Restaurant: Sourced for the goose
If organic food is good enough for Prince Charles, it's good enough for Caroline Stacey
Saturday 13 June 1998
Our two parties, one from London, one from Oxford, converged there, after first almost missing the unassuming, flinty roadside pub. There's no poncey conservatory, no car park full of four-wheel-drive vehicles, no photos of mine host hugging heads of state, or any other indication that this could be an attraction for B-list celebrity spotters and charabanc outings. And - happily, that Saturday - there was no widescreen TV, either.
Prince Charles has been used to competition as a crowd-puller, and when we went to Britwell Salome, his ex-chef was up against the Cup Final for custom. The football was the clear winner, but so, it turned out, were we.
As the only people on the planet not watching telly, we had the run of the garden. Indoors, the pub's recent change of ownership and limited budget are evident from the superficial but significant changes that have been made to brighten it up.
The garden is not accessible directly from the pub - to get from garden back into bar, you have to go out through a door and along the road. It is less flowery than the pub carpet; newly planted climbers have yet to make an impression on the fencing or on an unsightly shed, but outside in the sun, it was easier to forget the sacrifice we were making.
The lunch menu is short, and promisingly trenchant in range and descriptions; between us we ate all of it - three starters, three main courses and two puddings. (Dinner is a similar length but a set price. Both lunch and dinner offer interesting cheeses as an alternative to pudding.) Careful sourcing and canny housekeeping are virtues in a small kitchen, but a drawback is that key ingredients can soon become familiar, limiting the options when ordering. We had to choose carefully - couldn't have chicken, bacon and spinach salad followed by chicken braised with St George's mushrooms, or by more spinach with turbot. However, only because we were comparing notes did we recognise the brilliant pesto from the tuna fagioli salad making a reappearance on the chicken salad. Both can be had as main courses, but you'd be unlikely to order one after the other, and what matters more is that all the ingredients were first-class. No imported, out-of-season interlopers but palpably local produce simply combined and skilfully cooked to create really vivid-tasting combinations.
The tuna and fagioli salad was so good we all tried to memorise the components so we could copy it at home. There was fresh tuna, oak leaf lettuce (no cheating bag of salad leaves, no lollo rosso), a fine dice of red pepper, aubergine and courgette, green flageolets rather than floury white haricot beans, pine nuts and the vivant pesto dressing.
"There is a partiality to pine nuts and pesto," alliterated one of our party as she proceeded with her chicken salad. Cooked spinach came deliciously sandwiched between mashed potato and a superb turbot fillet with chive sauce (a fantastic combo), and with a chicken casserole with St George's mushrooms (a wild variety found only in spring on chalky grassland), which had a sweet, thick gravy. Loin of pork with braised beetroot was flavourful.
The two puddings - a very fine apple tart with creme anglaise, and chicory (a subtle variation on coffee) creme brulee - were restrained and perfect.
The only criticism we could come up with was that there was nothing here for vegetarians. "So what?" said the Oxford academic in let-them-eat-beef-on-the-bone, Roger Scruton mode. "Objectively," lectured the don, "there's a little too much repetition of ingredients, the nine dishes on offer involve different combinations of four fundamental ingredients" - a philosopher, he can't count - "but, if you lived in Oxfordshire or Reading you couldn't do better. Highly satisfactory."
The greenest of our group, apart from noting that vegetarians get short shrift, was also concerned about the state of the garden. Someone needs to talk lovingly to the plants. Any suggestions?
The Goose, Britwell Salome, near Watlington, Oxfordshire OX5 5LG (01491 612304). Lunch Tues-Sun, dinner Tues-Sat. Lunch average pounds 20. Dinner pounds 18 two courses, pounds 22 three courses. Major credit cards, no Amex or Diners Club.
More organic eating
The Organic Cafe, 25 Lonsdale Road, London NW6 (0171-372 1232). While many good restaurants (Le Gavroche is one) use organic produce but neglect to mention it - it's assumed they'll source exceptional raw materials anyway - this hidden Kilburn asset displays in its name its complete commitment to responsible farming and animal rearing. The mews cafe/restaurant/wine bar (wines, beers, cider and champagne) buys only from Soil Association- registered producers. In just over two years, it has grown organically from a chaotic little daytime cafe to one double the size, and it now stays open twice as long. Simple cooking lets the ingredients speak for themselves: fantastic sausages for breakfast, quiche and stir-fries for lunch, steak bearnaise at night; chocolate and almond torte for afters. pounds 10 for lunch, double for dinner.
Moro, 34-36 Exmouth Market, London EC1 (0171-833 8336). Recent winner of Time Out's Best New Restaurant Award, Moro is putting neglected Spanish and fashionable North African cooking on the map in Clerkenwell's revivified Exmouth Market. Chefs Sam and Sam Clark (they're married to each other) and Jake Hodges lament the scarcity of decent tomatoes and, with good produce essential to simple Spanish dishes, are prepared to pay double for organic vegetables - broad beans, leeks and chard - and lamb and pork. The results? Great braised red and green chard with the grilled monkfish, chargrilled lamb with aubergine. Around pounds 20-pounds 25 a head.
Rocinantes, 85 Whiteladies Road, Bristol (0117-973 4482). Seventy per cent of the vegetables - baby beets and turnips, lettuces, cucumbers, beans and peas, celeriac and fennel at this time of year - and meat from West Country producers are organic at this well-established, busy Bristol restaurant and tapas bar. The green theme pre-dates recent bandwagon jumping, but this is no worthy veggie joint. Fillet steak with polenta, wild mushrooms and spinach, and wild boar stew are two current examples of dishes that make a bill of around pounds 25 a head in the restaurant great value for the quality (and cost) of the produce. Chef and owner Barry Haughton reports that organic peppers cost more than four times the others, but they're worth it when a dish demands the best taste
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