Roadside Finds in the English Countryside
Most people that know me would call me (among other things) a “foodie.” Not to say that I’m a food snob or such, but I’d wager that I do spend a greater part of my day than your average American thinking about my next meal. And this is no-more-so true than when travelling. Now, before we had kids, my wife and I would pretty much plan an itinerary around restaurants and foodmarkets that we wanted to sample, and if our gaze happened to settle upon an impressionist masterpiece, civil war battlefield, gothic cathedral, or wonderment-inducing mountain and/or valley along the way, then so much the better.
Now as with most things, the introduction of kids into the mix has changed the dynamic of the way we travel. For whatever reason, my 5 and 9 year old don’t necessarily see the merits of buzzing through an aquarium, museum, castle, or water park to drive up some serpentine mountain road or walk 43 city blocks in search of the perfect cassoulet, fried chicken, or lingonberry. Actually, as it turns out, when they’re hungry they want to eat at that very red-hot moment.
Last fall, we spent an extended weekend in New Orleans which is undeniably one of the great “food towns” in America. And what makes it so is not necessarily the numerous great restaurants (from grand-dames such as Antoine’s, Brennan’s, etc. to the newcomers like John Besh’s August, Susan Spicer’s Bayona, or Stephen Stryjewski’s Cochon). What truly sets New Orleans apart from other cities is that you almost have to try to get a bad meal there. I mean you can hardly swing a strand of Mardi Gras beads without hitting a well-crafted muffaletta, etouffée or beignet being served in a place full of charm by someone full of character.
But that’s New Orleans. This past spring, we had the very good fortune of going to visit some family friends in England. And while I managed to secure reservations at a couple of restaurants that are at the heart of England’s high-end culinary revival, I was a bit weary about what we would find the rest of the time. Mind you, not in London which is as cosmopolitan of a city as you’ll find and consistently ranks high in any list of food cities worldwide. Rather, I was wondering what we would find in the inevitable moment when we were nervously speeding through the verdant countryside on the wrong side of the road trying to get from one old, crumbly building to the next with the kids starving and my wife tense from motion sickness would throw down the inevitable (in our family, at least) gauntlet: we’re eating at the next place we see.
And, of course, England has a centuries-old reputation of being a gastronomic black hole, but my family and I were absolutely delighted to discover that “the next place we saw” was almost without fail something that felt like a “discovery” rather than a place we were going to have to settle for just to fuel up and be on our merry way. And I’m not just talking meat pies and fried haddock. We had a fabulous meal at the Half Moon Pub in Cuxham, South Oxfordshire with traditional favorites like pickled herring salad and mutton stew prepared with a respect for tradition and technique that would be celebrated by any “foodie” worldwide. All in a town whose population is probably less than the number of covers that “Les Halles” does on an average day. (I say “probably” as I couldn’t find any statistics on Cuxham’s population on the web. It’s that small.)
And besides the ever-present pub, another eye-opener for us was the proliferation of farm shops (retail outlets attached to working farms) that litter the countryside. We all agreed that The Crazybear Farm in Stadhampton produced “the best bacon ever” (which is about the highest accolade I think any food could receive) from Gloucestershire Old Spots, reared about a hundred yards from the butcher counter from which it was purchased. Other highlights of the trip included “the best breakfast ever” (housemade breads, jams, marmalades yogurt, etc.) at our hotel in the seaside resort of Lyme Regis. Heck, I had a sandwich at the snack bar at Stonehenge that you could sell on any street corner in Manhattan.
Of course, it’s not surprising that the English should celebrate their food heritage as with most European nations they are extremely proud of their (lengthy) history. What was eye-opening was how rich that tradition is given its perception worldwide which dates at least as far back as the quote at the top. But what’s more, a great English food experience was not only easy to find, but it was in large part unavoidable which to me is what truly makes a place a true culinary “destination.”