Talk is cheap, but good food is priceless

The Swan SwinbrookFood, Oxfordshire Inns, Recipes, The Cotswolds

Talk is cheap, but good food is priceless,
by Rose Prince – The Saturday Telegraph Magazine, 30/01/10

I scoff at the notion that what we eat should be seen and not heard about. And I’ll shout it from the rooftops if I have to.

Sometimes in the middle of a conversation when the subject turns to food, I feel compelled to ask “am I boring you?” I don’t think I am being boring, but I know many people were brought up not to discuss food at the table or anywhere else. My family weren’t like that, but many others were.

I remember a lunch at a school friend’s very grand house, a huge grave stone mausoleum in the Cotswolds. Served by white-jacketed Portugese servants, it was a delicious meal.

Best of all were the chocolate castle puddings with runny chocolate sauce dribbled over them. “Lovely pudding” I exclaimed, or something similar. My host ignored me totally and carried on talking.

Now that food in middle-class homes is often good (or at least hot), people talk about nothing else. I cringe when I watch the “dinner party” scenes in Bremner, Bird and Fortune on Channel 4, where smug foodies are ruthlessly parodied. “The lamb? It’s actually fell-bread Herdwick hogget, from a wonderful little farm I know in Cumbria that does mail order…“ – that sort of thing.

Oh my god, that’s me, I cry. I can’t shut up about food. They won’t just get the name of the farm, they’ll be regaled with the struggles of the farmer, the advantages of grass-fed meat and the necessity of local slaughterhouses. But I defend the right to do it.

Hiding bad food behind the protest that it is “not done” to mention that it is a curse and a terrific excuse to serve up a lot of junk. I like picking up a pub menu and seeing “Cornish” in front of crab or “locally reared” in front of beef or lamb.

It as more poignant to see this heart-on-the-sleeve cooking style in The Swan, a pub with an interesting history. Owned by the Duchess of Devonshire, née Deborah Mitford, it is in Swinbrook, the Cotswold village where she grew up.

I can’t remember when I read the first of her old sister Nancy Mitford’s novels, but I have reread The Pursuit of Love a dozen times since – any time I need a dose of shameless romance and a laugh. Would Nancy, who so ruthlessly satirised the upper-middle-class snobbery, the dos and don’ts (we don’t talk about food at the table), have approved of The Swan menu’s blatant celebration of great food.

The Mitfords’ life at Swinbrook is openly caricatured in the pursuit of love. The terrifying rages of “Uncle Matthew” (in real life Nancy’s father, know as “farve”), and his horror of the beautiful Linda’s flamboyant friends; the child hunts; the sisters’ worship of pets and ponies; and the lined cupboard, which was the warmest place in the house. This was the fabled “Hons’ cupboard,” where the title Mitford children held whispered meetings.

Nancy’s biographer, Selina Hastings, says the Duchess loathed the house in reality, calling it Swine Brook. She had to beg to go to boarding school (even though her brother went to Eton), although she finally convinced her mother to send her to Hatherop Castle School.

I identify with this. My parents sent me to Hatherop Castle, but decades on, I must add. By then “school” was a fairly loose description- and yes, the food was appalling.

The Swan is run by the honishly named Archie Orr-Ewing – and beautifully. Orr-Ewing believes he may have picked from a number of candidates for the job because the Duchess knew he kept bantams. The Duchess is not only keen on chickens in general and bantams in particular (the pub walls are covered in photographs or her as a young girl in the village, driving a pony or feeding hens at Swinbrook), she has been a pioneer supporter of local producers.

Indeed, she opened one of the very first farm shops at her home Chatsworth, as a place to sell food produced on the estate’s farms.

So it is confirmed that food talk is definitely U – the teasingly snobbish term meaning “Upper Class” that Nancy used in a 1956 article, “Noblesse Oblige”. In fact, Nancy loved good food.

She moved permanently to Paris, a place she thought much better than England, not least because of the superiority of French food, but were she to return to Swinbrook, especially now that a British “food-pub” can often match or better the French equivalent, it would be a hard claim to make.

Talking proudly of the beef his family supplies, the locally made cheese and produce from nearby farms, Orr-Ewing sums up the way we are now. “Food is critical,” he says.

Quite. So let’s talk about it.

The Swan Inn, Swinbrook, Nr. Burford, OXON.

Preserving the “bar” atmosphere when this is actually a great restaurant is an excellent achievement for a publican. Locals love The Swan, but many travel miles for Giles Lee’s imaginative cooking, with it’s twist on British tradition. There are warm, comfortable rooms at the back for intrepid winter travellers. My children rated the chips as top notch. Starters range from £6.50 – £8; main courses £14 – £19 for Orr-Ewing’s home-reared beef steak.

The Saturday Telegraph Magazine, 30/01/10

Another great review, to visit one of the busiest restaurants in the Cotswolds click here.