Hands up those of you who could recommend their local pub for its food? Not just pub grub that is , but gourmet food? I bet there's quite a few of you, and it's not surprising when you think that these days the average man or woman in the street has a far broader appreciation of food than, say, twenty years ago.
Though there has been a significant shift towards good food in pubs more recently, most towns and cities have witnessed a sharp decline in locals over the past ten years.
This thought was brought home to me recently when I visited a pub that has succeeded where others in the town have long since shut shop. It was many years ago now that my friend's Mom and Dad owned a cottage just outside the market town of Whitchurch in Shropshire. I was occasionally invited up there and, in doing so, would make frequent visits into town. What I remember most, apart from the lovely Tudor and Georgian buildings, was how many pubs there were. Local estimates at the time put it at at thirty three. Sadly, Whitchurch today is down to 11, surely that's an unacceptable reduction in only ten years.
One of the pubs doing a brisk trade however, is the Horse & Jockey in Church Street. I can't remember ever stumbling across the place but that's because it's tucked away in the backstreets, next to the impressive town church, with its equally impressive stained glass windows.
The pub is run by local born, Andy Thelwell, a man with an old head on young shoulders. At twenty seven years, he manages the pub with his wife and slips into his whites when the gong heralds the onset of dinner. Having trained as a chef he has worked in countless hotels and pubs throughout the Midlands, but now the prodigal son has returned to his home town, and it's no secret that the boy is slowly becoming as popular as his dishes.
A casual visitor to the pub could be forgiven for thinking there's nothing more on offer than a sausage roll or a cheese sandwich. Indeed, you have to look hard for the blackboard menu, but when you eventually find it, it's prolific. You can't help but think that chef is experimenting at every waking hour. Even the barmaid spoke magnanimously of how swiftly new dishes appear on the board.
I particularly liked the sound of black pudding in a poivre sauce, and smoked ham hock in apricot sauce. Local lamb is also featured, which is served with honey and mint. Discussing dishes with chef reveals the origins of some of the dishes. Like the Tandoori sausage, which comes from chef's stint as a relief manager in Birmingham (arguably the curry capital of Britain). And why not, there isn't a pocket of the nation that hasn't been awakened by the alluring taste of Indian and Pakistan cuisine.
The dining room has all the characteristics of a English pub dining room. With its burgundy curtains, dark wooden tables and burgundy floral carpet, it's basically unspoilt by the brewery's marketing department. The only outward signs of brash modernity are the promotional posters for a variety of brands of beer.
I started with hot peppered prawns which was dished up in a ramekin. The sauce kicked in nicely, but frozen prawns warmed through lose their succulency and tend to dry up, which is exactly what had happened. My partner's dish was a cracker though. Home made paté with generous slices of fine granary bread. It was very good, from the its coarse texture to the heady combination of liver with a hint of orange.
For my main course, I went for duck served in a light caramel sauce, accompanied with dauphinois potatoes and a selection of vegetables. The sauce was lighter than expected, but superbly accompanied the slices of duck. I'm told by my restaurant spy, the barmaid, that this is a popular dish with diners. I chose well, the dish is certainly a shining example of chef's repertoire. My partner chose chicken encased in choux pastry and stilton. A tad strong for my palate, but it was her type of dish. "Very good", she interjected.
The accompaniements to the main courses deserve a mention of their own. In the first instance, the broccoli looked as if it had been left outdoors for a week. On closer inspection the florets had been steamed in the traditional way, then dipped in hot oil until they returned a crisp texture, rather like seaweed. They were excellent. That endearing classic, cauliflower cheese, made an appearance, too. What's more, the dauphinois potatoes were the best I've tried for eons.
I sampled one of chef's dishes from the concise sweet menu, cider apple crumble. This part of the world is near enough cider country, give or take 40 miles. This was a good pud - the crumble was friable enough and the apples with that delightful hint of cider nested well with sauce Anglais.
My partner and I can honestly say that we like what the Horse & Jockey is doing. No frills, just gourment food presented in an informal dining room. The fact that Mr Thelwell is providing original and inventive food only serves to illustrate he's practically arrived. And good luck to him, because for me, he forms part of that new generation of chefs who are committed to making pub grub a more interesting and thought provoking experience.
Prices: Starters: £1.95 - £ £3.95; mains: mostly under a tenner except for 1lb lemon sole £12.00 or 1lb beef fillet stuffed with paté; all puddings are 2.25.
The Horse & Jockey, Church Street, Whitchurch
Shropshire. SY13 1LB
Tel:01948 664 902
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