I'm standing in a petrol station on a gray motorway in western England. The car isn't starting, the temperature is falling faster than the rain, and I blame Jamie Oliver.
Britain's best-known culinary export gave me the idea of taking a gastropub tour around England about three years ago. His father, Trevor, owns one of Britain's original gastro- pubs, the Cricketers, in Essex, and it was in that kitchen that Jamie learned how to cook. The only thing he never mastered was practical jokes. When he was 10, he set off stink bombs outside the pub, which forced 70 guests to flee—30 without paying—and caused Trevor to show his son that beating was something that could be done to butts as well as to eggs.
Ever since Jamie first made me aware of gastropubs—old-world taverns serving modern English cuisine—I've noticed them everywhere, from Notting Hill to Nottingham. So, after one crazy-busy week of working in London, it seemed that a few days of cozy, beamed rooms, roaring fires, and tasty food would make for a relaxing idyll. I canvassed some of England's best-known cooks, hoping they'd join me.
"There is no way you'll get me into the country," Nigella Lawson told me. "I'm a city girl. Call me when you get back and we'll go for dinner in town." Nigel Slater, whose cookbook Appetite is one of the most used on my shelf, dismissed the proposal—he just doesn't eat in pubs. I had read that Clarissa Dickson Wright, the surviving One Fat Lady, liked a place in Fletching called the Griffin, but when I tracked her down in Edinburgh, I was informed that she'd given up the drink and therefore rarely eats in pubs, thank you very much!
Instead, I persuaded a British friend, Caz Hildebrand, to accompany me. She suggested we head toward the counties west of London—Dorset, Devon, and Shropshire—because even if the food wasn't great, the scenery would be. Caz is a perpetual optimist; even now, at the gas station, the look on her face was happy, at least as well as I could see it through the rain-splattered and fogging windshield.
Certain British foods have always made me laugh, if not for their crazy combination of ingredients, then for their equally crazy names. Cock-a-leekie, for example, is not a prostate problem but a gut-warming stew of chicken and leeks. Hairy tatties are not the pendulous body parts of hormonally challenged women, but feathery potato-and-cod pancakes. Still, there's something about those dishes that I find perversely compelling—it's similar to the pull I've felt toward a few greasy American diners. The food isn't delicious in a fine or delicate way, but it's comforting in a familiar, semi-appalling manner.
It could be said that public houses were the world's first diners. Some suggest they got their start along the roads of Britain when it was ruled by the Romans, lodging officials who traveled through the inhospitable imperial outpost. They didn't serve ale until the Middle Ages, when monasteries opened guesthouses and the brothers started tapping their ale tanks, and marking the inside with vertical pegs to indicate how much would fill a glass (thus the origin of the expression "to take down a peg"). Today, both the church and the pub, England's two most entrenched institutions, are facing the crisis of dwindling constituencies. Yes, there may be more than 55,700 pubs in Britain—haunted pubs, historical pubs, theme pubs—but the days of blokes swilling 10 pints of beer are over.
As a result, pubs have had to step up to the plate—literally. In 1990 two Londoners who didn't have the cash to launch a restaurant from scratch found a derelict pub in a questionable neighborhood, gutted it, and created a simple menu that omitted the defrosted scampi in a basket for which pubs were known. The British food revolution was in its infancy then—a good restaurant usually meant French or fussy—so the idea of modern food at reasonable prices was a radical, welcome relief. The Eagle became an unexpected hit—it's still packed with media types, artists, and architects—and it was one of the sparks that ignited Clerkenwell as one of the hottest neighborhoods in town.
London is now home to more than a dozen gastropubs that serve outstanding grub: the Cow, the Salisbury Tavern, and the Admiral Codrington among them. As for the rest of the country, there's the Good Pub Guide, which lists more than 5,000 good-grub pubs. Regrettably, the authors extol almost every venue they list, leading naïve readers to believe that Britain has become the new Italy, with an abundance of home-style trattorias, all making use of farm-raised, organic food.
By the time we hit Dorset, the car was purring and the skies had cleared. Caz and I picked up two friends and made our way to the Fox Inn in the tiny town of Corscombe. I immediately liked the eccentric owner, Martyn Lee, who bumptiously advertised NO CHIPS OR MICROWAVES on his menu.
