It's remarkably easy to get from London to the Cotswold village of Kingham, thanks to its direct and frequent rail connection with Paddington. Mysteriously, the tiny station has survived, despite being positioned in the middle of nowhere. If rumour is to be believed, its reprieve may have had something to do with commuting local resident Peter Parker, who formerly happened to be the chairman of British Rail.
Sir Peter may have left this picture-perfect village for surroundings even more celestial, but his ghost seems to be hovering benignly over Kingham, making further improvements. After all, if you were going to enhance a one-time Country Life village of the year, wouldn't you persuade a chef from the Fat Duck to buy the local pub? And wouldn't you encourage her to source most of her produce from within a 10-mile radius of that pub? And wouldn't you ensure that Britain's poshest farm shop, on the Daylesford estate, fell within that radius?
The Kingham Plough is the dream country pub, on paper at least. I heard about it from Alex James of this – and that – parish. He lives in Kingham, eats at the Plough a couple of times a week, and sells the cheese he produces to Emily Watkins, the pub's youthful chef and co-owner. Watkins went solo last year after a two-year stint in that most finely tuned of ensembles, the kitchens of the Fat Duck. Now, in this spankingly refurbished pub with rooms, she is producing sophisticated versions of trad classics, and flying the flag for local produce.
Steak and chips, fish and chips, and steak and kidney pudding all make regular appearances on Watkins's daily changing menus. But the beef, from local Herefords, is prepared sous-vide, and the chips are triple-cooked, Fat Duck style. In other words, this is no bog-standard gastropub.
Arriving for an impromptu Saturday lunch, we stepped into the Plough's glowing, scrubbed bar with genuine pleasure. Real ales are on offer, and a selection of bar snacks including raised- crust pork pie and potted rabbit. A connecting pair of dining rooms has been carved from the old tithe barn, complete with gabled ceilings, oak panelling and mismatched furniture. The boho feel continues with touches like the use of tea towels as napkins. The clientele though, seemed very far from boho; indeed, the couple next to us were so unbelievably, imperiously posh they'd probably never had to use a tea-towel in their lives, never mind as a napkin.
Nor was there anything rustic about the impeccably turned-out starters. A prosciutto-wrapped eel terrine which folded a horseradish-spiked mousse around slivers of the smoked fish was counterpointed with a silky beetroot jelly. Whole poached duck egg had been breadcrumbed then deep-fried, briefly enough that its yolk spilled out over the lattice of bacon to mix with a glossy watercress emulsion.
These carefully composed dishes worked better than our main courses of cod and chips and steak-and-kidney pudding. There seemed something unseasonal about serving cod with a mountain of buttered garden peas in January. And those jumbo triple-cooked chips may work well with steak, but they were much too dense and slabby to suit this company.
No complaints about the curly kale that accompanied my steak and kidney pudding, nor about the quality of the meat in the unctuous filling. But I wasn't sure it was an improvement to substitute a baked pastry crust for the time-honoured steamed-suet variety; the resulting pie/pudding hybrid looked fab but didn't deliver the expected wet and wobbly satisfaction.
Perhaps these crowd-pleasing (and very reasonably priced) dishes are a necessary draw in an area which is relatively well-served by decent pubs and restaurants, and it seems a bit churlish to complain about Watkins' attempt to do something more interesting with them. But really, when it comes to experimentation, she should have drawn the line at the apple and Oxford blue cheese tart that I (briefly) sampled from the pudding menu. This quiche-like item harboured the distinctive sour bloom of blue cheese within its sweet apple-freighted custard; never has a sweet been less sweet.
Watkins is also let down by a young front-of- house team that on the day of our visit was distinctly overstretched. Despite setting aside two-hours-plus for our lunch, we missed out on sampling the local cheeses due to the imminent departure of our train, and the grand couple at the next table swept out of the place, unable to wait any longer for their main courses.
Without a manager figure to keep service bubbling along, The Plough doesn't quite have the atmosphere to live up to its potential. The kitchen is clearly capable of great things, and I get the impression that Watkins is the kind of perfectionist who will work at her menu until she gets it exactly right. But to really qualify as the dream country pub, the Plough needs more conviviality, more soul, no matter how much it has its heart in the right place.
The Kingham Plough, Kingham, Oxfordshire (01608 658327)
Around £25 a head for three coursesReuse content