Brian Viner: 'Villages and their pubs seem to have volatile marriages these days'

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The Independent Online

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth here in north Herefordshire – at least among those of us who valued The Bell at Yarpole for its reliably fine food – at the news that it's changing hands as the previous management has pulled le plug.

The Bell was run, splendidly, by Cedric Bosi, brother of Claude Bosi, whose restaurant, Hibiscus, was one of the establishments that gave Ludlow its reputation as a place of gastronomic pilgrimage, but who then, causing great confusion among the pilgrims, decided to relocate to Mayfair.

Happily, before he went, Claude took over The Bell, a rambling old pub in a pretty village, and installed Cedric as patron. For the last few years, a walk in nearby Mortimer Forest, enjoying just about the finest scenery that the English countryside can offer, followed by great dollops of French flair at The Bell, has been one of our favourite treats.

Moreover, Jane and I took a party of 13 there on New Year's Day, a party that included Londoners, New Yorkers and even a St Petersburger, and everyone agreed that lunch could scarcely have been bettered. One of the starters, a cassoulet rather racily served in a Kilner jar, actually drew oohs and aahs. For Jane and me, it was hugely satisfying to show these metropolitan sophisticates that one of England's least-populated counties could yield a pub lunch to rival anything in Notting Hill, TriBeCa or, er... a fashionable part of St Petersburg.

Then, out of the blue last week, came the rumours that the Bosis were quitting The Bell, and by Wednesday Cedric had gone, reportedly to join Claude in Mayfair. It doesn't mean that we've got nowhere left to go hereabouts for really top-notch pub grub – the enduringly excellent Stagg at Titley was the first pub in Britain to gain a Michelin star, and The Butchers Arms at Woolhope is run by one of the finest English chefs of his generation, Stephen Bull. But The Bell is the nearest to us, a mere 10 miles away, which round here counts as round the corner.

Still, maybe the new management will keep the standards aloft. And if they don't, we can at least stop being officially envious of those of our friends who live within ambling distance, the more so as our own local, The King's Head – l0 minutes walk across the fields from our house, and, after a skinful of Butty Bach, only five minutes back – is fast becoming a destination pub in its own right. When the Bosis took over The Bell a few years ago, The King's Head was in one of its lacklustre phases, the sort of place where, certainly at this time of year, bar staff out- numbered customers on all but a Saturday night. Why, we grumbled, couldn't we have a local like The Bell in Yarpole? Yet the boot might soon be on the other foot. The relationships between small rural communities and their pubs seem to ebb and flow like volatile marriages these days: all lovey-dovey one minute, barely on speaking terms the next.

As for Cedric and Claude, I don't know why they turned their back on such a thriving and popular enterprise, but I hope they feel they benefited from the experience as much as the good people of Yarpole – Yarpudlians, I suppose – manifestly did. It's ironic that they have upped sticks and left the sticks when they have, because I've been grumbling for ages about the lazy London bias of most national newspaper restaurant critics, and suddenly in the past fortnight, AA Gill of The Sunday Times, one of the most influential critics but also the one most likely to hyperventilate at the thought of venturing north of Marylebone Road, has at last discovered culinary life north, even, of the Watford Gap. He positively rhapsodised the other week about an unpretentious restaurant in the small Northumberland town of Wooler, and was honest enough to admit that his justification for never reviewing rural restaurants – that they wouldn't last a week in Putney – had been turned on its head. Most Putney restaurants, he concluded, wouldn't last a week in Wooler.

He should head out to Herefordshire next. The Bosi-run Bell may no longer be there, but I can introduce him to five pubs in the middle of nowhere that serve better food than the last meal I had in Putney. Not that swerving into a hedgerow to avoid a badger is everyone's idea of a fun ride home, but that's another story.