Pot Kiln Frilsham, near Yattendon, Berkshire
Just down the road from Kate Middleton's family home lies this charming inn. But is it fit for a princess?
This is Middleton Country. Our future Queen Catherine was raised in little Bucklebury, three miles south of Frilsham, the village to which the Pot Kiln is a glorious appendage. The pub perches on a spot slightly elevated from the unfolding Berkshire plains all around, and even under loaded, grey skies, greets the eye as a sudden burst of terracotta at the end of a long and curling country-track approach.
It was erected more than three centuries ago as a drinking hole for toiling labourers in surrounding fields, and even now a phalanx of thirsty locals belch at the bar like minor royalty. Outside, dogs chase phantoms, and the charmingly weathered brick walls lining the garden and entrance were fired with clay dug from the pub's entrance. That firing took place in the kiln, now converted into a brewery adjacent to the pub, providing four Berkshire ales on tap. It's all effortlessly idyllic – no wonder the Middletons moved in.
And the Robinsons, for that matter. Michael and Kate Robinson took over this ailing institution five years ago and have transformed it excellently. Mr Robinson has acquired a modicum of fame on television (Saturday Kitchen et al) and is also responsible for a local cookery school, extensive food writing, a DIY hunting DVD, and the sudden improvement in the now Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham, south-west London.
On the Saturday lunchtime we turn up, this venture is full of young, Barboured families, all conforming to the Middleton Country uniform of being brunette: only one waiter, a lacrosse-thin blond who is a dead ringer for a young Michael York, joins me in defying the prevailing orthodoxy. All the other waiters seem to be 18-year-old males whose untucked white shirts, black jeans and jumpers, invite comparison with walking chessboards. Posh and charming, their service is basically unimprovable.
Boastful taxidermy aside – mounted deer stalk two walls – the interior is simple and confident. Low ceilings, pine tables and peachy orange walls make for a cosy main-room. Stemless Riedel wine glasses and designer silverware convey an understated but rigorous attention to detail. As does the menu, which is short, gamey and autumnal.
At £15.95, the sharing platter is £2 too much, not least because it has two significant flaws: the small portions of smoked grouse breast have a strong flavour but are too dry; and, more inexcusably, the rabbit-and-thyme croquettes are closer to lukewarm than piping hot. Too close, that is – and the thyme is so subdued as to seem irrelevant. Elsewhere on the platter, a ham-hock-and-sage terrine is fabulously biteable, and goes well with a coarse mustard mayo. The spiced apple-and-pear purée is smooth and full-bodied. But the highlight is a superbly griddled ox tongue – smoky in places, and oozing sweet meaty flavour.
A very good Merlot (£5.50) goes well with the exquisitely cooked breast and leg of Berkshire mallard (£16.50), which arrives with griottine cherries – wild Morello cherries macerated in Kirsch liqueur – and sautéed potatoes, which are peppery, soft and eagerly receptive to the generous flavour elsewhere on the plate.
My companion has a venison T-bone steak, one of Mr Robinson's weekly catch; he shoots most of the venison, while sourcing other meats locally. It comes with a stunning horseradish purée and juicy savoy cabbage, a brilliant plateful.
The final triumph is an exceptionally flavoursome rosehip ice-cream, with rosehip syrup and crunchy, buttery almond biscuits (£5.95). The union of contrasting textures and the floral but toffee-like flavour of the ice-cream are magnificent, and enhanced by a pungent Monbazillac dessert wine (2001, £7).
That is good value. But the cheeseboard, £8.95 for a smooth Exmoor Jersey blue, Sussex crumble (pale and hard), and Wigmore (velvety, rich and made from ewe's milk) is, again, just a little too much for a little too little. I therefore humbly submit a thought on pricing for the owners' consideration: this venue could go from superb country pub to contender for the best such institution in England if it were 10 per cent cheaper. I know you're on tight margins, but such a cut would have the punters streaming in. Until then, here's to you, Mr and Mrs Robinson.
Scores: 1-2 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Pot Kiln Frilsham, near Yattendon, Berkshire, tel: 01635 201 366
Lunch and dinner Weds-Mon; closed Tues. Meal for two with six glasses of wine, £130 including dessert and cheese
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010' www.hardens.com
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