Cotswolds

The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

A meal at The Wild Rabbit starts two miles away from the pub in Daylesford. It is here, behind the gigantic farmhouse that is the Daylesford organic farmshop, the cooking school, and Bamford Haybarn Spa, that you will find a sprawling farm. They have it all here; a dairy, cheese producers, orchards, poly tunnels and fields and fields and fields of the most incredible produce that I have personally ever seen in this country. On a hot summers afternoon we watch chefs in the distance talk to the head gardener and take back the pick of the crop; tomatoes, courgettes, the fattest of globe artichokes. This is their larder. And what a larder it is. The transition from soil to plate has rarely been more synchronised, or as successful.

Back in the pub the dining room is square, unimposing, and smaller than you may think. The pass lines up one side of the wall, through which we can see the relatively new team at work. Since the turn of the year the pub has gone through a drastic change of staff, the kitchen now led by Chef Patron Alyn Williams of namesake restaurant in Mayfair, and Head Chef Nathan Eades, previously of Simpsons. That is some team. According to them the cuisine has become more simplified, reliant on the produce from the farm more than ever. Whilst the bit about the produce is true, the food is not simple in the slightest. The technique is tight, the combination of flavours brave at times.

We go with the tasting menu because it seems silly not to, given that it is £65 and three courses would only be marginally less. I also opt for the better of the two wine pairings at £95 because I want to, and because this seems to be the best way of rubbing it into Claire’s nose, who is today’s designated driver to this beautiful part of the world. Crudités arrive swiftly in the form of spring onions, courgettes, cucumber, and fennel, served with a broad bean hummus. The quality of the vegetables are breath-taking, fresh and clean in profile, with the hummus lifted by an olive oil that has us begging to find out where it is from. From here we have two more nibbles, the first being knockout. A take on the ubiquitous Big Mac has beef tartare on a little brioche bun with burger sauce. The tartare has been cut with gherkins and capers, the sauce almost like a spicy béarnaise. It is glorious, up there with the best canapés I can recall eating. Following this is a croquette of pigs head with a puree of apple and red wine. The deep fried pig is rich and meaty, though I’m less keen on the puree that seems to ramp it up rather provide the acidity to cut through it. But still, what a world class start to the meal. Two types of bread roll keep up the standard. The attention to detail, right down to the butter churned back at the farm, is staggering.

The first course was a cracker. Tomatoes straight from those poly tunnels, picked white crab meat, Thai basil, burrata, and a mayo made from the brown meat. Everything is there to showcase the tomatoes which are stunning in quality. It’s bright and clean in flavour. The next plate has folds of iberico ham with peach, compressed and charred watermelon, fennel, and baby courgette. It’s a similar story to the first course, the ham is here to bring out the best in the peach and melon, the cured meat intensifying the sweetness of the fruit. A two part course sees rarebit on toast swiftly followed by an intense onion broth, cheese dumpling and jalapeño; just a few simple ingredients twisted into something magical. We ask for more bread rolls, smear thick with butter and work the last of the sticky broth out of the peripherals of the bowl.

A stone bass course would be Claire’s favourite of the day due to a rather genius garnish. The fish is impeccable; skin crisp, flesh opaque at the core, and even better with the shellfish cream perfumed with lemongrass. To the side are griddled courgettes, with mushrooms laced with cavier crisped up in a pan with a little onion and potato. I am not doing this element justice; it takes some very good produce and makes it exceptional, adding a luxury and salty element to the plate. Chicken has the unenvyiable job of following this, though manages to keep up the standards with a shard of breast and leek jaqueline and a side bowl of chicken casserole, finished with a kind of vichyssoise foam and a healthy dusting of truffle. As good as the chicken breast is I kind of lost all interest once I’d tried the casserole. Light and summery, the flavour from the less favoured parts of the bird are fantastic, lifted by the foam and frangrant truffle. Brilliant stuff.

