The Pilgrims at Lovington, Castle Cary, Somerset

Sartre is alive and well, and working as a sign writer in Somerset. I know that because I saw his handiwork, hanging outside a pub called The Pilgrims in Lovington. It read, simply, "Sunday lunch - or lunch on a Sunday?".

Sartre is alive and well, and working as a sign writer in Somerset. I know that because I saw his handiwork, hanging outside a pub called The Pilgrims in Lovington. It read, simply, "Sunday lunch - or lunch on a Sunday?".

Lovington is an ordinary-looking village and all too easy to drive through, if you're in a hurry. Which would be a shame. But the sign - especially that metaphysical question mark - made me stop my car. For that I thank you, Jean-Paul.

The Pilgrims doesn't look much from the outside. I would guess it was painted in whatever was on special at B&Q in, say, 1980. The inside isn't much better. It had the feel of a pub with a darts team - not a pub with fish suppliers who deliver five times a week. And certainly not a pub that is shortlisted for the forthcoming Somerset Life magazine's dining pub of the year. But appearances can be deceptive. Maybe Sartre could knock up a new sign along those lines?

On the menu, in the small print where restaurants normally bang on about food allergies, it read "Some of our staff may be nuts. And the chef has been gently modified - but not for ages." And I liked the way the chef made a virtue of his local produce - even down to the table water. Not that I tasted a difference. Unless I venture to the sulphury reaches of Vichy or Badoit, I never taste any difference. But it was a nice idea.

We began with a Portobello mushroom (£5) in a mascarpone sauce. There was a herb, somewhere, that married nicely with the mascarpone. But I couldn't identify it. So I had the lovely waitress ask the chef. I imagined she was the chef's wife. It's not important if I was wrong about that - the point is that The Pilgrims has a family feel. The waitress reappeared, smiling. "He can't remember," she said. "Whatever was close at hand." It showed. His cooking was spontaneous - as if done for friends.

The smoked trout and eel (£7) came from Brown and Forrest in Hambridge (see Second Helpings, right). The thick slabs of fish had the smell of the front parlour on a Sunday, when my grandmother used to light a big coal fire. Hot smoking is a short process - about two hours - that retains the fish's succulence. It's a skill. There's no control panel, just a fire. The end result is complex - and a flavour as rewarding as good wine. Normally I would recommend lemon and black pepper, but The Pilgrims surprised me with horseradish. I sometimes forget - horseradish isn't just for roast beef.

It was odd to see raclette (£5) on the menu. Not least because it was the only cheese in the place that didn't come from the West Country. Three thick slices arrived, melted onto a scalding hot plate, with cornichons and capers, and a good pile of bitter salad leaves. All that was missing was thick buttered bread. But that meant I had enough room for monkfish, which was sautéed with scallops, smoked Dorset bacon and girolles. It was finished with a crème fraîche, and served on a rice pilaf.

There are many, many different types of rice - it seems ridiculous that we only ever talk about long- and short-grain. But the long-grain pilaf made a delicious change from potato, as did the introduction of Somerset cider brandy. The chef should have taken off the outer skin from my side order of broad beans. And baby corn - why? It reminds me of the time when Britain went stir-fry crazy. Let's put the baby-corn years behind us, and allow it to grow into a proper vegetable.

I dropped my napkin on my way to the lavatory. It was still there when I got back. In a London restaurant, three people would have raced to pick it up and fold it into the shape of a swan. I would, of course, have had to pay handsomely for the privilege. But, having said that, I paid £20 for monkfish at The Pilgrims. True, the place could do with a lick of paint, and some new curtains. But lunch was a joy - an unabashed pleasure of existence. Maybe that's why Sartre agreed to do the sign.

For more information about Somerset, visit

The Pilgrims at Lovington, Castle Cary, Somerset (01963 240597)


By Caroline Stacey

Almshouse Bistro

Since September, a new owner (and former full-time salmon smoker) has been a breath of fresh air in the ancient square. He still smokes salmon; eat as much as you like for £6.95, and follow with pork tenderloin.

The Square, Axbridge (01934 732493)

Brown and Forrest Smokery Restaurant

Smoked eel, hot smoked salmon, duck, lamb and even garlic straight from the smokehouse star in the simply lovely café where they care about what matters: freshness, not frills.

Bowdens's Farm, Hambridge, Langport (01458 250875)

Moss Food

Bright and breezy little café in the county town - perfect for a less-than-£10 lunch, all-day coffee and great cakes. Why don't more places do a juicy roast-beef salad, and gooey brownies?

The Crescent, Taunton (01823 326793)

New Farm Restaurant

Dine on the farm - on seasonal produce home-cooked with flair. Chilled cucumber soup with oysters and radish, and loin of lamb on broad bean pesto are this season's treats (for dinner only).

Over Stratton, nr South Petherton (01460 240584)

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