Richard Johnson downs a few incoming pints of Spitfire in Kent
Saturday 13 April 2002
By Derby Day, the crops will be chest-high – but the smell of hops is at its best in the spring. Every year I like to head for that stretch of the Kent countryside, from Canterbury to Faversham, which produces the best hops in Britain. It's our very own Grande Champagne. On a warm day in April, there is nowhere better to enjoy the aroma than from the gardens of The Ringlestone Inn.
The view on to the fields is spectacular, and always sets me thinking about hop harvesting as it used to be. The work wasn't hard. It was done in common, in the open air, and the whole family joined in. As soon as children were old enough to hold a branch they were old enough to pick the hops – into an upturned umbrella if they couldn't reach the hop bin. Now it's done by machinery. But the smell is still the same.
It's the ideal spot to drink a pint of Shepherd Neame's Spitfire. Spitfire is "downed all over Kent – just like the Luftwaffe". It was first brewed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. I'm not proud of myself, but I do like the advertising campaign. Particularly the take off on the charts used during the war to spot enemy aircraft. It shows the silhouette of two beer glasses – a British pint and a German stein. The pint says "ours", the stein says "theirs".
Now that I think about it, one thing does irritate me about The Ringlestone Inn – whenever I see somewhere that promises "a ryghte joyouse and a welcome greetynge to ye all", my heart sinks. I don't want a barman who carries a pig's bladder on a stick. But the interior is simple and unadorned, and has changed little since it was built in 1533. Everything about it is original, from the brick and flint walls to the beams of oak.
The dark, atmospheric saloon bar is lit by candles – even at lunchtime. It lends a real warmth to the dining tables, made from the timbers of an 18th-century barge, and the oak chairs. Mercifully, there is no fruit machine or juke box to distract from the quiet. It's probably been a sanctuary of peace since management put up the signs on the wall saying, "no cockfighting" and "no cudgels".
Actually, there is one other thing that irritates me about the place. The lamb and stilton pies, that are left sitting around too long on the all-day buffet. Given the success of the Spitfire on tap, I'm surprised they aren't serving up a "prawn Goebbels". Or a "Colditz salad". I think the cook should introduce Bratwurst. After all, we're European now and German dishes could prove a real sales success. As the Spitfire copywriters would undoubtedly say, "They're Goering, Goering, gone".
Ringlestone Inn, Ringlestone Hamlet, Near Harrietsham,
Maidstone, Kent (01622 859900).
You can e-mail Richard Johnson at email@example.com.
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