The Churchill Arms, Paxford, Gloucester

'But Mummy, I don't like salt-cod ravioli'. Tough break, junior, this is a grown-up pub for serious diners. The only tinies at the Churchill Arms are those too young to ask for fish fingers
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Whenever I read about schemes designed to deter schoolgirls from becoming gymslip mothers by issuing them with screaming, nappy-wetting dolls, I wonder why teenagers aren't simply forced to spend an hour in Hamleys toy shop on a Saturday morning. The ambience of shrieking chaos is certainly the best antidote to broodiness I've yet discovered. Until, that is, a recent visit to the Churchill Arms, a fine-dining pub in the Cotswolds.

Whenever I read about schemes designed to deter schoolgirls from becoming gymslip mothers by issuing them with screaming, nappy-wetting dolls, I wonder why teenagers aren't simply forced to spend an hour in Hamleys toy shop on a Saturday morning. The ambience of shrieking chaos is certainly the best antidote to broodiness I've yet discovered. Until, that is, a recent visit to the Churchill Arms, a fine-dining pub in the Cotswolds.

They say that every new baby looks a little like Winston Churchill. Here, at a pub which bears the statesman's name, is all the proof you could need. On a Sunday lunchtime, nearly every table seemed to be occupied by a hollow-eyed couple in pabulum-stained clothing, numbly forking food into their mouths and making no attempt at conversation. At their feet, the tell-tale carrycot, containing its slumbering or grizzling cargo.

Getting a glimpse of the daily-changing menu, chalked on a blackboard, involved peering through a thicket of proudly-papoosed daddies. In the garden, the traditional springtime sounds of the English countryside ­ the bleating lambs and revving Range Rovers ­ were supplemented by the crack of rattle on fontanelle, as parents misguidedly attempted to socialise their little darlings with the progeny of nearby tables.

The mysterious thing about this scene was that though the place was full of babies and toddlers, there didn't appear to be any children. Mysterious, that is, until a study of that day's menu offered the solution. Because the Churchill Arms doesn't serve pub food, nor even gastro-pub food. This is full-blown, swanky, restaurant-style cooking, for which the term "gastro-pub" is clearly inadequate.

You'll find no fishcakes here, or sausages in onion gravy. Instead, think baked salt-cod ravioli with lemon cream, or pan-fried guinea fowl with butternut squash risotto. The pasta is made in-house, and the nearest thing to a traditional Sunday roast on the day of our visit was saddle of lamb with morels and Madeira sauce. There's no easy-option children's menu, featuring chicken nuggets or fish fingers, and the main courses range from £8.50 to £13. Which explains why the place is more popular with exhausted new mums and dads giving themselves a treat, than it is with parents who are looking for somewhere to have lunch with the kids.

The pub's owners, chef Sonya Kidney and her husband Leo Brooke-Little, also run one of the best restaurants in the Cotswolds, The Marsh Goose in Moreton-in-Marsh, and another food pub, the Hare and Hounds at Foss Cross. They added the Churchill Arms to their empire about four years ago. Sonya Kidney shares kitchen duties with head chef Ivan Reid, which means there's a certain amount of cross-fertilisation between the two venues.

The original, tiny pub has been sympathetically extended into a single L-shaped room, so that latecomers don't find themselves exiled to some atmosphere-free annexe. Walls are painted buttermilk, and higgledy-piggledy shelves are stuffed with old books and local memorabilia. The mismatched wooden furniture includes long tables lined with school benches, large enough to hold the most fully-stretched of extended families.

The perfect country pub, in other words, apart from the scenes of carnage at the bar, where the queuing system is a little free-form. I joined a throng of customers who were jostling to place their food orders with all the self-possession of panicking cattle lining up to face the slaughterman. Morale wasn't improved by the occasional local, who pushed past with a smoothly murmured "When you're ready, Tom", and got instant service.

But if the front-of-house operation is a little chaotic, the kitchen has obviously got its act together. Our starters appeared miraculously quickly, and looked beautiful. Seared scallops, complete with their coral and a topping of crunchy bacon, were so fresh they almost evaporated in the mouth, and came with a Mediterranean tangle of roasted red peppers with capers, and a vibrant saffron sauce. A delicate, ginger-scented risotto spiked with slivers of smoked goose, dense and deep-red in colour, was rescued from over-saltiness by the soothing presence of a perfect poached egg.

My main course of pan-fried monkfish was well supported by a smoky aubergine purée, and a crunchy salad of pickled cucumber, which contrasted wonderfully with the fish's compact texture. Harry's adventurous choice of pollack ­ a poor relative of the cod family ­ was less successful. Though perfectly cooked, the fish didn't, in his opinion, deserve the effort. And like his starter, it was served with a saffron sauce. "Typical!" he said. "You drive for miles looking for a saffron sauce, and then two come along at once." Side dishes of straw chips, buttery Savoy cabbage and a carrot and swede purée were generous and excellent.

So, too, was a shared oven-fresh slice of pear frangipani tart served with clotted cream, from a pudding list which is much more what you'd expect to find in a country inn, including as it does that gold standard of the gastro-pub dessert kingdom, sticky toffee pudding.

By the time we were ready to pay ­ our bill came to around £25 a head ­ the place had emptied of the food crowd, leaving just a couple of locals at the bar. They included an eccentrically bearded oldster, who had spent his lunchtime glowering over his pint of Hook Norton like the Ancient Mariner shipwrecked in The Ivy. He'd obviously been drinking in the pub for years, and wasn't going to stop just because they'd started serving gremolata.

As an advertisement for how the countryside is still very much open for business, the Government should look no further than the bustling Churchill Arms. As for using it in a campaign to deter potential parents-to-be, it came a little too late from our point of view, which is why this will be my last review for a few months. See you in Hamleys.

The Churchill Arms, Paxford, near Chipping Campden, Gloucs (01386 594 000). Meals served daily 12-2pm, 7-9pm. Four bedrooms available. Limited disabled access. All cards except Amex and Diners Club

Comments