The fine, grassy upland of Minchinhampton Common is perfect for a summer walk. But beware. Its "high, open spaces" (the very meaning of the word "Cotswolds") are a mess of overgrown footpaths. Which is why it's best to bring along a compass - and an OS map of Gloucestershire. I didn't. That's why Jane and I were late for our dinner reservation at The Halfway Inn.
Halfway to where? Nailsworth, I guess - certainly not paradise. The Inn was once a wool store for the drovers of Minchinhampton Common, but there's not a lot of bucolic charm about the place these days. Its best feature is its car park. Which is a shame. The ramblers rambling by would never guess that the Halfway Inn has rocamadour tourtière on the menu.
Two men in the beer garden were playing outsize Connect 4 - fun, yes, but these two were bordering on the hysterical. That's when I noticed the poster in the window - "First annual Halfway Inn beer festival". My heart sank. Jane suggested we make the best of a bad job and stay for dinner. I wasn't so sure. But I was so hungry after our walk that I let her talk me into it.
The tongue-and-groove gave the dining room the look of a French country café. The table in the corner was heaving under the weight of dusty wine bottles with exorbitant price-tags round their necks. Clearly, we were in the world of "fine dining". I was happy at the idea until I heard someone shout behind me. "Alan - have you just farted?" NB. The dining room should be further from the bar.
But I forgot about Alan the moment my homemade pork, woodland pigeon breast and dried fig terrine with a red onion and thyme marmalade (£5.15) arrived at the table. For a man who was vegetarian until not that long ago, it came as a shock to my system. Especially when - like this one - it looked like an entire farmyard had fallen into the terrine. Its heartily rustic nature harked back to a bygone age.
But the onion marmalade balanced out its very meatiness. And the chef hadn't stinted on the onions. I love onions - the truffles of the poor. But in case the terrine wasn't meat enough, I insisted on trying Jane's sautéed chicken livers deglazed with xeres vinegar, garnished with a pickled garlic and hazlenut salad (£4.95). All I can say is, judging by their livers, these chickens were big.
The vinegar provided a real note of acidity. Good to see xeres (sherry to the rest of us) making a comeback. I'm tired of balsamic. And the best vinaigrette I've ever tasted was made by combining 30-year-old sherry vinegar with black truffles that had been macerated in peanut oil. Also welcome was the pickled garlic. Until then my favourite use for it was in an afternoon martini. It brought a little more edge than an olive. And did a lot more good. Hippocrates was the first to recognize garlic's medicinal qualities, and physicians later prescribed garlic soup for plague victims.
For my main course, I really wanted the char. The last time I had it was high above the Arctic Circle, where no one owned the geography - they just borrowed it from the elements. I was beckoned over by three fishermen. They were pulling char out of the ice, and slapping them straight on to the fire. A twist of rock salt and hej! But when you've had fish that fresh, nothing comes close. With or without a cardamom nage.
Anyway, Jane hates fish. Worse than that - she feels sick whenever she's near it. So I didn't order the char. It's no fun dining with an obsessive-compulsive. The inventor Nikola Tesla used to insist on 18 napkins because he favoured numbers divisible by three. Then, because of his fear of germs, he would polish the silverware. Only when he had calculated the cubic content of every dish would he start to eat.
I ordered the papillote of minted couscous with a julienne of vegetables and an oriental Szechuan butter (£10.25) instead. But it wasn't cooked. The flavours were there - the liquid at the bottom of the papillote was testament to that - but the couscous still had a little too much bite. And it wasn't seasoned properly. With a shake of salt and pepper, it was like a layer of plastic had been peeled off my dinner.
In fact the salt cellars on the tables were nearly empty. And there was "matter" in our balsamic. From the look of the residue, I doubt the balsamic saw a lot of action. Rather like the wine with the price-tags, it was there to suggest the "fine dining" experience. But a little more attention to detail would give more substance to the style. And, while you're at it, take down the Wicked Willie posters outside the toilets.
As we were ordering our dessert, a party from the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester bowled up. The Aggies (as they're known locally) are good at animal management, crop rotation and drinking. As Jane and I shared a light fruit mousse, separated by a serpent of biscuit, the Aggies started to drink heavily. And discuss Alan's flatulence. Which does leave rather an odd taste in the mouth. E
Halfway Inn, Box Nr Nailsworth Gloucestershire (01453 832631), www.visitheartofengland.comReuse content