The Bell, Waltham St Lawrence

Well, summer’s well and truly over. You can speculate about the exact time of death – when the kids went back to school, when festive toot started appearing in the shops (prosecco flavoured crisps, M&S? Really?), that awful moment when you realised the central heating needed to go on – but those are details. The formal funeral happens tomorrow night when the clocks go back, and that’s that: it’s gone until next year and now we all need to come to terms with wearing extra layers, fishing the gloves out of the chest of drawers, deciding who’s getting what this Christmas and wondering whether this is the year you stop bothering with sending cards.

I’ve found it especially difficult because I’m not long back from holiday. So it seems like only yesterday that I was sitting outside until midnight, eating grilled meats and salad, drinking that first glass of rosé as soon after midday as socially acceptable and reading novels by the pool. To return to a nip in the air felt especially cruel. And it’s not just me – I bumped into a colleague this week who’s just back from a holiday in Dubai, thirty-three degrees every day without fail, and I couldn’t help feeling even her tan looked a tad jaundiced. “It’s not my winter coat I’ve got on” she told me, “it’s my autumn coat” (in denial, I suspect – it looked like a winter coat to me).

So this week I’ve been trying to find the consolations of autumn. I’m not talking about seasonal eating – I should care about that more than I do, but ultimately despite knowing all the reasons I shouldn’t buy Peruvian asparagus I still reckon it’s better than nothing – but the move into autumn does allow you to enjoy food that, a few months ago, would have been unthinkable. Slow-cooked stews and casseroles, steaming bowls of soup, big piles of mash and golden-domed pies. And the drinks, too; I know that Pimm’s is a wonderful thing but the months ahead mean we can glug red wine, or port, or mulled wine (proper stuff, not that shortcut in a bottle).

That’s what led me to Waltham St. Lawrence on a weekday night, because I’d heard good things about The Bell. Someone suggested I review it with a certain trepidation, because they didn’t want the secret to get out – and that’s a good enough incentive for me. So I made the short drive down the A4, turning right just past Hare Hatch, and parking in the village I got out of the car to be greeted by the beautiful aroma of woodsmoke.

It’s a lovely place. The pub is right opposite the church – as it should be in a picture perfect English village, if only to give people two different routes to enlightenment – and it’s beautifully, charmingly ramshackle (much as you would be if you’d been standing for seven hundred years). Inside it’s all beams and dark wood, panelling, horse brasses and open fires. There are a couple of rooms, all very basic and unshowy, although I now see having looked at the website that they also have a snug and what looks like a slightly smarter dining room; I’m glad I didn’t end up sitting in that.

I was a little bit in love before I even sat down, but it developed into a full-on crush when I read the menu. I looked at one pub during the week, deciding whether to add it to my list of places to review, before realising with horror that it offered twenty-three different main courses; The Bell is nothing like that, with a small but perfectly-formed menu of five bar snacks, four starters, five mains and five desserts. I couldn’t see a single thing I didn’t fancy eating – pork pie, rarebit, Brixham mussels, venison, trout with lentils. It was a different menu to the one on their website, and I had no doubt that if I went back in a couple of months it would be a different menu again. But for now, it felt like a menu designed to make you happy to see the back of summer.

Pigeon and pork terrine was, if not perfection, close enough that I couldn’t see anything to fault. The terrine itself was a dense slab of rich, gamey meat, beautifully earthy and coarse, no jelly or bounce to it. But that wasn’t all, because there was also soft pickled beetroot, all sweetness and no sharpness, perfect with the terrine. And the bread was magnificent – thick sliced, toasted and buttered (or quite possibly buttered and then toasted, it had a golden glow and the texture of butter that had melted under a grill), it almost had a spongey, crumpetty texture. Three simple things, superb on their own, equally terrific combined. All that for six pounds fifty, and worth the trip on its own.

BellTerrine

The thick, rich cep and blue oyster mushroom soup was an exercise in simplicity: the mushrooms, a hint of cream and a touch of seasoning was all I could detect in the bowl. There was more of that bread on the side, untoasted this time but also generously buttered. I found it strange that the butter wasn’t on the side, and if I’m being really critical I’d perhaps have liked a few herbs to bring out the flavour of the soup more, but those are both minor details. The portion was generous (how I struggled!) and made me want to go out and forage straight after. Well, straight after a nap, perhaps.

BellSoup

Mains were sensibly paced after that – ironic, as the starters had been so good that, for once, I found myself ever so slightly impatient. It’s almost worth putting the clocks back just so you can eat venison again so I was delighted to see loin of fallow deer on the menu. The meat itself, again, was well-nigh perfect – beautifully seared, still pink inside, five thick discs of autumnal wonder. If the rest of the dish didn’t quite match that, it was perhaps because the bar had been set so high – the kale was well-cooked, steering the right course between the twin perils of mushy and crunchy, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing to serve with the venison.

