Some gastropubs have too much pub and not enough gastro, and you find yourself eating your lunch balanced on your knees. Some are all gastro and no trace of pub at all, as though the management decided one day that people who just stand around drinking beer and talking on their premises are horrid riff-raff. It takes a place like the Carpenter's Arms in Fulbrook to remind you how the joint concept is supposed to work.
It's a long, low, 17th-century inn, painted in a subtle, eau-de-nil shade, and it sits discreetly just outside the howling tourist mêlée of Burford – the edge-of-the-Cotswolds village recently voted by Forbes, the American business magazine, as one of the 10 most beautiful places to live in Europe. Burford's pubs will presumably soon throng with Midwestern loss adjusters.
More discriminating lunchers will be in the Carpenter's, where it takes about 10 minutes for you to feel like a local. Everyone talks to you. My guest and I listened in fascination to the lady at the bar updating her pals about which local boozer Gary Barlow currently drank in. Kate Moss, apparently, also likes to drop in there, once a week. (Yes, that seems likely. And I expect Agyness Deyn and Gisele Bundchen can be found flooring brown ale in the Cotswold Arms ... )
Seeing my furtive scribblings, a local historian asked if I knew about Tom Dick and Harry. "I know the phrase," I said. "It's just a generic way of saying 'everybody' or 'anybody' isn't it?" No, he said, oh no. "Tom, Dick and Harry were from round here. They were three of a family of eight brothers and all three of 'em highwaymen in the late 18th century. They all met a sticky end, especially Dick. One night the trio went to rob Tangley Hall, but the authorities were waiting. As Dick tried to unlatch a window, his arm was grabbed and held fast from inside, so he called to his brothers to cut off his arm or face the gallows. Harry (or was it Tom?) sliced through it with a sword and they escaped – but Dick bled to death while they took refuge in an inn. Probably this very pub ..."
The place can't have changed much: stone flags, rough-hewn walls, a multiplicity of wooden furniture; I loved the way the tables didn't match (one was a long Edwardian kitchen table with a drawer, another a garden seat, another a church pew). Prints of horses and pigs line the walls. The beers include Old Speckled Hen and – my utmost favourite – Abbot Ale from Bury St Edmunds.
When you tear yourself away from gossiping with the locals, the menu promises familiar porky and fishy ingredients coaxed into sophistication. A single enormous blini the size of a coracle carried a pink tarpaulin of exceedingly fresh smoked salmon from Stornoway with sour cream and lumpfish caviar, and left you gasping. The whitebait was a perfect balance of crunchy and soft on tongue and palate, perfectly seasoned, terribly more-ish.
A simple main course of "peach, parma ham, fig and mozzarella with honey and bee pollen dressing" was beautifully presented like a Fauvist oil painting, a delicious riot of summer flavours that I've never seen combined before (nor have I ever tried "bee pollen" on its own).
My garlic-pressed pork belly with mashed potatoes and garlic jus was a bit of a slab and a touch on the dry side, but lifted by red cabbage braised in butter and cider – such a good idea. And while the garlic featured as a deliciously distinct flavour, it had the decency not to linger around me all day. Though I was running out of steam, I had to try the summer fruit fool in its sundae dish: it was immense, overwhelming, a frontal assault of berries and cream on top of a richly satisfying fruit purée, as if a summer pudding had been blitzed with an electron gun.
My guest cooed over her plate of blow-torched plums with crème vanille. These were not subtle puddings, but they were exactly what you wished for on a Wednesday lunchtime in Oxfordshire.
As the locals arrived and departed, they were greeted and goodbyed by Claire, the owner, as if they were likely to return the next day, and the next. Maybe they were. Maybe all Oxfordshire gastropubs are like this, though I doubt it. I left feeling sated with food and wine and carpet-bombed with conviviality.
Only later that day did I realise that the local historian's highwayman story was a tall story about the first pub to have a one-arm bandit in it. It was a joke, whose punchline had been withheld. He hadn't, by any chance, been having a laugh with the gullible out-of-towners, had he?
About £70 for two, with wine
The Carpenter's Arms, Fulbrook Hill, Fulbrook, Burford, Oxfordshire (01993-823275)
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