A brief version of Cobbett's Rural Rides across south west England and the Cotswolds recently left me with the impression that the gastro-pub is flourishing in the country as much as in town. Not only are many in highly capable hands hands but there is now a two way traffic between the ambitious kitchens of town and country.
The lure of rural life with its closer proximity to suppliers is inducing many chefs to leave 'the smoke' thereby raising standards in many a country pub but it is also changing the nature of what they offer. The heartier, more earthy, country dishes - casseroles, stews and pies - are sadly disappearing in place of risotto, slices of this on tops of mounds of that
and an over-heavy reliance on the grill.
And if there is one common cry from all those in management I spoke to it is just how difficult it is to hold on to young, talented staff as the peace and quiet that attracts so many of their older customers at the weekend is not enough to hold on to their more active team during the week. Don't be surprised if your pint of traditional English ale is expertly pulled by a South African, Australian or New Zealander and do spare a thought for the manager who, within a week of hiring a sous chef and a deputy manager, found the former in bed with the
latter's wife, and had, most incoveniently, to lose both.
But as an example of just how satisfying these country pubs can be in the best of hands it is difficult to beat The Dartmoor Inn at Lydford, Devon, run by Philip and Karen Burgess.
The entrance to the pub is far from prepossessing, particularly if you have traversed the natural beauty of Dartmoor, but that is because for historical reasons these inns are right on the road and the car parks have had to be added at the rear (The Village Pub in Barnsley,
Gloucestershire pays £600 annual rent to the 13th century church for this privilege). Once inside the warren of rooms and bars, however, The Dartmoor Inn is warm and captivating.
So too is the Burgess's approach to their customers. Philip's kitchen exemplifies this in a series of well executed dishes that combine fresh flavours and an innate professionalism which together offer a much broader range of dishes than most kitchens: baked eggs with garlic leaves and pan fried cepes; duck leg with aubergine, sherry vinegar and mint; braised ox-tail with a sweet sherry sauce and pureed cauliflower and cod, fresh from Looe in Cornwall, fried in a light batter with distinctly superior chips.
But two other aspects of the Burgess's approach testify to their desire to see their Inn prosper for another 500 years. The first is the list at the back of the menu which not only names all their main suppliers but also the individual names of their key staff, a practice which many other restaurants could and should follow, I believe.
And the second is the enthusiasm Karen is putting into organising the chefs, artists, historians, walking guides and photographers to make a success of the initial Dartmoor Festival throughout May, because, as she explained, "we are not doing enough to tell people quite how wonderful Dartmoor is."
The Swan at Southrop, Gloucestershire, appears not to have changed for a similar number of centruries, its Cotswold stone walls and roof affording a great more visual pleasure to the visitor than the cost of maintaining such a structure must be to its owner. Inside, however, massive changes are afoot and not just the installation of a large sports screen for the rugby-mad locals next to a skittle alley for their children.
Bob Parkinson, who trained at Bibendum, London SW7 is the chef and pulling the cool Hork Norton and Abbott ales as well as much, much more is Graham Williams who has worked at Bibendum for 15 years. Together they have got The Swan off to a flying start.
The shared school's style is obvious in steak tartare; crab vinaigrette with herbs; thinly sliced ox tongue with salsa verde ; and langoustines with mayonnaise. But Parkinson's sensible housekeeping and dexterity were best exemplified in a classic guinea fowl and foie gras terrine which appeared as a first course and a hugely satisfying main course breast of guinea fowl with lardons, butter onions and thyme cream sauce. Not just these dishes but the sticky date pudding with clotted cream were of a quality and competence that would not disgrace a top restaurant in central London.
En route from Dartmoor to the Cotswolds we stopped for lunch at The White Horse on another main road, from Stroud to Cirencester, near the village of Frampton Mansell. The food here was not quite as distinguished as the two I have mentioned but two aspects of the meal were exemplary.
The first was a rich red wine and beef casserole, the kind of dish I firmly maintain should be the mainstay of these pubs' menus, and the second was the approach of its proprietor, Shaun Davis.
Even on the phone Davis made me feel welcome, answering my request to book a table with a booming 'absolutely'. And then it was a real treat to watch him act in the role of ultra-friendly host both to to his drinking customers on one side of the bar and his restaurant customers on the other.
City centre pubs and country inns may be closer to each other in their menus than at any other time in their history but in two respects - the smell of woodsmoke from their open fires and the warmth of their hospitable hosts - there is nothing to match a well-managed, traditional British country pub.
The Dartmoor Inn, Lydford, Okehampton, Devon, EX20 4AY, 01822-
The Village Pub, Barnsley, Gloucestershire, 01285-740421,
The White Horse, 01285-760960
The Swan at Southrop, 01367-850205