Although I’ve only been away for about eight weeks this time, I’d forgotten how ridiculously beautiful the UK can be – even in the middle of winter when it’s overcast, wet and grey. I understand that my snapshot is not a realistic picture, but travelling through the British countryside I’m reminded that it’s not only family and friends that I miss when I’m away.
Yesterday we were driving from Oxford to Bristol, taking us through the heart of the picturesque Cotswolds. It’s a part of the country that we know very well, and we quickly realised that with only a minor detour – which was only going to make us ever-so slightly late – we could stop at one of our favourite pubs for Sunday lunch. We didn’t take much convincing.
The Royal Oak (in the pretty village of Ramsden ) is a seventeenth-century coaching inn that after years of providing excellent food – as well as centuries of superb beer – was last year voted the Country Pub of the Year (by the prestigious Good Pub Guide). Both the building and its surroundings are idyllic. In the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside (three miles from the small market town of Witney), it is constructed from Cotswold stone and is at the centre of a small but substantial village, opposite the church, war memorial and village hall. We stop to let a family trot by on horse-back.
Inside, the pub is exactly as you’d imagine – low ceilings, a series of intimate rooms and a small bar. The fire is roaring and it’s a wonderfully warm contrast to the day outside. It can only be described as cosy, and I’m already reluctant to leave. But what you might not be expecting is the startling quality of the home-cooked food, which is unashamedly British and based on locally-sourced produce. Spoiled for choice, we’re looking at a menu that includes pheasant and partridge, as well as roast beef and black pudding.
It’s not an easy decision, but to start we eventually choose the baked field mushrooms topped with grilled goats cheese (£5.50), and the devilled lamb’s kidneys with a Dijon mustard sauce (£6.75). The lamb’s kidneys are particularly good, cooked perfectly in a light sauce with citrus flavours that complement the strong mustard excellently. The baked mushrooms are also enjoyable, with a generous topping of tasty goats cheese and a range of interesting accompaniments (including sun-dried tomatoes, caramalised onions and olives). Although perhaps not equal to the kidney it was definitely another very good choice.
Around us there is a gentle hubbub, and despite its established reputation as a ‘gastro-pub’ it’s good to see that it also remains a pub for the locals; the villagers who fill the bar on a daily basis, chatting easily to each other about their lives.
For the main course we have roast sirloin of Aberdeen Angus beef and Yorkshire pudding in red wine gravy, served with roast potatoes (£14.50). The beef is served in a large, thick slice that covers the plate and is cooked a beautiful medium rare. The Yorkshire pudding is just how it should be – light and fluffy inside, crisp outside. The mustard and home-made horse-radish were ideal.
But there is a clear winner among all the amazing dishes that we have at lunchtime, which is the pot-roasted pheasant, slowly cooked in red wine with mushroom, bacon and shallots, served with mash potatoes (£15.00). Game has a distinctive taste which can be too strong, but this had been hung and cooked in a way that retained the gamey flavour without any sense of it dominating the dish. It was moist and succulent and had benefited from the long, slow method of cooking that allows the robust tastes to blend and meld. Both main courses were served with a selection of vegetables that included red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, baby carrots and green beans. It’s a shame that we were just too full for dessert, so instead we ended our unexpected lunch-time diversion with a gentle stroll around this stunning village, already trying to think of an excuse for our next visit…