The real disappointment was the macaroni cheese, an oddly solid cuboid of the stuff which reminded me of the top of a pastitsio. It wasn’t quite cheesy enough, or salty enough, and under a fork it just crumbled into individual macaroni. It was a noble effort, but I think I’d sooner have had something a bit gloopier and more sinful, or even just a potato dauphinoise. Last of all, the thing the dish missed most – the roasting juices had been reduced to almost nothing, like a culinary Black Friday, and the whole thing needed some kind of sauce. If I sound critical it’s just because the dish was very good, when I knew how close it came to being unforgettable.

BellFallow

It’s rare that there’s a scrap to order the vegetarian main course (normally it’s quite the opposite, in fact) but that’s exactly what happened at The Bell. Big pillowy potato gnocchi came with a stunning kale and almond pesto, strewn with extra leaves of kale like the best cabbage in the world (I know kale is bloody everywhere right now, but not kale like this). On top was a decent sized circle of caramelised goats cheese, grilled to just bubbling and perfect for setting off the richness of the potato. You could say this is starch and goats cheese, like unimaginative risottos in pubs across Berkshire, but this was so much more than that: clever, creative and damned delicious, and it really didn’t need any meat. It illustrated deftly that with a bit of effort and an imaginative chef it’s possible to eat delicious vegetarian food; it’s just a shame that this is such a rare accolade. I scraped every last morsel out of the bowl.

BellGnocchi

Sometimes, when a meal is iffy, I order dessert to give the restaurant a chance to rescue matters. On this occasion I ordered dessert because I wanted to see if they were as good as the rest. And again, the menu was note-perfect – crumbles and puddings, hot desserts with ice cream quickly melting on them. But unfortunately, on this occasion, the desserts slightly took the shine off things. I picked the sticky toffee pudding because it came with creme fraiche ice cream, an unusual touch. Sadly it was more like a toffee cake than a steamed sponge pudding – dry and a bit chewy – and there was nowhere near enough toffee sauce to rescue it. The ice cream, to be fair, was truly delicious; thick and creamy with an intriguing slightly sour note – but that, too, wasn’t enough to save it. I left some, and I felt sad that I didn’t feel sad about that.

BellPud (2)

I was in two minds about whether to have the cheeseboard, and when I went up to the bar I asked which cheeses were on offer. “Barkham Blue is one”, said the man behind the bar, “I’ll just check with the kitchen what the other one is.” Off he scuttled, and the man next to me said “Barkham Blue’s all you need anyway.” He was right, of course, and you got a good wedge of it, soft and salty, blue without being overpowering. The other cheese – and I quite admire them for only offering two – was Wigmore, also local, gorgeously mushroomy but still nice and firm.

So far so good, and you could say it’s impossible to muck this kind of thing up, but the kitchen did have a go. The chutney was lovely, and went well with both, but the “house crackers” were a bit surreal. There was a long thin flatbread, a bit like ciappe de liguria, but the texture wasn’t right – it wasn’t crispy or crunchy, and felt stale. Odder still were the other crackers, which were more like biscuits – thin, treacly biscuits, like Hobnobs without the oats. They were sweet: sweet with burnt sugar, and although that sort of went with the Barkham Blue it didn’t go with the Barkham Blue as well as my favourite accompaniment, more Barkham Blue. I finished them in the same way I might finish a duff magazine article.

BellCheese

If I haven’t mentioned service that’s because there wasn’t that much of it. You order at the bar and there’s minimal interaction when they bring the food to your table. That’s honestly no criticism, and everybody was lovely and welcoming and genuinely interested in whether we liked the food, but it does mean there isn’t much to say. There’s more to say about the wine. The Corbieres (less than a fiver a glass) was robust, punchy and went brilliantly with the terrine, the dessert wine was nice if not particularly memorable and not quite cold enough for me. The port I had with the cheese – a rich, complex Krohn LBV – was over far, far too quickly. All in all, dinner came to seventy pounds, not including tip. When I think of the price of some of the things I ate – that stunning terrine for six pounds fifty, the gnocchi for a tenner – it’s hard not to conclude that the people of Waltham St Lawrence are very lucky indeed.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. And if this review sounds critical, it’s only because the best of this meal was right up there with the best food I’ve eaten this year, and that means you judge everything else a little more harshly. But let’s put this in perspective – if you picked this pub up and dropped it in the centre of Reading (perhaps on top of TGI Friday, or Cosmo: somewhere nobody would miss) it would be difficult to keep me away. So go, even if it means the secret gets out: as it is, perhaps I’ll hibernate there in a seat by the fire, growing fat and sleepy on rarebit and red wine, finding it increasingly hard to remember that I ever used to get excited about sunshine and salad.

