Around 100 miles up the A1, the hunger pangs begin in earnest. Regularly toiling north on this thoroughfare, I have become only too familiar with the meagre fare offered at the noisome Peterborough Services and craved more substantial replenishment. After some research into halfway houses, I discovered the near-perfect solution. Just two miles off the A1, the Olive Branch in the Rutland village of Clipsham is one of only 13 UK pubs to hold a Michelin star.
I say 'near perfect', because there is a slight problem for the casual caller. You can't. When I rang on a Thursday to reserve a table for two on Saturday lunch, normally a tranquil time in rural boozers, I was told that we could only be accommodated in "the barn" (presumably converted, but not quite what I wanted). Sunday lunch was, of course, fully booked. How about Friday? "Sorry, sir." So we postponed our trip to Monday.
On a rain-lashed lunchtime, the car park was packed and so, it appeared, was the picturesque pub. Originally created from three farm cottages in 1890 by the local squire as a placatory replacement following his closure of a more raucous establishment (hence the curious name), it was refurbished in 1999 by three alumni of the nearby gastronomic palace, Hambleton Hall.
Initial signs suggested that our protracted wait was worthwhile. A neighbouring table told the waiter that their meal was "absolutely gorgeous". The overture to our meal took the form of a warm half-loaf of brown bread. You're given a whacking big bread knife and 'olive and herb butter' to slather on. The demi-loaf lasted us approximately three minutes.
Though the owners also have an elegant hotel across the road, they evidently adhere to the maxim 'Clutter is Good' where pub décor is concerned. Every surface is laden with empty wine bottles from grand chateaux and well-thumbed cookbooks (Larousse rubs shoulders with volumes on Australian and Portuguese cuisine) from the collection of cook and co-owner Sean Hope.
My dainty risotto starter displayed a similar lack of restraint. Perfectly cooked, the saffron-tinged rice was augmented with nuggets of lobster, skinned broad beans, minuscule mushrooms, fragments of crispy fried onion and Parmesan curls. Though the combination runs contrary to the Italian preference for simplicity in risotto, my wife pooh-poohed such purism. "It's lovely and summery."
Opting for the set lunch (£16.95 for two courses), Alison kicked off with cured trout from Rutland Water, an inappropriately vast reservoir. The dark-pink fillet, warm, dense and saline, was happily accompanied by a 'carpaccio' of beetroot (could we go back to 'thin-sliced'?), peashoots, homemade crisps and blobs of balsamic reduction. Little white cubes proved a surprise: horseradish jelly. "And there's a dusting of something pink," pondered Alison. "Beetroot powder!" announced our waiter.
Her meal continued with an impressive lump of pan-fried cod. Topped with salsa, the plump, gleaming flakes were partnered with saffron rice and slivers of buttery courgette. My companion expressed great contentment with the economic option: "Fantastic value for money."
My plutocratic turbot (£20.50) arrived shrouded in pink foam. Surely a culinary accoutrement whose day has passed, this turned out to be a frothed-up tomato and fish stock. If the Olive Branch has a failing, it is that of trying too hard. When the tide subsided, there emerged a nice square of fish, sweet, firm and delicate, on a bed of peas and chopped green beans. Surrounding jetsam included clams, mussels, crayfish and thumbnail-sized potatoes infused with yet more saffron. The pub's daily consumption must require a field of crocuses.
Ignoring the hint from the empties that once held Lynch Bages and Puligny Montrachet, I went for a pint of Olive Oil beer, a blonde bitter made for the pub by Davis'es [sic] Brewery in Oakham, far better at beer than apostrophes. Alison lapped up her 500ml bottle of Scrambler Cider, which celebrates one of the weird contests enjoyed in these parts: 'Three barrels across two streams'.
The puds looked fine (especially vanilla panna cotta with Rutland Water strawberries) and the seven cheeses for £10.50 would be a treat for sharing. However, we were en route and cappuccino sufficed. Since the Olive Branch utilises the celebrated foodstuffs of Melton Mowbray and environs, we may aim for more meaty sustenance next time – the pub must be one of the few Michelin-starred eateries that sells take-away jars of beef dripping (£3.50) – but our fishy feast from a land-locked county was the perfect mid-journey reviver. The next 150 miles flew by – and the sun came out.
The Olive Branch, Main Street, Clipsham, Rutland (01780 410355). £50-60 for two, for two courses with beer or cider
Tipping policy: 'All tips are up to the customer and go to the staff'
Side orders: Star pub grub
The Sir Charles Napier
This year, three pubs were awarded a Michelin star for the first time, including this 'godfather of the gastropub revolution', overlooking beautiful gardens.
Sprigg's Alley, Chinnor, Oxon (01494 483011)
The Butchers Arms
Next up is this cosy little pub specialising in seasonal produce, such as this starter: Wye Valley asparagus with fried hen's egg and wild garlic sauce (£8.95).
Lime Street, Eldersfield, Gloucester (01452 840 381)
The Black Swan
Finally, a star went to this 16th-century inn, where dishes include 'Loin & Scrag End of Lamb with Ratatouille, Basil, Pine Nuts and Parmesan Gnocchi' (£25).
Oldstead, York, North Yorkshire (01347 868 387)
- More about: