How was your Christmas? Ours was lovely: quiet, small, perfectly formed. It's funny, about life, when you don't have any expectations.. I've developed, over the years, Jill's Inverse Proportional Theory of Expectation and Happiness. The less I expect, I've discovered, the more surprised and happy I am with the results. This applies to just about everything, but especially, to a lunch we had on Boxing Day.
It was just the most perfect pub lunch in every way.
We were driving home to London on Boxing Day, after a brisk walk with Mum in Law and the dogs in the gorgeous Herefordshire countryside. We'd booked lunch at the Butchers Arms in Woolhope, not knowing what to expect really, apart from knowing it was on the way home, and that Stephen Bull had bought it in 2009. My father in law had had what he proclaimed was his worst Christmas, ever - he's having a real time of it, health wise, and couldn't even make it downstairs for Christmas lunch - but he was bright enough on Boxing Day to come downstairs, and give us directions to Woolhope, which is really in the absolute middle of nowhere. Which means it's in the middle of the most heavenly countryside.
It felt like everything an inn or a pub should be: a shelter from the storm, a place where strangers come in from far away places, and the staff ask how your Christmas was like the mean it. And you ask how theirs was, and they tell you. And strangers start asking each other where they got their dog (the Scottie, actually, was bought from Harrods). And someone bangs their head on the beam and everyone says 'mind your head' and laughs. And everyone leaves feeling like they've made some new friends.
The Butchers Arms is owned by Stephen Bull, who you might not know as well as, say, Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver, but he is one of the founders of what we know today as modern British food.
The Head Chef is Mr Fran Snell, who came on board two years ago from The Dukes Hotel in Bath. With a grounding in fine dining they offer honest but brilliant food, and I really can't praise him highly enough. He works with two other chefs in the Kitchen; Lydia Taylor, responsible for the starters and Hannah Telfer, puddings.
From the moment we shared Lydia's starter of chicken and mushroom croquettes - light, rich, crispy balloons that seemed to hover above the plate, served with a truffle aioli and wild green salad that might have had a walnut oil dressing - sitting at our wooden table next to the open fire - we knew we were in the hands of true artists. It's not a large place: two small rooms, a small number of covers, and yet we noticed probably four wait staff - male and female - all friendly, charming, and attractive. It takes real skill and professionalism to make it seem so effortless.
'This is the best pub,' my husband said to our waiter - in the course of our visit, we were served and looked in on by about four charming staff people - as he passed on the way back to the kitchen. 'You haven't had the main yet,' he quipped, 'it could still go terribly wrong.'
But it didn't. It just kept getting better. It's done as a two or three course lunch: £19.50 or £24.50, respectively, and we opted for two courses each, sharing a starter and dessert. I had a luscious goats cheese and chutney roulade with vegetables and potatoes and parsley sauce - layer upon layer of texture and colour and flavour - and he had what was billed as 'sausage roll and chips'. I'll never know how good it was because he wouldn't let me taste any.
And then, pudding. We couldn't decide between warm ginger cake with toffee ice cream, or cherry and chocolate torte with chantilly cream. I was flipping a penny and he was mocking me for not flipping it the right way, so our waiter made the decision for us: 'It's Christmas, go for the chocolate.' He then said something about seeing if he could get us an offcut. It's a good thing we shared it: it was rich and heavenly and we could barely finish it, delicious as it was, when suddenly - true to his word - he dropped another plate on us: a small slice of the warm ginger cake, with a tiny globe of the homemade toffee ice cream.
It's those kind of touches that you remember. And make you want to return. With the in-laws, as a thank you for what was, in its own weird way, the loveliest of Christmases.
It was my plan to illustrate this post with Shelter from the Storm, but do you have any idea how hard it is to capture the illusive Bob Dylan on YouTube? Instead, you might be able to open this - Tangle up in Blue - in a separate window, but I bet by the time you get to this, he will be gone.