The Bell – 8.2
The Street, Waltham St Lawrence, RG10 0JJ
0118 9341788

http://thebellwalthamstlawrence.co.uk/

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The Pack Saddle, Mapledurham

Ah, the New Year. What a magical time it is! We know what day of the week it is again, chocolate ceases to be a food group and everybody has to go back to work. It’s ages until the council come to empty your bins and the glass recycling looks positively terrifying (it was the guests! The guests drank it all). What better way for me to commemorate this bleak state of affairs than to revisit the scene of 2014’s biggest culinary disappointment?

Well, almost. Amid all those awards at the end of last year I deliberately kept schtum on all the candidates for the wooden spoon, but the numbers don’t lie: my worst meal of 2014 was at the Pack Horse in Mapledurham, an outwardly pretty pub dressing up desperately ordinary food with faffy presentation and making me – and I can’t quite believe I’m typing this – nostalgic for the days when it used to be a Blubecker’s. After reviewing it, many people told me I had gone to the wrong Mapledurham pub: the Pack Saddle – similarly named but slightly closer to town – was the one to visit, they said. I wanted to believe them, but I still got nasty flashbacks as my car pootled down the A4074. Was it rising bile, or the memory of that wobbly shoulder of lamb?

Maybe the reason I didn’t go to the Pack Saddle last year is that I couldn’t find the car park. It was oddly difficult, involving an almost handbrake turn when we nearly missed the massive sign for the entrance (maybe it’s for the best that I’m having a dry January). Getting inside though, the pub was warm and welcoming despite not being all that packed: there was a heavenly smell of wood smoke and a handful of people were sat up in the beautiful panelled bar room. The dining room was down a couple of steps and I can imagine it would feel lovely and buzzy had it been occupied; sadly, the other two tables left shortly after we sat down so we sat alone in the dining room with just a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, from shortly after the Coronation, gazing down on us. She looked a little disappointed. Perhaps I should have worn my tiara.

I really liked the look of the menu for two reasons. First, it was the right size: long enough that you felt there was plenty of choice but short enough that you could reasonably expect everything to be done well. But secondly, everything was just a little more interesting than it needed to be. Everywhere on the menu there were little flashes that suggested the kitchen knew what it was doing; chicken terrine came with pickled vegetables and Parmesan crispbread, beetroot was paired with goat’s cheese panna cotta, not plain old goat’s cheese. The fish main course was accompanied by a crab cake. The smallest hints of skill – nothing boastful, but enough that you could see them if you were paying attention.

My New Year’s resolution is to order one vegetarian main course every month and I nearly did it at the Pack Saddle. Crispy Parmesan polenta and filo roll stuffed with roasted vegetables sounded delicious and a cut above a lot of the unimaginative mains on menus I’ve seen (and since I made that resolution I’ve looked at a lot), but I was foiled: it was sold out. The alternative was mushroom risotto, but I have a feeling there will be a lot of chances to try that over the months ahead.

Won over by some of those flashes of skill on the menu, I did order a vegetarian starter. Balsamic glazed beetroot salad with goat’s cheese panna cotta was very much a sign of what was to come: beautifully presented in a way that at first sight looked haphazard but was in fact very orderly. What I got was a generous amount of sweet red and earthy golden beetroot, cut into eighths, interspersed with a few creamy dollops of goat’s cheese panna cotta and drizzled with narrow stripes of balsamic glaze. The panna cotta was salty, creamy and, again, earthy. I was expecting to get much more panna cotta and much less beetroot but the balance was perfect and felt like a much more reasonable portion for a starter. A few shards of parmesan crispbread were dotted about the plate which added some welcome crunch. It felt like so much more than the clichéd pairing of goat’s cheese and beetroot – lots of different things to combine, contrast and enjoy.

Beetroot

The chicken terrine was if anything even more pretty and precise: a bit of a theme at the Pack Saddle where the plating has a rather OCD air about it. A cylinder of chicken terrine had been sliced diagonally into two sections and stood on its end (perpendicularity, it turned out, was another quirk of the presentation). With it came little blobs of celeriac purée, more of that Parmesan crispbread and little spirals of pickled carrot, wrapped round a sprig of herb and leaves. This dish was a good illustration of why restaurant blogs can’t rely on photographs alone: from the picture it looks lifeless and prim, but in practice it was bloody delicious. The chicken terrine, beautifully compressed, tender, delicate meat was clean and fresh with a slight note of smoke from the bigger pieces of smoked chicken running through the middle. The pickled carrot, with a hint of lime, had wonderful crunch and the celeriac puree added just enough sweetness. Only the Parmesan crispbread fell a little flat – something lighter like music bread might have done the same job better – but it was a starter I wanted to begin again the moment I finished it.

