From a professional point of view it wasn't ideal.
From a professional point of view it wasn't ideal. The day began with me crouching over a dishwasher, sucking drain cleaner out of the rinse-aid compartment with a straw. I won't trouble you with the sorry details; a borrowed holiday cottage, a mix-up with the bottles under the sink - it could happen to anyone. But I managed to swallow some of the stuff, leaving me with a numb tongue and an ominous rumbling in my guts. Now, who's for a long, lazy lunch in the country?
Not just any old bit of country, either, but that Platonic ideal of rural England, the Vale of Dedham, on the Essex-Suffolk border. The landscape around the River Stour hardly seems to have changed since it was immortalised in the paintings of John Constable. Maybe there's just a few more coach parties looking for Willy Lott's cottage, but otherwise it's unchanged. Dedham itself is a variety box of architectural quaintness. And right in the middle, the Sun Inn, a handsome, buttercup-yellow coaching inn. I'd guess it was Georgian, but what do I know? I gargle with drain cleaner.
The Sun used to be one of those bog-standard, swirly carpeted, managed pubs until an enthusiastic new owner got his hands on it last year. A refugee from the London rat race, he reopened it last July, and then wrote to The Independent to tell us about it. He'd come to Dedham, he explained, because he'd got fed up after five years managing a group of west-London gastropubs. Now, at the grand old age of 27, he wanted to cook. With no formal training, but with well-loved River Cafe and Moro cookbooks to guide him, he'd taken on a kitchen, which could potentially turn out over a hundred covers a night. And on top of that challenge, he'd set about refurbishing the Sun's four manky bedrooms to the standard of a boutique hotel, using furniture bought from antique fairs and junk shops.
It sounded like the premise for a new reality TV series. He's young! He's never cooked before! He's a fish out of water! In fact, it's the Jamie Oliver story in reverse: flash Londoner takes over struggling pub in rural Essex. The only problem for the schedulers is that our pioneering hero is called Piers Baker, and Piers's Pub doesn't have quite the democratic ring of Jimmy's Farm or Jamie's Kitchen.
The menu enclosed with Piers's letter pushed all the right buttons - Mediterranean-influenced but strong on local suppliers and seasonal ingredients. Ripple dissolve through to the chalked-up dishes on offer on a Monday lunchtime, and they didn't disappoint. Pan-fried herring with melted onion, black olives and pine nuts. Grilled rib-eye steak with sautéed golden beetroots and baby turnips. Gloucester Old Spot pork salad with black beans. "Anything can be adapted for kids," called out the young chap behind the bar, whose floppy, Hugh Grant fringe meant he just had to be Piers.
The main-course dishes we tried combined big robust flavours with a careful attention to detail. My Moroccan lamb meatballs were just the thing for someone with an anaesthetised palate - and I mean that as a compliment. Juicy minced lamb spiked with olives, apricots and coriander in a smokily reduced tomato sauce, served with herb couscous. A tranche of shimmeringly fresh cod was combined, Spanish style, with slices of chorizo that bled orange into a crisp fan of sautéed new potatoes.
There may be a greater focus on the food than you'd get in your average village inn, but this is not a gastropub. It's a proper pub pub, with Adnams on tap, and heaps of vintage board games, and people drinking beer at the bar rather than jostling to order caffè lattes. That said, an old chap did come in at around 3.15 and order a caffè latte. We braced ourselves for the mocking laughter which would inevitably greet this request in most British pubs at 3.15 on a Monday afternoon. But no - it was served without demur.
The instinct for hospitality behind the Sun Inn is positively Continental, a perfect match for its Mediterranean-themed menu. Everything's just that little bit better than it really needs to be - right down to the glass of water that comes on the side when you order an espresso.
As you've probably gathered, I liked the Sun Inn a lot, and even more, I liked the idea that a huge diaspora of Piers types will one day march forth from the gastropubs of London to bring Moro-influenced dishes to the nation's struggling roadhouses. I'm very much hoping, after such a rave, that Piers will use a quote from me in his future publicity. Though perhaps "a brilliant meal guaranteed to take away the taste of any brand of drain cleaner" isn't quite what he's looking for. E
The Sun Inn, High Street, Dedham, Essex, 01206 323351
SECOND HELPINGS: SUN, SAND AND SEA
By Caroline Stacey
The Sun Inn
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