of the owners of The Royal Oak Inn of Luxborough, has insisted I call so I don't get lost, but my cell phone keeps dropping its signal. "After you pass a pub called the Valiant Soldier, turn right," she says when we finally connect. "Keep going, even if it seems like you're lost, and eventually you'll come to about five cottages and a stone bridge. That's us."
This is pheasant-shooting country, and hunting prints line the Royal Oak's walls. One room displays a series of huge mounted river fish, some caught in the 1930s. Most of the 11 guest rooms are along a rambling upstairs corridor and identified by a teddy-bear theme. (My bear is from Harrods.)
There aren't many guests, but at dinner, tables miraculously fill up. The food is rich. A rump of lamb comes with some of the fat left on to give it a startling crackle and moisture. On the side is a bowl of red cabbage, zucchini, carrots, and buttery new potatoes. I order grilled Cornish sardines--a staple of the region, I've been told--with chorizo. The fish defeat even my practiced attempts at deboning.
After dinner, Sue pulls pints at the bar, then joins a table of locals. When I go upstairs, well past the nominal closing hour of 11 p.m., they're still there.
The next morning, Sue explains that the pub makes money on out-of-town guests, on dinners, and on the big lunches it throws for the men who work the pheasant shoots. But at heart, it's still an unofficial living room for the village. On Thursday nights, there are free snacks for neighbors; on Christmas, the owners shut the place to outsiders and throw a party. "Everyone mucks in together," she says. "It's very gregarious."
I can't shake the impression that this whole world, including the ghostly old woman who supposedly haunts Room 4, might just disappear once I drive off. Sue knows what I mean. "It's like Brigadoon," she says.
Well to the east, out of the valleys and into mellow pastureland, is Corton Denham, a sweet village with a square-towered church nestled against a bright green ridge. I feel as if I've walked into a painting by a completely different artist. You wouldn't call Corton Denham the suburbs, but it's only two hours from London, and compared to rustic Luxborough, it's almost trendy.
The Queens Arms is a yellow stone building from the 18th century, but the interior is painted in stylish sage and white. Upstairs, in my room, I punch the light switch, and the room illuminates very slowly. The room is country, with pine beds and gingham curtains, but the shower is a modern glass box raining fantastic quantities of water. The college-age pub worker who gives me my key doesn't just apologize that there's no TV in my room--he offers to wheel in a flat-screen.
The staff wear sneakers and talk like foodies. In the dining room, appetizers arrive on smart wooden planks, and for the first time on my trip, when I look at my fellow diners, I see people wearing black. You can't imagine teddy bears in the rooms, or a bugle on the wall, but the inn displays the same mania for local produce as other gastropubs. In fact, the Queens Arms owns its pigs, and one was butchered the previous week. "We're still eating him now," my waiter says. "He's delicious."
No kidding. The humble-sounding potted pork might be the best thing I eat on the trip: Like rillettes, it's shredded meat preserved in its own fat with bits of spice and served with grilled brioche and an apple compote. Instead of beer, I have a glass of chenin blanc from South Africa.