Terrine

Of course if I’d done that I might have been too full for the main courses and – as it turned out – that would have been a shame. Fillet of sea bream was very good with the perfect balance of soft yielding flesh and super crispy salted skin. It was served, as is traditional these days, on bed of mash but, less traditionally, this was surrounded by a moat of horseradish veloute. I’m not sure I’ve had this combination before but I liked it a lot – the horseradish was mild and mustardy rather than full on hot and the mash was indecently creamy and generous to a fault. Nestled into the side of the mash, like a vertical limpet, was a mini crabcake (that perpendicularity again). This was less successful for me – it was a little plain and lacking the crispy texture promised by those breadcrumbs – but I admired the ambition, even if I wasn’t completely on board with the execution. All in all, the dish was lovely: although with all those potatoes and cream it wasn’t quite the slimline option offered by most fish courses. It also felt, at a smidge under thirteen pounds, like impressive value.

Bream

The other main course, saddle of venison, was wrapped in serrano ham and served – can you guess? – standing on its end. This was the case where the presentation seemed most surreal because it was leaning against a big block of boulangère potatoes as if it was a supporting feature rather than the headline attraction. The rest of the plating, again, was rather OCD with little circles of butternut squash puree alternating with wild mushrooms at worryingly precise intervals (a puddle of jus was confined to the right hand side of the plate). But anyway, that’s a pointless quibble because it was delicious and everything worked, separately and together, from the sweet puree to the pink, tender venison to the slab of potato, salty and softened with stock. The wild mushrooms were particularly welcome (I partly ordered this because so often, the mushrooms aren’t wild but the exaggerations on the menu are).

Venison

Normally at this point I tell you, in scant detail because it’s not really my area, about the wine. Because I’m on the wagon this month I will instead give you the far less thrilling news that the Pack Saddle offers a decent range of soft drinks including Belvoir and Appletiser, plus the overpriced orange squash that is J2O (just me?). The wine list – with its constant reproach of “look what you could have won” – looked interesting, with lots of new world wines, Chapel Down (an excellent English sparkling) and plenty of decent bottles for under twenty quid. I could see things which would have gone perfectly with the bream, and the venison, but then I started to feel a bit sad so I put the list down and enjoyed my elderflower pressé instead, with no gritted teeth whatsoever.

The dessert menu here is fairly traditional but after two interesting and clever courses it felt like the desserts would be more sophisticated than advertised. After all, that seemed to be what they do here: promise low and deliver high. I was tempted by the cheeseboard (the holy trinity of local cheeses – Barkham Blue, Spenwood and Waterloo – all world-beaters, all made in Berkshire) but I wanted to see what they’d do with the more obvious choices, so we went for chocolate brownie and carrot cake.

In most pubs, having chocolate brownie for dessert means getting a microwaved slice of Brakes’ brownie, a squiggle of chocolate sauce and a scoop of bland vanilla ice cream. In truth this wasn’t a million miles away from the brownie here, the one let down of the dishes. The brownie itself was sticky and rich (and home made) and had been cut into three slices and arranged in a zig zag. There was chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream although this time the ice cream was sat in a puddle of crumbs and the brownie had some dollops of cream with blueberries and raspberries nestling in them. Don’t get me wrong: it was tasty enough, and I ate every last scrap. But it didn’t match up to the earlier courses for creativity and excitement.

Brownie

The carrot cake was better, although the plating repeated the motif of little orange circles set out with frightening regularity. This time it was sweet carrot pureé, although I’d have been hard pressed to tell it from the earlier butternut squash purée in a lineup. The vanilla ice cream was pretty anonymous and the icing didn’t stand out, but what saved the dish was the cake itself – moist but not too moist, nicely spiced and with a slightly nutty texture to it. A perfectly nice carrot cake, but I was expecting more after the promise of the first two courses (my family make a better one, put it that way).

Carrot

Service throughout was excellent – something I particularly appreciate on a day like the first Saturday in January, when surely nobody really wants to be at work. The two staff that looked after us were both unerringly friendly and helpful – and also seemed to be genuinely delighted when they got positive feedback on the food. With the bar being busy and the restaurant being almost empty I worried that we’d either get pestered or ignored, but they did a brilliant job of making us feel looked after without being hovered over. The bill, for three courses and two rounds of soft drinks, was a touch under sixty-three pounds excluding service. All of the courses felt like excellent value: the venison, for example, was under sixteen pounds and easily as good as far more expensive venison dishes I’ve had in restaurants with higher opinions of themselves.

So, here’s to 2015. I’m sure it will be a lot like 2014 in lots of respects – good meals, bad meals, pleasant surprises, even wobbly shoulders of lamb – but at least there will be one important difference: driving down the A4074 won’t bring me out in hives any more. I think I might make another trip that way soon, just to be certain.

The Pack Saddle – 8.0
Mapledurham, Reading, RG4 7UD
0118 946 3000

http://www.thepacksaddle.com/