A kind of summer cup slushy with raspberries sees us into the latter stages of the meal before the final fireworks. A millefeuille takes the same ethos as the savoury courses and places some beautiful plums at the forefront, both sandwiched between flaky puff pastry and as an icecream with unbelievable depth. Hands up, I’m a sucker for desserts like this, but there can be no doubting that this some serious pastry work. Chocolate macaroons conclude the meal. By now I’m full and more than a little tipsy.

I am reminded of an episode of Chef’s Table that focused on Dan Barber of Blue Hills. During that he recounts a story that defined Blue Hills; when they had an abundance of asparagus and he made the call to use the vegetable on every course. Whilst not on that extreme, the similarities are there: the repetitions of ingredients are not driven by anything other than prime seasonality. The ability to pluck something out of the ground in its best condition and transfer it to the plate with minor intervention. The meal is not about the protein, but about those courgettes, leeks, tomatoes and plums. It’s an ode to those who plough the fields at Daylesford. I really don’t want to keep on handing out perfect tens, but The Wild Rabbit leaves me no choice. Both Alyn Williams and Nathan Eades have created a menu totally unique to their environment which needs to be both applauded and celebrated.

10/10

The Howard Arms, Ilmington

 

The Howard Arms looks like it belongs in a film. The kind that involves a murder in a sleepy village. Or Hot Fuzz. Or worse, one involving Hugh Grant and a tenuous love story. The pubs sit one side of the village green in Ilmington, itself perched on the northern borders of the Cotswolds. Its a building of character, externally traditional and quaint and inside where it takes a new warmth of flagstones, deep leather seating and a roaring open fire. Each wall and corner tells a story of yesteryear, with pictures of equine and serious looking folk. The evening is settling in when we arrive and the place is buzzing with locals. It exudes a warmth far beyond that roaring fire.

We drop the bags off in our room and head back down for food in the raised dining area. Here the room feels more grand, more attuned to the buildings 400 year history. We order a decent bottle of new world sauvignon blanc and peruse a menu that has a mixture of safer pub classics with flashes of more elaborate offerings, all of which begs to be eaten. A starter of goats cheese soufflé has been baked twice so that it stands on its own with ease, topped with candied walnuts that add a softened nuttiness. Its mild mannered and needs the sweet and sour piquancy of the Cumberland sauce to cut right through it. Koftas are meaty skewers of lamb and cumin, tightly packed and just cooked through. They are a delight when piled on to soft cushions of flatbread and lightly dressed with a spicy red pepper salsa and soothing tzatziki.

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They do things the traditional way here; indeed, if there ever has been a sous-vide machine in the kitchen it has long been hidden in the storing cupboard. Pork fillet is rolled in parma ham and roasted gently so that the outer layers are crisp and the centre of the loin blushing pink. It comes with a comforting puree of sweet potato, shitake mushrooms, and crab apples that provide the much needed acidity. It demonstrates considerable skill in the kitchen, in particular the sticky jus that holds everything together in one big autumnal hug. Also equally tasty was a slab of gammon, smokey and tender, with a fried egg that oozed and coated the meat. As with the pork fillet and the soufflé before that, one eye was firmly kept on acidic element, this time from a piccalilli full of crunch and vibrancy. The only slip were chips, under salted and flimsy.

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Desserts were genuinely top notch in taste. A white and dark chocolate cheesecake could have easily been too heavy, yet managed to balance the flavour with a light texture that ran down to the buttery base. A bakewell tart was simply delicious; the frangipane not too sweet, the pastry crisp and thin. It doesn’t need the kitsch presentation or the out of season strawberries, its perfect enough on its own.

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With both starters and desserts creeping in at just over a fiver and only steaks over fifteen quid for the mains, The Howard Arms is exceptional value for money. It also happens to be a lovely place to stay, a gateway from the north in to the utterly charming Cotswolds. The following morning we drive fifteen minutes away to Broadway where we burned off the previous evenings calories by walking the steep incline up to the tower.  Its a simply beautiful part of the world with some of the countries best produce on its doorstep.  Those looking to make the most of their trip could do far worse than staying and eating at The Howard Arms.

8/10

I was invited to stay and dine at The Howard Arms by Shakespeare’s England, the official board of tourism for Warwickshire. For more information please see http://www.shakespeares-England.co.uk