It’s not often that mine host presses a fillet of pearly-fresh whiting on you, just as you’re about to leave his pub, but then Stephen Bull is no ordinary mine host. He’s a bit older than most, for a start, and has a track record of running outstanding watering holes, first of all in London, and then in increasingly obscure parts of the West Country. Along with Stephen Markwick, Shaun Hill and one or two other member of the Old Guard, Mr Bull had helped shape the present character of what might loosely be called Modern British Cookery.
This has its roots in provincial French cooking, but readily embraces Italian, Spanish, North African, Indian and Inuit elements as needed. In spite of the eclecticism, the dishes themselves have a distinctly British cast, both through the personalities of the chefs themselves, but also through the pervasive quality of our native cooking culture, something we don’t always recognise.
There could not have been a more specifically English scene than that in the garden at the back of the Butchers Arms, which I managed to track down a little beyond Woolhope, among the high-hedged, topsy-turvy lanes of Herefordshire, not far from Ledbury. Weller and I sat underneath the apple trees, sinking into pints of golden Owd Bull from the Hereford Brewery. A stream ran clear between us and the sweeping fields beyond. The sun shone and all was pretty damn right with the world. Then the sun went in, and we slipped into one of the rambling , comfortably shadowy and unassuming rooms for lunch.
Lunch: haggis fritters with beetroot relish; crab tart; mushroom stuffed with feta and mint with gorgonzola glaze and bocconcini; grilled liver and bacon and crispy onion rings; black bream with Sicilian breadcrumbs and citrus dressing; muscovado custard; warm ginger cake and treacle toffee ice cream, a combination verging on divine revelation according to Weller and one which he astutely observed, demonstrated Mr Bull’s passion for dark sugars.
There’s nothing remotely radical about any of these dishes these days, and yet, to me, such a menu exudes a most distinctive sense of person and place, a broad culinary curiosity combined with a very British sensibility. Take that stuffed mushroom, a staple of the pub grub vegetarian option and the dinner party menu from the 1980s onwards. Only Stephen Bull piles effect on effect, or rather cheese on cheese, feta on gorgonzola on bocconcini, with a bit of mint thrown in for good measure, to produce a gooey, mulchy, squelchy, richly indulgent, instantly gratifying, very British mouthful that had Weller, a distinguished gourmet, lowing with delight.
To be truthful, it’s not food that you need to analyse that closely. Does it hit the spot or does it not? That’s all you need to ask. And my answer is an unequivocal yes. It’s pleasure that Mr Bull goes for, and he knows what he’s up to. For the most part, the basics are done every well indeed. The crab tart was an absolute model of it’s kind, very fine pastry, and sweet, full-flavoured, but not too rich filling. The beetroot relish neatly offset the haggis fritters. The black bream was firm and flaky, the breadcrumbs crunchy and the citrus dressing gently tart.
There was the odd short coming. The muscovado custard, of which I had high hopes, was too solid and grainy for a deep sigh of contentment, and my slightly overcooked liver and bacon came draped like a tiger skin over an intimidating hummock of mash. The onion rings, on the other hand, were top drawer.
We drank, as Weller and I are inclined to do, with moderation. Just the one bottle between two, of a vampish Austrian pinot noir, which must have accounted for more than its fair share of the final bill of £89.04, because our first courses ran from £6.50 to £7.25, and main courses from £11.50 to £13.50, distinctly ungrasping in this day and age.
But then Stephen Bull never seemed to be in the business just for the money. Canny, yes. Greedy,no. And still cutting the mustard, definitely.
The Butchers Arms
Woolhope, Herefordshire HR1 4RF.
Tel 01432 860281