The pub looked classically English, like a Canterbury Tales stopover—sooty wood beams, copper kettles hanging above the hearth—but the collage of menu chalkboards that greeted us on the way in showed that the chef's take was decidedly modern. Sure, the Aberdeen Angus sirloin was paired with Yorkshire pudding and roasted new potatoes, but both the beefy squab breast with a pungent Dijon mustard glaze and the caramelized red onion-and-goat cheese tart would have been at home in a sleek brasserie in London or Paris. The Horse & Groom seemed to epitomize England's culinary enlightenment—simple, fresh, excellent—and had a passionate following: on our way out, a dozen walk-ins were still hoping to be seated for lunch.
Our dinner that night, at Thackeray's in Tunbridge Wells, was a bigger departure than we had expected. Inside the simple frame house, dark half-timbered walls met polished chrome, Lucite, and white leather. The light from a hundred votives flickered, and the room was buzzing to an ambient sound track. Thackeray's had undergone a major renovation in 2001, and Richard Phillips, then executive chef at Ian Schrager's St. Martins Lane in London, was brought in to update the kitchen. Phillips's menu is a pleasant culinary fusion, fundamentally French yet modern, fun, and sometimes sublime. A mullet mille-feuille with lemon balm dazzled: smoky tomato jam glazed the red mullet, which was set between three large, parchment-crisp grapefruit chips. Quail sausage was wrapped around a tiny bone, like a lollipop. And—finally!—the Romney, a delicious rump of new-season lamb, was the perfect balance of char and rare, with its purée of braised chicory, and a lavender-laced sauce, arranged Zen-like, in quadrants, on a square plate.
LEWES TO GLYNDEBOURNE: A Day at the Opera
We wanted to linger after breakfast in Tun Wells, but we had to get on the road to Lewes, 26 miles away—we needed to assemble our picnic dinner and had only an afternoon to do so. Fortunately, Lewes is a compact town with a huge brewery steaming away in the center and plenty in the way of provisions: a tiny traiteur's shop selling homemade terrines, a full-service gourmet deli and grocery, and a great deal of enthusiasm for food (at the pub where we stopped for a bite, the owner boasted that his sausage came from a local butcher whose other clients were Marks & Spencer and Harrods). Glyndebourne was just a 10-minute drive from Lewes, but we were running late; we raced to get dressed, pack a messenger bag full of food, and strip the blanket from the hotel bed.
There wasn't a bevy of helicopters hovering over Glyndebourne as we'd expected, but the parking lot was heavy with late-model Rolls-Royces and Jaguars and chauffeurs, who were chatting in groups. A car parker directed us into the pole position on the lot, though whether it was for our swank ride or because he wanted us to make the curtain, we'll never know. We ran across the lawn, which was tranquil and devoid of people but covered with blankets, wicker hampers, and a number of elegantly set tables (a lone butler arranged flowers). We threw down our blanket and bag in an empty patch of green, rushed to the concert hall, and took our seats just as the curtain was rising on Janacek's Katya Kabanova, a swooning modern opera, and a lively production for which we were glad to have crossed the pond.
However, the main event—the one we had come for, at least—was the intermission, or "interval," as it's called here. As soon as the curtain fell on the second act, we ran to the green to witness the scene: 400 people in dinner jackets and formal dresses sashaying from the modern concert hall to their picnics.
Within moments, silver thermoses of gin were being passed around. Champagne corks were popping, crystal was clinking. Understatement be damned: this country relishes the pageantry of a meal.
We unloaded our bounty—the salmon from the Smokery, a few fine cheeses, an anything-but-dull salad, and a bottle of Carr Taylor, the local bubbly. After the day's hustle, we finally relaxed, as though a black-tie picnic on the grounds of an ancient castle, with a herd of sheep wandering about, were just another day. And then a voice broke in from a neighboring blanket.
"Are you from the States?" asked a woman in a black velvet and taffeta gown.
Was it our lug-soled hiking boots?Or that, lacking stemware, we'd resorted to swigging wine from the bottle?
She asked if we would take a picture of her with her beau, and proffered a camera.
"You must think this all terribly English," the woman said.
Happily, we told her, we did.