From scampi in the basket to rooks baked in a pie

James Cusick reports on radical changes to the British pub
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The Independent Online
Where once scampi in a basket ruled supreme, there is now rook pie or medallions of ostrich. Where once an order for a glass of Chardonnay brought silence or gales of derision, there is now a glimmer of hope. Britain's pubs are apparently reaching maturity.

The leading annual guide to the houses of ale and atmosphere, The Good Pub Guide, was published yesterday to claims that pub food, pub architecture and pub prices may be enjoying a renaissance. The Guide's editor, Alisdair Aird, writes that "the wine tide has finally turned", and claims that prices have gone up only a whisker above inflation.

The Guide also claims that food is dominating the quiet revolution inside Britain's public houses and that the choice of the Dining Pub of the Year "has been the most difficult ever".

Having discovered the microwave and the freezer in the 1980s, it was not unusual, according to Mr Aird, to see pub menus with between 50 and 100 dishes. The growing uniformity of brewery-owned pubs hastened what the traditionalists believed was an end to individualism in pubs. No more.

"Character is making its comeback," Mr Aird said. His list of "unlikely ingredients" in this year's Guide includes offal, organic produce and a large Thai influence.

Wendy Hibbard cooks in and runs The Sun at Winforton in Herefordshire and for six weeks during the spring months, The Sun's menu includes Rook Pie (pounds 7.50). "The rooks," she said, "come from one of my contacts. Only the rook breasts are used and the taste is somewhere between grouse and pigeon".

Tourists who flock to Herefordshire for the experience of the unusual pie expect beaks to be peeking out over the pastry crust, but she said: "They are disappointed there are none."

This week in The Sun, with rooks out of season, it was venison braised in sloe gin and brandy and Greek stiphado, which is beef in red wine.

The Lion and Unicorn in Thornhill, Central Scotland, has no blackbirds but instead they have a fast-running variety. Their menu includes ostrich medallions in a Madeira sauce (pounds 5.50), happily rubbing shoulders with wild boar in apple gravy.

The trend towards individualism is highlighted in the quiet coastal town of Faversham in Kent where a French chef, Patrick Coevoet, and his wife, Josephine, have brought gastronomic sophistication to a once delapidated pub.

With yachts moored outside and nautical paraphernalia inside, the Albion, with its blackboard menu of Anglo-French dishes, indicates an educated clientele.

Their first appearance in the Guide means Patrick's and Josephine's belief that people want first-class food in a relaxed pub atmosphere has been proven. Patrick said: "I came here from Hazebrouck, near Lille, nearly 10 years ago. Initially I worked in a French restaurant. Now I prefer the pub. We don't have starched waiters hanging around. The atmosphere is relaxed. The food? It must be good: we are booked out most weekends."

Mr Aird believes Britain's pubs may be in for a "vintage year" but adds: "We don't want to believe it will all be downhill from here. It won't be."

The 1996 Pub of the Year - the Queen's Head, Troutbeck, Cumbria.

Own Brew Pub of the Year - The Cavendish Arms, Cartmel, Cumbria.

Town Pub of the Year - White Locks, Leeds, Yorkshire.

Family Pub of the Year - The Wight Mice, Isle of Wight.

Dining Pub of the Year - The Cholmondeley Arms, near Bickley Moss, Cheshire.