The Saracen's Head, restaurant review: It's been around since the 17th century, but this English public house is as in demand as ever
Main Street, Little Brington, Northampton tel: 01604 770 640 £60 for two, with drinks
Amol Rajan was appointed editor of The Independent in June 2013. He was previously Editor of Independent Voices, a comment, campaigns and community platform across print and digital. He was earlier Deputy Comment Editor, Sports News Correspondent and a news reporter. He writes a restaurant column for the Independent on Sunday, and has a column in the Evening Standard (Mondays), Independent and i (Fridays). He used to work on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff, and at the Foreign Office; he is also a trustee of Prospex, a charity for young people in Islington. He has written a book called Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers.
Sunday 29 June 2014
The Bringtons comprise one of the loveliest of all parishes in England, nestled between Northampton and Daventry, next to Althorp, home of Charles Spencer. There are three villages here – Great Brington, Little Brington and Nobottle – the last of them not named in honour of England's players at an ancient World Cup, despite what locals say.
You've also got, in Great Brington, my favourite church in the world, even ahead of Barcelona's Sagrada Familia or the Church of our Saviour in St Petersburg – though the faded mustard brickwork of St Mary the Virgin, which dates back to the 13th century, is more modest in ambition than those two giants of Christendom. No atheist could fail to be moved by the sacred ambience of this place, or indeed by the beauty of the Bringtons generally. And even if faith isn't your thing, there are some of the best village pubs in the country to raise the spirits.
There's the Althorp Coaching Inn, which does some stonking ales and has an open fire that could keep you going all winter. Then there's the Saracen's Head at Little Brington, one of the most enjoyable inns ever imagined, replete with red telephone booth, beer garden, and more stonking ales. The menu here, like most agreeable menus, is short; and – perhaps because we're a long way from the M25 – pretty affordable.
To start, I opt for the smoked haddock and Spanish chorizo fishcake on a salad of pickled cucumber, spring onions and broad beans with rocket in a lemon vinaigrette (£6.95). This vast offering is delicately put together: the spring onions are chopped just fine enough not to be offensive; the vinaigrette is thick without being gloopy; and the little chunks of chorizo are evenly spread inside a crisp, light batter. It sounds like a simple dish but there is a lot that could go wrong with it – yet nothing does.
There are soups of the day – again generous, and a vegetarian option at £4.95 – and a coarse duck liver and sage pâté with fruit chutney and warm bread (£5.95). Quite often with such dishes, the bread comes too thick, which causes it to dominate the dish and dent your appetite before you've got going. Here it is thin, crisp where it needs to be crisp, and fluffy where it needs to be fluffy. And the chutney is both spicy and sweet, when often such concoctions are only one of the two.
Today is a Sunday and all the traditional lunch options are here, with some fancy trimmings. There is a very good honey, apple and mustard-glazed ham with fried local eggs and thick-cut chips (£9.95), the apple cubes big enough to give some contrasting bite; and the wild mushroom, Roquefort and toasted hazelnut risotto, with fresh garden sage and shaved Grana Padano is superb. My aunt Felicity, who has ordered it, has high standards in these matters and is very impressed.
Two big and nutritious salads, again very decent value, are also available: either hot smoked mackerel and Jersey royal potatoes (£10.95), or grilled free-range chicken with Northamptonshire asparagus (£12.95). The theme here is fresh food, full of finesse at a decent price, and it continues in a dessert menu long on calories and short on modesty. I have an affogato – a shot of espresso over pistachio ice-cream (£5.95) – but rather wish I'd gone for my wife Charlie's triple-chocolate and caramel pot with langue de chat biscuit and chocolate soil (near-frozen milk chocolate), which at £5.95 may be the cheapest heart attack this side of the Spencer family estate. It is also completely irresistible and doesn't last long.
Which is not something that could be said about the Saracen's Head, built in the 17th century. It has been fashionable in recent years to say that the English public house is an endangered species, and I'm pretty sure I was one of those who said it too, not least on this page. But while it is true that the onslaught of health legislation, the rise of supermarket competition and the evil of pubcos (the companies that own about a third of our pubs) have made life hard for their landlords, there is a pleasing obstinacy about the best English pubs, which are always found in the best English villages. This one is a classic.
The Saracen's Head. Main Street, Little Brington, Northampton tel: 01604 770 640 £60 for two, with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the week
I'm slowly rediscovering the idea of this stuff, not least after a delicious helping at the new Ham Yard Hotel in the West End.
Of a summer's evening, and in need of a light and nutritious dinner, a bag of these dipped in hummus are perfection.
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