The villagers of Bretforton have it lucky – it is as idyllic a central England spot as you could wish for. The homes are crafted by stone, with lamb grazing openly in the fields that occupy the spaces in-between. The only shop is a community store hidden away that sells local produce with the level of proudness only the location could warrant. For here is the country’s finest larder, where the heavy top soil in the Vale of Evesham turns out the best in fruit and veg. I digress, but this is my food blog so I’ll do as I please. Still, as we watch the rugby from the barn of The Fleece Inn, and a band later on the evening, you get the impression that only thing that fails around here is the internet streaming signal.
Central to the village community sits The Fleece Inn, a quintessential English pub some six-hundred years old, clearly popular with the locals. From the outside the half-timbered walls looked warped from the application of gravity over gradual time. Inside these make for pocket sized rooms, with uneven slate floors, a roaring fire, chairs and tables of solid wood, and doorways not suited to a man of my stature. Upstairs there is a solitary bedroom, functional and comforting. We would sleep well until the church bells chime early the following morning.
The place is heaving come dinner time where it soon becomes obvious that the desire to feed takes precedence over the need to dress a plate fancifully. Indeed, I doubt anyone has ever left here hungry; very few disappointed. The ham hock terrine was a soft press of pork meat, herbs, and mustard seeds, loosely bound in a jelly from long braised pig bones. It was four times too large and far too cheap at £6.00. I mean this as a compliment of course, as I finish half by trowelling it on to bread with sharply dressed salad and a chutney that warms.
The main dishes are split up into two sections; ‘finest’ and ‘favourites’, from which we choose one from each. From the Finest comes a chicken breast in a cream-based sauce the sort of deep orange David Dickinson would approve of, with onions, garlic, and peppers, coloured with a liberal hand of smoked paprika. The chicken is the star here; a plump lump of protein with the texture only a life outdoors would bring. The veg taste like they were just plucked out of the ground, which given the location, they probably were. I order a pie based purely on the advice of our charming waitress and then completely forget to take a photo of it. Its another hulk of a portion, the burnished short crust is seemingly sculpted by hand, the tender chunks of braised beef inside an ideal bedfellow for the umami rich ale sauce. We get more of that ale sauce as a gravy because they know it makes sense. They may not have a potato ricer to make the mash potato, but they have a firm hand in the salt pot. Everything is seasoned accurately and punches with distinct clarity.
And they can do pastry here. A fat wedge of bread and butter pudding would finish us off, rich and satisfyingly squidgy. An unsubtle whisky glaze has enough personality to hold its own, whilst clotted cream is there as a reminder that any dish can be made more indulgent with its addition. We roll out of the main doors and in back in to the stable to watch that band and very good they were, too.
How do you score a meal like this? I’ve been asking the myself same question all week. There is very little refinement and portions are far too large, though I assume that is exactly the point; the food here is not designed for arse-on-seats-at-the-office, city dwellers like me – it’s for locals who have earned a pint and a good feed after a hard day at work. We ate way too much food because it was so enjoyable; the seasoning is accurate, the ingredient’s obviously very carefully sourced – the very basic staples I would look for in every restaurant that I visit. The Fleece Inn is one of those places that is impossible to dislike. It has bags of character; the building, the food, it’s people. We may have finished dinner several belt buckles looser than when we started, but we left far more content than we would at many more glamourous establishments.
My stay and dinner at The Fleece Inn was complimentary thanks to Shakespeare’s England. I paid for my own drinks, which is a good job as I drink far too much. For further information please see http://www.shakespeares-england.co.uk/