Friday, 14 November 2008
The Wellington Arms, Hampshire
Isn’t it about time someone built a rapid exit road from South London that links directly to the M3? I’m sick of having to crawl around the South Circular at a pace that makes Eric the Eel look like Michael Phelps. The grizzly shop windows look the same in Wandsworth, Putney and Sheen.
Having escaped the South Circular the M3 felt like one of those conveyor belts for lazy people in airports. We whizzed along without even trying. The jaundiced trees took on a trippy effect as they shed their leaves in the gusting wind. Rather than be mugged by the modern day highwayman that is the motorway service station, we had planned ahead and booked ourselves into The Wellington Arms, just north of Basingstoke.
Unusually, we arrived on time, which gave us a chance to admire their chicken coup and immaculate vegetable garden.
We read a glowing review of The Wellington Arms in Olive about 2 weeks ago and booked it on the spot. Further delving yielded warm reviews from Giles Coren and others. We’d been looking forward to it from the moment we booked. Everything we had read about was true. It is idyllic and must be one of the most stylish country pubs in the country.
With only 8 tables it’s cosy and full of charm. It feels less like a pub restaurant and more akin to being in a friend’s living room. Our waitress was a delight. My pint of bitter was perfect and Cowie’s lime and soda was full of proper lime. With a pint in hand we surveyed the chalk board menu, standing behind a table of very loud parents from Marlborough.
We often find it hard to choose, but this time it was as if the menu had been written just for us. Cowie was torn between a double baked goat’s cheese soufflé and the scallops – as was I which made things easy! And for the main event Cowie immediately chose the brill and I almost shouted out venison pie!
Whilst waiting for our food I couldn’t help noticing the plaque behind me commemorating Jason King’s Junior Gold medal in the Cooking Olympics. This was a sign of the brilliance to come as we were feasting on a range of sensational breads. In particular the soft dark, treacly rye bread was first class – it’s all made in the village by a chap who’s name I read (and forgot) whilst having a wee!
My scallops couldn’t have been cooked any better. Some people don’t like their sea food covered in butter – but I do! The bed of samphire had me purring like a kitten having his tummy tickled. I was so focussed on the scallops that I almost forgot to switch plates with Cowie. Her goat’s cheese soufflé was just as good. Well risen texture melted into that unmistakable taste of goat’s cheese. Fortunately our plates were cleared before I had embarrassed myself by licking them clean!
The excellence of the cooking continued with our main courses. Whilst all the other boring people on the other 7 tables seemed to be having fish and chips we fell head over heels for our more interesting dishes. My venison pie had a lid on it that any chef in the country would have been proud of. It stayed crispy until I had devoured the last morsel. The venison filling was moist and deep. The binary opposite of the dry and tough meat that occasionally plays the part of an impostor.
Cowie’s brill was huge. Enough for 4 Cowies! The outside was perfectly seared to a crispy, buttery finish, whilst the flesh inside was soft and peeled away like skate. The real treat was yet to come as Cowie unearthed a line of sweetbreads. Our cabbage and roasted courgettes were just as perfect and left us feeling like we’d just experienced the platonic ideal of a “Saturday lunch, just off the motorway, on the way home after a long week at work”.
From now on, whenever we have a long trip on the cards we are going to make sure we’ve got a good rural pub that serves great food lined up to refuel us! In our little alcove we started reading some books by Diana Henry who has written about the Wellington Arms in her guide to Britain’s best gastro pubs. I’ve already ordered a copy from the new and used section on Amazon and can’t wait to plan our next adventure.