The Fox is crammed with stuffed animals, making it a cross between a natural-history museum and a peasant cottage. With blackened wooden beams, bulging wattle-and-daub walls, and a gaping inglenook fireplace, it is a pub in which everyone, from local lord to local milkman, can feel at home.
Mr. Lee, who has since retired, eschews the G word: "That's the most ghastly, most jumped-up word of all time. Most gastropubs are just restaurants that serve the occasional bottled beer. This is a pub!" Despite his protests, the menu aims high, twisting the traditional into dishes with organic produce and locally raised meats. There was a succulent warm pigeon-breast salad with bacon; garlicky sautéed field mushrooms; and a plate of salmon tartare, which was home-cured but too small by half. When I mentioned this to the waitress, she scampered silently away with my plate. I thought my American bellow had terrified her, but, two minutes later, a mountain of salmon was delivered with a hearty apology.
The main courses—lamb shank with mustard mash, roasted John Dory with thyme and sea salt—didn't measure up to the starters. Though expertly prepared, they lacked the vibrancy that makes a meal memorable, tasting slightly like a reheated Sunday lunch. Our friends assured us that previous meals they'd eaten here had been brilliant, which led me to think that gastropubs suffer the same problems as restaurants all around the world. The last delivery occurs on Thursday or Friday, making the chances of getting a great meal on Sunday evening less likely.
Though I have no appreciation for the sticky goo the English refer to as their national "puds," the desserts on offer aroused great stirs among my tablemates. They compared the sticky toffee pudding to a cloud, "dreamy and light," and pronounced the treacle tart the best they'd ever tasted.
The next day I insisted on taking a seven-mile walk to the Golden Cap, the highest point on the Dorset coast. Dorset is Thomas Hardy country (he called it "Wessex"), and it's one of the least appreciated, most ravishing counties in Britain. We snaked through fields carpeted in purple bluebells, over emerald downs, and across plunging cliffs on the sea's edge. Every breeze carried a whiff of grassy-green wheat and the briny taste of salt air. The skies opened with rain, so we took refuge once again in the car and drove on to Devon to have dinner at the Drewe Arms in Drewsteignton.
Drewsteignton is a 13th-century village so untouched I expected to see peasants downing a mug of mead in the square. It's also about a milefrom Castle Drogo, which has the distinction of being the last castle built in the U.K. Nestled into the foothills of Dartmoor, Drogo is stark and featureless on the outside, a granite fortress; inside it combines medieval simplicity with a very un-castle-like splash of Edwardian elegance. It's a grand old house, made more memorable by the secluded gardens, sunken lawns, circular croquet grounds (sets available for rent), and rows of yew hedgescut sosharply you could eat off them.
The Drewe Arms is the closest I'll ever get to an original medieval pub. There's no bar, barely any service. Beer is poured straight from the kegoff the front hall. The walls have a patina accumulated from 400 years of nicotine, and the menu is culinary poetry: crispy belly pork on tatties 'n' neeps; local butcher's sausages and chutneys on bubble and squeak; and pan-fried spotted dick.
The dishes' names heightened my curiosity more than my appetite, but the food turned out to be honest and tasty. Even Caz raved about the sausages, made from free-range cattle and pigs. The desserts were slathered in artery-clogging Devon cream, one of those foods worth risking a heart attack for. This was the real deal—no overreaching pretensions about slowly relishing the subtle blend of texture and spicing—just solid, rib-sticking food and damn fine ale.
There is no shortage of charming 16th-century villages in Devon, and the next day we found our way to Doddiscombsleigh, a place whose name is longer than its main street and which is home to the Nobody Inn. With 50 local cheeses on offer, the Nobody is said to have the best and most extensive cheese board in the West Country. Even more alluring are the 800 selected wines, 230 whiskeys, local farm cider, and hand-pumped brews. "I guess we tend to do things to excess," the owner, Nick Borst-Smith, said with a smile.
The inn has one formal restaurant and another, more casual affair, in the bar; it was there that Borst-Smith told me that the words free house on a pub's sign might help us locate the better gastropubs. They indicate that the establishment isn't owned by a large brewery conglomerate and is therefore free to buy produce and meat from any supplier. The Nobody grows some vegetables in its back garden; other items come from the farmers up the road. The only imports are wine and whiskey.
