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Discovering England’s Cotswolds

Paul Bellaart Taking in the 99 clipped yew trees in the gardens at St. Mary's Church. Jacket and skirt by Ralph Lauren Collection; shoes, Stuart Weitzman; bag, Anya Hindmarch; hat, Vince; gloves, Lacoste.

Photo: Paul Bellaart

Another of the city folk, 34-year-old Martin Caws, ran Marco Pierre White’s Mirabelle, on London’s Curzon Street, before bundling off his wife and young son to the pastures in 2007; he now owns and operates the airy Trouble House, near Tetbury. The restaurant’s makeover took place in 2000 under the guidance of Michael Bedford, who then left to create the Chef’s Table, a fine grocery store, restaurant, and cooking school in Tetbury. For Caws, the decision to move to the countryside full-time was surprisingly easy. His apartment above the restaurant is five times the size of his old place in London, and he doesn’t have the hassle of managing 30 chefs anymore. Plus, “the quality of the food here is extraordinary,” he told me, just after finishing service for Easter Sunday. “I get my fish a day earlier than they do in London, the organic flour comes from nearby Shipton Mill, the microgreens from just over in Worcestershire.…” Those greens added a piquant bite to Caws’s tart of goat cheese and beets, one of the simple, perfectly prepared dishes I sampled that day. His ballottine of pigeon and foie gras with orange-and-lemon chutney was another winner. One can only hope it reappears on the menu, which changes daily.

This obsession with food sourcing might not be as surprising to see in Great Britain, which leads the Western world in environmental awareness and food traceability, though its mainstream farming industry is as bad as any. Prince Charles can be given a great deal of credit for spreading the green word, though it meant an elbow-to-elbow crowd when I visited his just-opened Highgrove Shop in Tetbury, which features his Duchy Originals organic goods. There’s an almost missionary zeal here to grow your own or support someone who does, which can sometimes translate to unexpected alliances. Over the absurdly well-priced “£10 Lunch” at Allium, a white-tablecloth restaurant in the southeastern village of Fairford, I overheard one of the owners, Erica Graham, thanking a diner in expensive cashmere and designer jeans for a promise to supply sorrel and lovage from her own garden. Rhubarb for jam would soon arrive from the same source as well. “I’ve just got so much in my garden right now, I’d love to get rid of it,” the generous neighbor said.

Emily Watkins, the young chef-owner of the just-refurbished Kingham Plough, a laid-back B&B near Chipping Norton, gets her quail eggs from a 12-year-old boy down the road. (“I asked him if he’d also sell me some of his quail, and you should have seen his little face drop,” she told me.) Watkins spent just under two years at the Fat Duck, in Bray, under the tutelage of renowned British chef Heston Blumenthal, a leader in molecular gastronomy, and she was a private chef in London before transforming the Plough from a quaint dump into a comfortable hangout with pale walls, sisal carpets, artfully mismatched farmhouse tables, and a roaring fire. In a few short months, Watkins has been reviewed by the Telegraph, the Independent, and the Evening Standard, but in the five days that I stayed there, in a spotlessly simple room with a gloriously comfortable bed, I noticed many a repeat customer among those “just passing through.” I chose the Plough for its plugged-in hangout status among area gastropubs, in addition to its budget-friendly rates. I found it the ideal place to observe the locals in their natural habitat.

Like her peers, watkins cleaves religiously to her neighboring suppliers, many of whom eat at her table. She’s also committed to reviving old recipes from the area, regularly mining vintage cookbooks for dishes like Hodge Podge Pudding (blood sausage) and Cotswold Rarebit (cheese-and-beer sauce with toast). Travelers who come to the Cotswolds looking for authentic English flavor in architecture will be as pleased with Watkins’s renditions of those classics as with the signature Blumenthal dishes (fillet of beef cooked sous-vide, at a low temprature) that pepper her menu. She follows tradition in her frequent use of wild game, too. “Squirrel would sell like mad here,” she said when I asked her about her restaurant. “The weirder the meat, the more people love it.” For those from the area, it’s a way of life. Watkins would be delighted to feature the wood pigeons that pester nearby Merriscourt Arts Centre, if only its owner, Tom Astor, another Plough regular, were able to pluck and gut them for her.

Astor, who is, yes, from the English branch of those Astors, has a little too much going on already at Merriscourt to become a sideline poultry supplier. His family goes back generations in the Cotswolds, but he’s using his land in a decidedly 21st-century manner. Sure, he has the requisite money-losing rare sheep (black Hebridean) and grows corn and oilseed rape. But with his agricultural endeavors already running smoothly, Astor has turned his attention to developing Merriscourt for more-cultural pursuits. When he started a family a few years ago, and his days of dealing classic cars and dabbling in the London art market came to an end, he started to bring a roster of small businesses to the several stone houses on his enormous plot of farmland. They include the shop of the young London tailors Joshua Byrne and Emmeline Burge, formerly of Anderson & Sheppard; the part-time studio of Jade Jagger’s design partner Tom Bartlett; an art gallery managed by Flora Fairbairn, a thirtysomething independent curator and a founder of London’s Madder 139 gallery; a recording studio for the classical guitarist and composer William Lovelady; and a classic-car restoration outfit. “I’m secretly trying to make it so I won’t have to go anywhere else at all,” the jocular redhead told me over a pint of Cotswold Premium lager at—where else?—the Plough. “I’m trying to start a fully functioning working village, but I’m not looking for IT businesses—more creative types.” Burge, who hasn’t looked back since relocating to Merriscourt earlier in the year, adds: “The atmosphere here plays a big part in what we do. It’s just a nicer place to work.” And since so many of their clients have weekend houses nearby, the numerous fittings that a truly bespoke suit demands are a bit less daunting now that they don’t require a skip down to Savile Row at lunch hour. In a nod to its younger customer base, Byrne & Burge, which previously focused entirely on bespoke, is planning to offer made-to-measure suits requiring only one fitting. Thus, American visitors will be able to shop happily, and receive the finished product in the mail.

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