Tempting dishes down by the river

EATING ENGLAND: No 10: OXFORDSHIRE; Illustration by Emily Hare; Not far from Oxford the Thames runs into `Wind in the Willows' country - and some favourite spots for summer guzzlers

SOUTH-EAST Oxfordshire, just a brief drive from London, is a good place for short, indulgent trips to the countryside. At this time of year, you pass fields of ripe corn dotted with poppies and stroll along a river-bank before settling down to a picnic of foods bought from Oxford's outstanding covered market or a meal at one of the area's restaurants. Also to be found here are mulberry trees, the fruit of which are picked for free by the gastronomic cognoscenti.

THIS STRETCH of the Thames is full of stories, be it Wind in the Willows or Lewis Carroll telling tales of Wonderland on a boat from Oxford to Godstow. Mapledurham has a historic watermill (tel: 01189 723350) run by a true enthusiast, Mildred Cookson, which is open at weekends and has an excellent exhibition on milling and baking. The house was one of the models for Toad Hall. For exercise and views, scramble up the Chilterns and walk around the beech woods. Cowleaze Wood, north of Christmas Common, has a sculpture trail.

In Oxford, a Saturday evening/Sunday morning option is to walk across Port Meadow for a drink at the Perch or the Trout and a view of the Oxford skyline. For culture, the Ashmolean is one of the most enjoyable museums in the country because it does not feel exhaustingly enormous but is packed with treasures.

THE CAFE at the Ashmolean is a calm space to rest your mind and feet and have a reviving cup of coffee (or, on one of those damp Oxford days, hot milk with honey and nutmeg) and a slice of cake or a tuna melt on ciabatta. There are simple flowers on each table and newspapers.

Just outside Oxford, Waterperry Gardens (tel: 01844 339254), has a gem of a lunch-and-tea shop which employs a Swiss patissier, no less. The deeply buttery almond croissants alone are worth a detour. Everything here is home made, including the varietal apple juices, pressed from the garden's 18 kinds of apple.

Oxford's pubs are so full of history that a book has been published on the matter, An Encyclopaedia of Oxford Pubs, Inns and Taverns by Derek Honey (Oakwood Press, pounds 8.95), which covers everything from historic brawls to satellite screens. With your pint - Morell's from Oxford, Morland's from Abingdon, Brakspear's from Henley-on-Thames and Hook Norton's from the famous brewery near Banbury - try to find a packet of Oxfordshire's Jonathan Crisps, made in Eynsham in such flavours as sea salt and black pepper.

MANY OF the restaurants in this area are frequented by weekenders and some, like Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, are for the rich and very special occasions (though the set menu is not totally outrageous).

My best tip, less elevated but truly pleasurable, is a new pub-restaurant, the Goose at Britwell Salome (tel: 01491 612304). The food has a well- flavoured classicism that is full of care at every stage. Ingredients are seasonal and carefully chosen. The free-range pork comes from the farm next door and some of the fruit and vegetables are grown in the walled garden of a big house down the road. The shortness of the menu - three choices for each course - makes you trust the quality of the kitchen.

Grilled halibut came on a gratin of spinach and leeks, roast guinea fowl with chanterelle jus, braised peas and beans. The chef, Chris Barber, who cooked for Prince Charles for 12 years, is clearly not interested in culinary carbuncles. Two courses at dinner cost pounds 18 and three cost pounds 22 or, if you prefer, you can have a main course at lunch for pounds 14 and there are sandwiches on sale.

The Leatherne Bottel (tel: 01491 872667) is in a really glorious position, with the Thames, the sky and the trees spread before you. If the food at the Goose is classical, this is baroque. Lambs' tongues are slowly simmered and served with sweetbreads pan-fried with ground galangal, black pudding and pumpkin bubble and squeak (pounds 17.50), for example. Some of the dishes sound over the top - but they work.

Another romantic restaurant, which is literally on the water, is the canal boat Rosamund the Fair (tel: 01865 553370) in Oxford. The emphasis is very much on the food, with ingredients, organic as far as possible, cooked to order on board. It is magical sitting outside between courses, moving serenely through the dark landscape. Rosamund is run by a couple who are, appropriately, involved in the "slow food" movement. The three- hour dinner and lunch cruises are at a fixed price of pounds 38.

FOR PICNICS, Oxford's covered market has the Oxford Cheese Company, Palm's deli and Fasta Pasta. Jericho, near Port Meadow, has Glutton's deli (tel: 01865 553748). Watlington has an excellent cheese shop/deli, the Granary (tel: 01491 613585), and near Mapledurham is one of the best organic shops in the country, the Old Dairy Farm Shop (tel: 01189 842392) in Whitchurch, with unpasteurised Guernsey cream for your strawberries.

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