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.