A good example of the most British of institutions, a truly decent pub, seems to be an incredibly rare beast to track down nowadays. I’m talking about the almost mythical genuine article, my fantasy pub in fact. An ancient timber framed inn, full of mutton chopped, ruddy faced jovial locals drinking interesting artisan ales with a roaring log fire in the grate. A complete absence of fruit machines, in-your-face alcopop advertising and 50 inch widescreen TVs blaring out Sky Sports 24/7. It could be located anywhere, but the pub of my dreams is in a fairly rural picturesque location, oh and this is incredibly important, it must serve great food produced from fantastic local ingredients. Nothing too fancy, just really decent, hearty, seasonal grub. Definitely not the nuked in the microwave or boiled in the bag ‘Olde English Fayre’ that seems to pass for food in more than a few pubs nowadays.
Quite a lot to ask you may think. But, incredibly I’ve found this pub…it exists.
The Red Lion at Cricklade is pretty much my ideal. Historic ancient inn, log fires, interesting artisan ales, rural location, no fruit machine or widescreen TV in sight and bloody good food produced from local, seasonal ingredients. Points are lost for complete lack of ruddy-faced mutton chopped locals, but you can’t have everything I guess.
I’d had a tip that it was definitely worth a visit, and with my parents over last weekend from the Essex heartland; it sounded like just the place for a spot of lunch.
We arrived and edged our way into in an extremely convivial spot, just off the bar, near to the glowing embers of log fire. Just to underline the fact that we were in the countryside now, the odd dog could be spied here and there, sprawled luxuriously on the carpet close to the feet of their owners.
Settling down, we worked our way through the menus. Being able to order from both the printed restaurant menu and a separate chalkboard bar menu meant a lot of choice. Not that this bothered me, to use a crude yet extremely apt phrase, faced with dual menu action, I was like a dog with two dicks. If all of that wasn’t enough to take in, the pub has also helpfully matched beers with every single dish on the menu. It’s not something I’ve seen before except at The Draft House in London. It’s a really nice touch and something I’d like to see more often. It helps of course that The Red Lion is a freehouse and therefore not tied to any brewery, which means it’s able to provide really interesting beers, ales and ciders not normally available in your average pub. Wild Mallard paired with Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard (USA) 7.2% 330ml anyone?
I started with a piece of garlic butter toast covered with gold and grey oyster mushrooms and locally foraged wild Pied Bleu. To be honest, every time I’ve ordered anything with wild mushrooms on it, I’ve had to wonder if it’s worth the premium price, the same was true in this case. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice, but at £6.95, it didn’t feel like great value for money. I realise that decent mushrooms are an expensive ingredient and obviously this pushes the price up for the kitchen, but the subtlety of flavour is lost on me. A cheaper portion of something a bit easier to lay your hands on would have been preferable. Writing this, and re-reading the menu, I kicked myself to see that The Red Lion is way ahead of me and do indeed serve fried Portobello mushrooms and garlic on toast at a more reasonable £5, for shroom philistines such as me no doubt.
Around the table, my Dad’s local, organic butternut squash soup was pretty decent, as was the accompanying homemade crusty bread.
My Mum had ordered cold pressed free-range chicken terrine, celeriac coleslaw, wild watercress and truffle oil. This was an altogether more interesting proposition, and I eyed it enviously from across the table with silent pleading until, unnerved she had no choice but to offer me some, it was a really nice starter, tasty, interesting and well put together.
‘E’ meanwhile had ordered from the bar menu a half a pint of prawns, homemade mayo and bread. A really decent portion arrived, they were lovely and fresh, which is all you can ask for really when it comes to seafood. Between mouthfuls, ‘E’ stated that she likes the fiddly nature of shelling prawns as it “slows her down” with regard to wolfing her food.
A main dish of slow roast wild mallard, truffle mashed potato, braised red cabbage and juniper sauce was belting. Everything was cooked just right. Each element was punchy, clearly defined and full of flavour combining to make an absolutely cracking plate of autumnal food. I couldn’t have been happier with it really.
My Dad went for the very British pub staple of sausage and mash, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. Local free-range Gloucester pork sausages, and caramelised onion gravy over a heaped mound of mash. Totally rib sticking, he was more than pleased and stuffed the lot.
Mum had ordered the local free range chicken, ham and leek pie served with buttered hispi cabbage and watercress. Earlier whilst discussing the menu, we speculated beforehand on how it would come. It’s much easier to make pies with just a pastry lid; you just don’t often see a handmade stand-alone fully crust encased pie anymore. Well, what do you know? A fully formed, full-on proper pie arrived and drew gasps of admiration from all assembled. Impressive indeed. It was bloody lovely.
Remember my tasty but expensive mushroom starter? Well ‘E’ had ordered the main version of the same dish. It seems that all the mushrooms I didn’t get, she’d got piled on her plate instead – topped with a poached duck egg. More expensive, but a hell of a lot more worthwhile. ‘E’s only complaint was that the dish could have done with being a bit warmer.
The standout dessert was a chocolate tart served with a strikingly coloured and really unusual beetroot and black pepper ice cream. Beetroot goes really well with chocolate, and the ice cream had a beautiful texture with a pronounced pepper aftertaste.
The other desserts were a bit more traditional, but equally decent; both my Dad and I chose the blackcurrant and apple crumble with custard. Not much to say about this other than it was a good-sized portion and well made.
My Mum’s Baileys Cambridge cream with shortbread was something I’d normally consider a bit naff 80’s purely for the inclusion of the cream liquer. So if you’re going to have something like this on the menu, it has to be good. Happily it was and my Mother was more than pleased with it…. but to be fair, she does love a Baileys.
In conclusion, we had an absolutely belting lunch at The Red Lion, in fact, one of the nicest lunches I’ve had for ages. The county pub atmosphere is so disarming and relaxing and the food and booze so decent, I could have happily spent another few hours there. Actually it was just getting dark as we left. (In fact we could have pushed the boat out and stayed there, they have double rooms on a B&B basis, £75 per night).
The plus points for the Red Lion Inn are many. It’s a lovely old pub, full of character. The food is great and exactly the sort of well cooked, British, rustic pub grub I like to eat. On the back of the menu it states that the pub’s own chefs make the butter and bread. Pretty much all the produce is locally produced (suppliers and mileages are given, with the furthest anything coming from being 20 miles, apart from Cornwall for fish). Free meals are offered in exchange for produce, a bartering system that is incredibly practical and charming. Being a freehouse the booze selection is fantastic and varied and the beer matching is a lovely idea. Not everything was perfect, but the whole experience was definitely greater than the sum of its parts, so perfect enough for me. Overall The Red Lion Inn was so incredibly enchanting and worthwhile that I can’t help but recommend it. Go.
The Red Lion Inn
74 High Street
Telephone: 01793 750776