I sampled the Nobody brew, a bitter thirst-quenching ale, at Borst-Smith's suggestion. It nicely complemented a south Devon sheep's cheese called Beenleigh Blue, which is salty and creamy like a Roquefort, with a sharp bite. Then it was on to a lunch of fragrant chicken soup, toothsome wild-mushroom risotto, and tender beef in ale. My only complaint was about the overcooked vegetables served in small side dishes. Still, if I couldn't find something to eat, I'd have no trouble drinking my way to satisfaction.
Caz and I continued to Ludlow, a hillside village nestled near the Welsh border. Ludlow has a magnificent castle and more than 500 "listed" historical buildings, many of which date from the 16th and 17th centuries, with their characteristic warped white plaster-and-brown timber façades. Besides the charming architecture, it didn't take long to notice that the shops here were unlike those in other English villages. The butchers advertised Hereford beef, free-range chickens, and pickled quail eggs. (In the next county, Herefordshire, two locals have quixotically planted trees impregnated with a special fungus in hopes of raising truffles.) It turns out that Ludlow is a full-on gastrotown, second only to London in its number of Michelin-starred restaurants—quite a feat for a place that can be covered on foot in a half day. I insisted we stick to our theme and lunch at a gastropub, but the food was unremarkable. Afterward we stumbled upon one of the world's most eccentric hardware stores, Dickinson's Period House Shop, which unironically featured a line of natural toiletries by one Thomas Crapper, said to be the inventor of the flush toilet.
With a bottle of Crapper Foaming Bath in tow, we hightailed it back to Essex intending to check out the gastropub that launched us on this journey—the place owned by Jamie Oliver's dad, the Cricketers' Arms near Saffron Walden.
Caz's eyes started to swivel the minute she saw the menu. "Something's wrong," she said with concern. There were two Mexican dishes, two Indian dishes, and the requisite Thai fish cakes. Based on this "eclectic" selection of dishes, there was no way we could be in the restaurant Jamie had spoken of. Sure enough, when we asked whether Trevor Oliver was the proprietor, the waitress laughed and then sent us three miles down the road to a similarly named pub, the Cricketers, in the neighboring village of Clavering.
The Cricketers wasn't the oldest pub we visited (it dated only from the 16th century), but it was certainly the most crowded, and the seasonal menu was the most creative. We had two delicious starters: a pigeon breast sautéed with celeriac and hazelnut dressing, and a bruschetta of Parma ham, olives, avocado, and Gorgonzola cheese, drizzled in olive oil. Dinner was the roast of the day, which happened to be lamb. It was served from an old-fashioned copper trolley pushed around the dining room.
Trevor was working the room that evening, and the proud father was only too happy to tell us how Jamie learned to pluck a duck at age eight and carve up a deer by the time he was 10. While his schoolmates were heading down the football field, young Jamie would stay behind and clean a fish for fun. "All his friends wanted to be estate agents or businessmen, you know, something that pays a lot," said Trevor. "Well, that's not being a chef, you know.... I mean, restaurants are a hard business to make money from.... It's not an easy life, but it is a lovely one."
So it seemed that night. The food was satisfying, the crowd welcoming, and, by the end of the meal, we decided that it is indeed possible to eat well on an extended pub crawl through Britain. Even better, the Cricketers ran us about $40 a head, which wasn't much more than a run-of-the-mill cock-a-leekie.
JOE DOLCE is the editor-in-chief of Star magazine.
Cock-a-leekie: chicken and leek stew
Hairy tatties: potato pancakes
Tatties 'n' neeps: mashed potato and turnip
Bubble and squeak: potato and cabbage mash
Spotted dick: suet and raisin pudding
Bangers and mash: sausage and mashed potatoes
DINNER FOR TWO FROM $91; CORSCOMBE, DORSET; 44-1935/891-330
DINNER FOR TWO FROM $62; DREWSTEIGNTON, DEVON; 44-1647/281-224
LUNCH FOR TWO FROM $55; DODDISCOMBSLEIGH, DEVON; 44-1647/252-394
DINNER FOR TWO FROM $77; CLAVERING, ESSEX; 44-1799/550-442