Brian Viner: Country life

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The Independent Online

An enormous house called Witanhurst, in Highgate, north London, was recently advertised in the Evening Standard. It was on the market for £32m.

However, it was not the astronomical price that drew my attention, but the blurb supplied by the agent, Knight Frank. "This house is steeped in history - the Queen watched her father play tennis here as a girl."

The image, I'm sure you will agree, is an irresistible one; I can just imagine Princess Elizabeth laughing uproariously as her father, King George VI, trotted on to court wearing a pink cotton summer dress and matching socks, with his hair done up in pigtails. Unfortunately, what the writer almost certainly meant was that Witanhurst was where the Queen, as a girl, watched her father play tennis. But then estate agents, even the posh ones such as Knight Frank, engage daily in this abuse of the English language. I have recounted before how, when we decided to move out of London, the challenge of finding the right house for the right price in the right part of the country was enlivened by the misprints, the gobbledygook, and the unnecessary use of Capital Letters that appeared in almost all Property Particulars sent to us. One house was advertised as having a Norman Spiral staircase; whether a spiral staircase dating from Norman times, or a staircase designed by an architect called Norman Spiral, we never discovered.

Estate agent-ese offers rich material for newspaper columnists. My colleague John Walsh has had great fun with it, and Lynne Truss drew from it when writing her improbable bestseller about punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. But there is a group of people even more culpable than estate agents in the habitual mangling of the language: restaurateurs. From the humblest caff to the grandest Michelin-starred dining-room, spelling mistakes and rogue capitals abound. I can forgive the odd "Meditteranean" and I'll just about swallow "brocolli" but sometimes, the words they get wrong on menus are ones they really ought to have mastered. Not least, menu itself. I have been handed a "menue" and I have been to "a braserrie". In a Herefordshire pub just a couple of weeks ago, I was forced to order an "ice-cream sunday". On a Saturday.

I wouldn't wish to imply that I sit there frothing with exasperation when handed a menu or shown a blackboard full of errors. It's more a source of amusement, although it has developed into something of a ritual; whenever I go to a restaurant I find the mistakes first and choose my food second, while Jane rolls her eyes and mutters "once a sub-editor, always a sub-editor".

Anyway, what got me started on all this was a meal we had last night at The Three Crowns in Ullingswick, a remote pub highly regarded in these parts. Engaged in my usual pedantic sweep of the menu I realised that the word "bouillabaisse" had confounded them, not that I could blame them. If I hadn't just looked it up, I'm not sure whether I would have got it right, either.

Besides, far more surprising than the misspelling of "bouillabaisse" on the Three Crowns' menu, was its presence there in the first place. This is sheep and cattle country par excellence, but not many restaurants make more than a nod towards seafood; north Herefordshire is a long way from the surf.

So hats off to Brent Castle, chef-proprietor at The Three Crowns, not just for making seafood a feature of his menu, but also for cooking it so expertly. Last week I rhapsodised about The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. Last night we had a meal that was very nearly as good and very nearly half the price. And only six miles from home.

All of which brings me to the real point of this column, one I've aired before and will air again. The focus of national newspaper restaurant critics is grotesquely skewed towards London, presumably because they can so rarely be arsed to check out any establishment from which they can't hail a black cab to take them home. They should head for Ullingswick. I'll even spell it for them.

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