legend has it there’s a fish and chip shop up in Hartlepool where the guacamole is to die for
So the memory of another general election fades away into the night, much like an enfeebled Peter Mandelson divested of his supposed ghoulish powers. You might think that this election was particularly uninteresting. And you might be right.
In terms of dullness, the leaden grey of Spitting Image’s pea-eating John Major initially limps to mind. But after reading Stuart Heritage’s piece in Teh Grauniad that made reference to, and I quote, “his engorged penis (that’s John Major’s penis and not Peter Mandelson’s, I hasten to add) repeatedly penetrating Edwina Currie’s moistened labia”, I’m not so sure that is such a useful analogy. Clearly not as boring as we all thought. And yet… Oh, come on! What the hell is the matter with you all? John Major has sex, why wouldn’t he? Even John Prescott and Lembit Opik have sex (though I’m sure not with each other). We all remember Prescott’s alleged Whitehall cocktail sausage shenanigans in between games of croquet. And wasn’t Montgomeryshire’s finest inexplicably involved with some Romanian twins at one point?
The offending article (not John Major’s penis, or indeed John Prescott’s penis…) was a principled (…or Peter Mandelson’s or Lembit Opik’s) if tongue-in-cheek (by ‘tongue in cheek’ I don’t mean that John Major would give Edwina Curr… well anyway) counter punch to the Daily Mail’s then ongoing and really rather squalid, personal campaign against Ed Milliband. It was the Mail’s usual combination of behind-the-net-curtain tut-tutting and censorious moral outrage at the possibility that a left wing man may have at one time engaged in pre-marital sex. Not just any sex, mind; sex with women. That right there is like some unholy trinity for the Mail – the very three things it detests more than anything. You can picture it, can’t you? Though of course this time the engorged penis would have belong to Ed Milliband and it would surely have been skewering a succession of Swivias and Augustines, over and over and over like some frenzied Duc de Blangis, in one – or both – of his kitchens. All dildos and dogs no doubt.
Right, well, that’s enough of the politics; shall we talk restaurants?
As you can clearly see, what I wanted to do was – let’s call it critically evaluate the existence of the Shy Tory, which I think relevant in light of the general election. And that is why in fact this election was interesting. It told us more about the inner lives and scruples of the British than any opinion poll ever could. There was no high drama. It was not about manifestos or politicians or pledges or promises. Was it even really about politics? Sure, there was the usual spectacle of gaffes and personal failures but we have seen it all before. Milliband’s Tombstone was really just Kinnock’s Sheffield all over again. Balls Out was a bawdier yet equally as gleeful re-enactment of the Portillo Moment. Best of all was Farridge’s [sic] reviled, 70’s seaside comedy club sideshow, closed for business, limping out of Margate with the shutters pulled firmly down. It ultimately came down to you lot quietly, firmly, re-asserting your will: you were all Shy Tories all along. But I can’t see how this is in any way whatsoever newsworthy let alone surprising. But again, enough with the politics. Maybe there’s a better way to take the nation’s pulse?
Restaurants are the next obvious thing. We all know You Are What You Eat is a cliché too far… but is it, though? If you asked the public to visualise their ideal kind of dining out experience, the median response would be something very much akin to the gastropub.
The Gastropub. Everybody seems to know what one is but nobody actually does. They are impossible to describe satisfactorily: ‘a pub with a wine list’ might be as close as you will get, though this forever begs the question. The gastro- prefix is really just a marketing gimmick. A pub? Don’t kid yourself: it’s a restaurant. Or rather, it is the template that more and more restaurants seem to follow these days.
Gastropubs represent the mainstream of eating out. Like a reassuring Radio 2 of restaurants they are for most people and for most tastes: something nice in a rustic-y sort of pub. And let’s be honest, eating food in a pub is an inherently good thing. Who would ever argue with that? Gastropubs are populist, democratic and inclusive. They are relaxed, informal and family-friendly. Many are able to turn out an admirably wide choice of food and do so consistently and at reasonable prices. Most crucially of all, gastro-style has seen eating out in restaurants become one of the nation’s most popular pastimes.
But as a fulcrum of provincial middle class life the majority of gastropubs typically look, feel and taste pretty much the same. Décor and menus alike tend to the steadfastly conventional. There is little room for idiosyncrasy, individualism or character. Never mind not frightening the kids, let’s not frighten the adults. The worst of them are unashamedly middle aged, middle-of-the-road sorts of places. If they were music they would be Adele or Ed Sheeran. If television, Downton Abbey. If a person, most certainly Alan Partridge. There really is something so irresistibly and quintessentially Partridge about the gastropub that even the phrase sounds like something he might conceivably have come up with back in his Travel Tavern days. Besides, (and correct me if I’m wrong here) Alan would never be seen dead in a proper pub.
