God knows, good pubs serving good food are not nearly so numerous as they ought to be. And good pubs that manage to be both proper pubs and serve good food are rarer than hen’s teeth. Not just around Cheltenham, but anywhere. In the country, particularly, the boozer side of things tends to get sacrificed to the gastro side of things. Still, I’ve long thought that gastropubs represent the best and brightest hope for public eating in this country. Although one or two are a bit up their own arses, most have that cheery accessibility of the brasseries you used to be able to find in France, but rarely do these days.
By the time Fosdyke and I tracked down the red-brick Butchers Arms in the mysterious byways around Eldersfield, in the bandit country on the fringes of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, I was in a state of near panic at the thought that we might be too late for dinner. I need not have feared. We were met with sweetness and warmth. The interior beckoned, welcoming and unfussy. The walls were white, and bits of nice beamwork marked the ceiling. There was a real fire in a wood-burning stove. And it felt like a pub. There was no bollocks about it. Groups of people dotted around the two rooms, mostly just drinking, although one or two were eating.
Amazingly, the Butchers Arms turned out to be a two-person operation. James Winter cooks, his wife, Elizabeth, mans the bar and dining room. And she it was – a bright, smiling, friendly presence – who guided us to our table beside the stove. The menu, which changes daily, was short and to the point – five first courses, five main courses, five puddings, with a certain amount of local provenance about a good many of the ingredients to add colour. The pig’s cheeks came from Huntsham Farm, middle white pigs, too. The fillet of beef was from Hereford cattle. The loin of roe deer hailed from Chedworth. And there’s a notable showing of fish: Fowey mussels, squid, monkish, turbot and sea bass.
This is not always such a good idea when your kitchen is about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in this country. However, Winter, a bright young man of shiny optimism and purpose, has found an impeccable source. Fosdyke liked the look of the sea bass with parsnip purée, beetroot and relish, and he was right. The fish had that firm tautness you get only from a spanking fresh bass, and a big, wild one at that. It was the same with the turbot that I chose as a main course. This was paired, rather improbably on paper, with cider-braised pork shoulder and spinach, but the turf and surf elements teamed up very nicely, the sweet savour of the pork insinuating itself with the firm meatiness of the fish.
Dinner was a bit of a pork fest for me all round, because I led with the pig’s cheek with crackling and Bramley apples, where the said cheek had been cooked to a seductive, fibrous softness, juicy and gentle, with the apple sharpening up each mouthful. What’s so special about pork with apple sauce, you may ask. Nothing beyond an exemplary piece of meat cooked with exemplary skill and judgment to immensely pleasurable effect. You don’t have to be revolutionary or “creative” to produce very, very good food. Fosdyke’s roasted monkfish tail wrapped in Ibericó ham with braised lentils and salsa verde was a precise illustration of this principle.
In fact, there’s nothing radical about Winter’s menu, but from just reading it – game faggot with potato pancake and crispy ham; onion tart with Wigmore cheese and roasted red pepper dressing; baked vanilla and honey cheesecake with caramel ice cream, for example – you know that here is a chef with a distinctive, authoritative, if unshowy, way with food. It came as no surprise to learn that Winter had done time with the Bristol master, Stephen Markwick, himself an apostolic successor to George Perry-Smith and other founders of what might be called the Euro-Brit school, which did so much to raise the consciousness and standards of restaurant food in the 60s and 70s, paving the way for the today’s culinary swashbucklers.
Winter is no culinary swashbuckler, but he is a very fine cook, and in the context of the Butchers Arms that is far more valuable. The bill came to £112.35, of which drink (including a pint of impeccably kept Wye Valley bitter) contributed £65, thus fulfilling Fort’s theory of restaurant bills– that drink almost always accounts for roughly half the bill. So it was about £30 a head for two and a half dishes each (we shared a pudding – dark chocolate nut torte with comice pear and ginger sorbet, which combined rib-sticking qualities with a sophistication of flavours, temperatures and textures), and that really is a snip for such delights. You’d be very pleased to find anything of this class for this price in France.
The Butchers Arms, Lime Street, Eldersfield, Gloucestershire GL19 4NX. Tel: 01452 840381, http://www.thebutchersarms.net/