The Beckford Arms, Fonthill Gifford, Tisbury, Wiltshire
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 23 February 2013
It gives your dinner added spice to know you're eating it on the premises of a notorious degenerate. And the names 'Beckford' and 'Fonthill' summon up a chap who, in the early 19th century, was thought by many to be "the most evil man in England".
He was William Beckford, author, occasional MP, art collector, builder, critic, traveller and sexual predator. His debut fiction, Vathek, written in three days and two nights when he was only 21 and in the grip of heaven-knows-what stimulant, was one of the earliest English Gothic novels, a big influence on Lord Byron, who called him "England's wealthiest son" – Beckford inherited the equivalent of £110m from his dad, who owned slave plantations in Jamaica. Scandal engulfed him when he was exposed in the newspapers as a bisexual sadist and paedophile, once discovered in the act of whipping a 10-year-old boy. He had the enormous Fonthill Abbey built to his design, but it featured a massive phallic tower which collapsed one night, bringing the roof down, in 1825.
The eyes of the weary traveller on the A303 from London fall with delight on the Beckford Arms, on the old Fonthill estate. It's a big white inn covered in ivy and lit with welcoming lamps. The bar has been modernised to look more like a sophisticated country house than a pub. The tables and chairs are as lumpy and bandy-legged as Mrs Patmore in Downton Abbey, but the décor is on-trend: more Farrow & Ball than Colefax & Fowler. There are sofas, newspapers and a blazing fire in the sitting-room, wall-hangings in the dining area, and eight bedrooms upstairs that become an increasingly attractive proposition on a rainy Saturday night.
The Beckford's owners are Charlie Luxton and Dan Brod. The former used to be manager at Babington House. He and Brod are engaged in an empire-building programme. They're about to re-open the Talbot Inn at Mells, that Somerset village where Siegfried Sassoon and lots of Sackville-Wests and Bonham Carters are buried. They're also looking to acquire the Pythouse Kitchen Garden nearby, an old conservatory and barn that serves brunches, tea and lunchtime potted duck.
The food at the Beckford is hearty English stuff that you may have eaten before, but never in such baroque combinations. You don't just get Brixham scallops (with their roes left on – a sign of freshness), they're dished up with a crab roulade, the crab wrapped in white beetroot, plus quails' eggs, samphire and salmon-roe vinaigrette – too many constituents, in my view, but the scallops and beetroot worked wonderfully together. Seared pigeon breast was joined by smoked bacon, cornichons, pearl barley and mustard dressing – a lot of butch flavours fighting for the upper hand. Cream of broccoli and Wensleydale blue soup nicely balanced sharp and creamy elements and tasted as if it was doing you the world of good. Burrata, that bosomy variant of mozzarella, was 36DD-size and full of sensory overload, with the flavour of blood orange predominant.
It's a very friendly place. Charlie the Australian co-owner stopped by for a chat. Lauren, our Zimbabwean waitress, explained that, strictly speaking, she's employed at the refurbished Talbot, but was helping out at the Beckford that night because it was so packed; indeed it was – you could hardly move in the bar for a party of 16 loudly carousing.
Main courses continued the theme of multiple ingredients, intriguingly conjoined. Angie's skrei cod was as white as a vestal virgin's nightie, and was cooked to perfection; brown shrimps cooked in caper butter still managed to taste of the sea, while the cauliflower purée and purple sprouting broccoli were a happy marriage of textures.
The 10-ounce rib-eye steak was rather run-of-the-mill, as were the accompanying Béarnaise sauce, onion rings and chips; perhaps the chef, Pravin Nayar, simply ran out of inspiration when faced with a steak. Much better was the Pythouse lamb loin and crispy shoulder, a double-blast of lamb at two extremes: the loin was so rare as to be floppy, the shoulder deep-fried until it resembled a fritter. Both were delicious – another textural hybrid that was startling but satisfying. With chilli-fried curly kale and sautéed potatoes, this was a plateful that Mr Beckford's evil Caliph (in Vathek) would have wolfed down.
We had barely room for puddings but tasted two: my yogurt panna cotta with poached Yorkshire rhubarb was not a success, the rhubarb alarmingly tart, the panna cotta overly soft and underset; but the warm ginger cake with stewed plums and nutmeg ice-cream found a nice balance of sweetness and fruit.
This is an old pub triumphantly re-invented as something between a hotel, a wine bar and a restaurant. The food is triumphant, too – doing a dozen basic things well but tricking every dish out with extra textures and flavours. It's a lovely haven in the wilds of wintry Wiltshire.
The Beckford Arms, Fonthill Gifford, Tisbury, Wiltshire (01747 870385), Around £100 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 10 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
Side orders: Wiltshire wonders
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