Politics, though: that’s your business. And this is not what this is about. But is the gastropub really just dinner plate personification of today’s (not at all) Shy Tory? That’s perhaps a bit facetious and not a little sneering. Just take a look at the Duke of Cambridge in Islington or The Sportsman in Seasalter to know this cannot be true. And besides, if you were dying to know where us champagne socialists go out to eat; well, legend has it there’s a fish and chip shop up in Hartlepool where the guacamole is to die for. Just ask our man up there in the opening paragraph. But for now though we’re at The Thatch, a gastropub in Thame, Oxfordshire.
Thame is a small Oxfordshire town known for a good sweet shop (now sadly closed), a great record shop (also sadly closed) and its own folk festival. But it’s not all bad. There is a great independent bookshop and the ever-expanding annual food festival too. Housed in an eye-catching 16th century building on the main road into town, The Thatch looks the part with the requisite Tudor wonkiness, oak beams and eponymously thatched roof.
Its charmingly haphazard rooms once enjoyed a brief flirtation with the world of celebrity when they featured on reality television programme The Restaurant a few years back. Couples competed for the chance to run a restaurant with financial backing from Raymond Blanc. The whole thing was similar to The Apprentice but for the fact that participants were likeable, inept dimwits as opposed to unlikeable, inept ones. One of the series winners was an Oxfordshire couple that eventually set up their own restaurant in the building we are currently in. They lasted a few months…
you only tend to find cap, or ‘picanha’ steak on the more recherché of menus or at South American churrascos. Very nice to see in an Oxfordshire pub
In its current incarnation The Thatch has been nominated in consecutive years in two Observer Food Award categories suggesting there’s a bit more to it than that which meets the eye. Like a Dutch still life, the menu does not necessarily thrill on first viewing. But it is not overly long and neither does it make puffed up promises of things you know the kitchen will be never be up to the task of delivering.
There are sharing boards to start. There was some good, earthy chorizo; pork terrine; fine locally cured ham; some brisk chutnies and a very decent celeriac remoulade. Elsewhere: just-right crispy squid, smoked mackerel, pitta bread and hummus. The mackerel’s deep, smoky hum was definitely the highpoint. Also a selection of salads: a salad of confit guinea fowl I liked. A ‘superfood’ salad was merely an amalgam of Pret-A-Manger-bits-and-pieces that had no reason to be sharing a plate together. The clear winner was a plate of bouncy leaves heaped with brawny nuggets of black pudding and a poached egg.
Main courses ploughed a similar furrow, a sine wave of the forgettable through to unanticipated goodness. Wild mushroom and Gruyere pancakes were as mundane as expected. A chicken and ham pie promised much with thick pastry burnished to a wonderfully glossy, golden-brown sheen but was just too dry and underseasoned inside.
Pea and mint risotto is something you see on menus everywhere yet this particular rendering was slinky, loose and light. Again, could have been heavier on the seasoning. Aged rump cap steak plus trimmings held its end up very nicely. You only tend to find cap, or picanha steak on the more recherché of menus or at South American churrascos. Very nice indeed to see in an Oxfordshire pub. This particular cut had decent char plus those unmistakeably minerally, beefy characteristics of grass diet and dry aging.
And here it gets interesting. A dish of mulled lamb was good. Really, surprisingly good. The meat was dark and sticky and was steeped in deep, treacly flavours. Liberal use of cinnamon, cumin and other spices provided warm spikes of flavor and complexity. A Coq au Vin was every bit as impressive and had some serious ambition above its station. Gamey, fall-apart meat and a full-on, inky sauce managed to convey a real sense of provenance brimming with fusty Burgundian bistros. Canon of venison with dauphinoise potato more than passed muster as a satisfying plate of gastro-grub. To have a dauphiniose made this well – creamy and just soft enough – shows some culinary chops.
The wine list was good for a gastropub: plenty for under twenty quid and plenty more over as well.
For me The Thatch ranks well in ‘best of its type’ and ‘best place locally’. The food is absolutely fine, the atmosphere agreeable. Above all it understands its public. I rather like it. Now if only that could be said of our politicians.
29-30 Lower High Street
Tel: 01844 214340