Eating out: A fish to warm the cockles

OLD MANOR HOUSE; 21 Palmerston Street, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 8GF. Tel: 01794 517353 Open Tuesday to Saturday from noon to 2pm and from 7pm to 9.30pm, and Sunday noon to 2pm. Three-course set lunch pounds 17.50. Three-course set dinner pound s 19.50. Average a la carte price, pounds 25 per person. Major credit cards accepted
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I know a few strange people who actually like clocks-back Sunday. They take a perverse pleasure in the sudden winterisation of our days, get their coats and scarves out, and start smiling again for the first time since March. Some of them are crass enough to regard the extra hour under the duvet as "a lovely little treat" - as if one hour in bed could compensate for 154 hours of daylight robbery.

I will never understand this hatch-battenner's mentality. It's not that I hate winter, I have a coat too, and I can cope. But I would rather the passing of the seasons was achieved through natural grace, not thrust upon us by some busy-body bureaucratic edict.

But I don't like to whinge. Not for too long, anyway. To stave off depression, I look for compensations. They are to be found in a corresponding seasonal approach to the pleasures of dining out. Now that it is cold and dark outside, restaurants feel warmer and more soothing on the inside. In Soho for example, there is less of a buzz on the streets, but more of a thrill to be found behind the glass and bricks of its restaurants and cafes. In the country, a long walk on crunching grass, perhaps picking the last of the sloes, may be followed by a late lunch, when the low sun streams through the windows to warm your face and blind your eyes as the coffee arrives.

Sensible chefs follow suit on the menus they offer their acclimatising clientele. Out goes the seared tuna and light summery salsas, the ubiquitous garnishes of rocket and mache, the ice-cream. In comes the oxtail and offal, darkly reduced sauces, and fat nursery puddings with an almost visible Ready Brek glow. The rocket can now be made into soup.

One restaurant that comes magnificently into its own at this time of year is the Old Manor House in Romsey, Hampshire. Here chef Mauro Bregoli serves pleasingly authentic country Italian cooking at any time of year. But come November his trencherman's coat goes on over the whites, and he starts to cook what he loves best, with irresistible bacchanalian zeal. There are gnocchi, fat and soft, home-made Italian charcuterie, wild mushrooms from the New Forest, and a larder full of local game. Mauro is a great enthusiast for the British wild larder, and much of what's on his menu has been killed or gathered by his own hand. But, more importantly than that, he knows exactly what to do with it. It's in his blood.

I was working in Southampton last week, and finished around nine. Most of the crew, poor fools, pleaded fatigue, and headed for the local pub. But Louise, our production assistant, was game for some game, so the two of us hopped in a cab, and headed for Romsey. We arrived just before 10, as most of the other diners were getting their coffee.

"The grouse is very high," Mauro's Scottish wife Esther told us, "but the partridge is a bit milder, if you're not in the mood for maggots. And Mauro's very pleased with his roe deer fillet. It's become a bit of a speciality." There was also pike; the first time I had seen it on a menu since I had quenelles de brochet, sauce ecrevisse at the Four Seasons, when Bruno Loubet was cooking there about eight years ago. Mauro's son had caught the pike in a carrier of the River Test the previous day, so I really had to have it.

But I started with Mauro's home-made cotechino - an Italian boiling sausage made from local pigs, a cross between wild boar and Hampshire blue. It was richly hammy, with a lovely lipstick-gelatinous sheen, and it came with creamy, nutty lentils. With the first couple of mouthfuls my palate felt the lack of a salsa verde, that garlic and green herb elixir which the River Cafe would have served with this dish, to cut the fat and spice up the lentils. But then their cotechino, decent though it is, is not home- made. Soon, I gave myself up to the unadulterated marriage of salty pig and mealy bland pulses, a pure and peasanty harmony.

Louise was purring over a plate of potato and spinach gnocchi, minimally bound by flour and egg, so that they were as soft as they could be without actually falling through the prongs of her fork. They were bound with a buttery tomato sauce that was full-on, without being too rich, and leant the dish a sparing dash of the residual warmth of late summer.

My pike came in a huge slab of fillet - the fish had weighed 17lbs - and was served, skate-wing style, with a caper sauce. Pike is a fish whose culinary potential has been sidelined by a reputation for vicious and near irremovable small bones. I didn't encounter a single one in my piece ("A little trick," Mauro told me later, "I'll show you sometime"). The meat was exquisite, almost bass-like in its richness, but with the clean-river taste of the best wild trout. I hope for the sake of future diners this winter that Mauro's son's luck, or skill, continues to deliver pike to his father's kitchen.

Louise had been steered firmly by Esther towards the fillet of roe deer - and had no regrets. It had been beaten flat, and pan-fried in a little butter for just a few minutes. It came with a small pile of spiced fruits and caramelised onion, which she hardly touched. "I can't remember eating a piece of meat," she said, "that tasted so good on its own that it needed nothing more."

We shared a creme brulee for pudding, made extra-nursery by the addition of bananas to the custard. I don't really go for the mucked-about versions of this classic pud, but the two or three spoonfuls I managed spoke reassuringly to the child in me, and the rest was gleefully demolished by Louise.

The next morning we had a late start, and I got a bit of a lie-in. The cold November air was snaking in through the open window of my rather grisly hotel room, and it chilled my nose as I dozed. But it was Mauro's cooking, not the duvet, that kept me feeling snug inside.

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