If you've read your Chaucer, you'll know about the Dunmow Flitch, a side of bacon awarded in Essex to any couple who could prove they hadn't argued or regretted their marriage for a year and a day. History shows that the flitch was successfully claimed only six times over three centuries, a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone who has sat in a restaurant on Valentine's night surrounded by glum couples playing Candy Crush on their phones.
Like the medieval tradition it's named for, the village pub in Little Dunmow has been rescued from obsolescence and dusted off for the 21st century. New owner Daniel Clifford is the Michelin-garlanded chef-patron of Midsummer House in Cambridge, and two-time finalist on Great British Menu. Despairing of finding somewhere decent to eat in his area, he bought his local and set about doing the full Tom Kerridge on it, transforming a moribund pub into a destination restaurant with rooms. Heading up the kitchen, is the prodigious Danny Gill, a Midsummer House alumnus who scored first head chef position – at Pimlico's Roussillon – when he was only 23 years old.
It's a dusty corner of the world for talent of this order to pitch up in. If a village within an hour's drive of central London can feasibly be described as "in the middle of nowhere", Little Dunmow would be that place, buried deep in that surprisingly rural quadrant of Essex bisected by Stansted airport and the M11. To attempt to find the Flitch without the help of satnav would test the fondest of marital relations.
Talk about vaut le voyage though. Confident good taste is encoded in every aspect of the Flitch, from the flagstoned bar with its delicious Scandinavian ladderback armchairs and velvet settles, to the exuberant floral wallpaper in the dining room. The gloomy hand of Messrs Farrow & Ball has been banished – the only Dead Salmon here is on the menu, and heritage comes in the form of the Penguin Classics wallpaper in the bathroom.
The kitchen is very much part of the smallish dining room: designed to give fans of Great British Menu a ringside view of maximum Dan-age. The guvnor is on the pass the evening we visit: in these early days, he's dividing his time between the Flitch and Midsummer House. "All set, boys and girls?" he calls to his brigade as service begins.
Set they surely are: every dish that leaves the kitchen, with rat-a-tat timing, is superb, from the warm sack of limber, loose-textured sourdough, to the cocoa-dredged pistachio soufflé, tall as a chef's toque, with a quenelle of chocolate sorbet to stir through its shimmering depths.
There's nothing particularly pubbish about the dinner menu, apart from beer-battered pollock and chips with mushy peas. Presentation is polished without tipping into fussiness. There may be microherbs and puréed dots and dabs gilding a chicken liver parfait, but they don't detract from the main event, the collision of that silken, huge-flavoured pâté with airy, griddle-striped brioche. Beetroot, baked on open coals to distil all its earthy sweetness, is showcased by a sweet marmalade of golden beets and friable hazelnut biscuits.
Plump mussels, heady with cider and garlic, depth-charge an otherwise subtle assembly of crisp-skinned stone bass and puréed parsley root. In the land of the flitch, local pork – from Dunmow food heroes Great Garnetts – is a must-order; a trencherman, bone-in pork chop comes with a finger of confit belly and a heap of lardon-spiked shredded cabbage. This, and an indulgent side of gratin dauphinois, suggests the Flitch would be a fantastic place to come for Sunday lunch.
The dining room is small – in the summer, garden seating will double the size – but tables are huge and generously spaced, and fans of TV cooking shows will enjoy the theatrical calls for service which punctuate the mood music. One particularly energetic chorus of "Yes, chef" prompted my startled guest to gasp, "What's going on? If I'd wanted to hear a bloke yelling, I'd have stayed at home".
But I'm clutching at straws here. Everything is right about the Flitch, from the warmly welcoming young staff, to the fact that the bar area still feels like a proper pub, albeit a pub that serves crispy quails' eggs as a bar snack. It may be too late to book a table for Valentine's Day tomorrow, but make a note of it for 2017. Telling your loved one you're taking them somewhere wonderful to eat in a year and a day should keep them happy enough to win you that side of bacon.
The Flitch of Bacon, The Street, Little Dunmow, Essex CM6 3HT. Tel: 01371 821660
Set lunch £18 two courses/£22.50 three courses. À la carte around £35 for three courses before wine and serviceReuse content