Stinking Bishop, or Why British Food Rules

The cheese is named for the Stinking Bishop pear, which is used to make the perry used to rinse the cheese at it ages. The cheese is soft, produced in limited quantities from the milk of once-nearly-extinct Gloucestershire cows. The great care associated with this special cheese is not unusual. In fact, special attention to local foods was a hallmark of my recent journey through the Cotswolds, the English countryside just east of Oxford. Never have I taken a trip where fresh food was so abundant, so front-and-center. If you’re still caught up in the mythology about lousy British food, reality has passed you by.

While we’re on the subject of cheese, I should note two very special cheese shops, one in the Cotswolds railroad village of Moreton-on-the-marsh (beautiful old main street, endless shops and old inns, railroad just a few blocks away). The Moreton shop is called Cotswolds Cheese Company; the one on swanky Jermyn Street in London is Paxton & Whitfield. In  Moreton, I tasted my first Single Gloucester (mild, classy and grassy, but nothing to get me excited about), and my first Double Gloucester (lots of fresh character, earthy, stronger and richer flavor), and also, a Burford (a simple, smooth cheddar). I bought a small hunk of each, a baguette and a blackcurrant-apple juice, and ate lunch on the short train trip to Oxford. In the second, I tasted Stinking Bishop and then benefitted from a very friendly cheesemonger who introduced me to several British cheeses, including an ale-washed Caerphilly that I happily munched whilst window shopping along Jermyn Street (where their London store is located). Great cheeses, all local to Britain, most produced within a two hour drive.

When I visited the Cotswolds, it was asparagus season, and, seemingly everywhere I went, delicate smoked salmon was available. I combined the two, as an appetizer, at Bourton-on-the-water’s Rose Tree Restaurant, and learned something about the taste of fresh English asparagus. It’s sweet. The taste resembles American asparagus–even my local variety here at home–but only somewhat. The flavor is delicate, and welcoming. And, apparently, May is its favorite time of year. I followed by Beef Wellington with local mushrooms and local beef. This was in keeping with another modern, organic restaurant in the same village, The Croft, where I enjoyed one of the beefiest, freshest tasting hamburgers I’ve ever eaten, and also, a tasty Steak and Ale Pie, the latter being a house speciality also available with chicken or fish. Of course, the ale was local.

If there was any lingering doubt about the quality of British country food, a visit to Daylesford Organic presented an extraordinary argument in favor of the flavor and beauty of fresh food. (To learn more, here’s a whole page filled with videos.) I wanted to try every gorgeous fruit and vegetable, then sit down for a proper dinner to enjoy the local, organic fresh meats, and then, dessert. But it was just 10 in the morning, and all I could fit into my post-breakfast appetite was a delicious little scone. Next time, I will build at least one day’s meals around a visit to Daylesford.

Back to Bourton. Here’s dinner at the Dial House, known for its local cuisine and extremely creative dishes (a completely delicious meal, worth the drive to Bourton the very next time you visit Britain):

  • Canapes – Ballantine Ham hock with cornichon (French gherkin) gel on top, smoked butter foam with poached mussels
  • Cauliflower with white truffle oil
  • Homemade – carmelized shallots with garlic and cumin
  • Salmon with lemon air with fromage blanc, keta (caviar), crispy salmon skin, panacotta and cucumber
  • Cornish Brill with cep purée (mushroom), sea aster (flower resembling a daisy)
  • Yuzu (Japanese lime/lemon) with coconut sorbet and chocolate strands
In fact, you should stay over (I did, at the Halford House, a B&B owned by the Dial and just blocks away), if for no other reason than to head for nearby Bibury and the fresh smoked trout (from the trout farm just down the road), and the excellent smoked salmon, both served at a fancy local establishment called The Swan.
Bourton-on-the-water and other Cotswolds villages are not very far from London, just about a 90 minute train ride to another world, a place largely untouched by the industrial revolution, a place whose focus is now shifting toward serious local food. One chef behind this trend is Rob Rees, a visionary I met over tea at Sudeley Castle in Wynchcombe; his unabashed promotion of the region and its stunning food is something you ought to know more about. Rob speaks eloquently about the importance of farm foods, and a local food economy, and more broadly, about the importance of proper food for growing children. He brings industry, government, and family kitchens together in ways that are altogether unique, as explained on his web site.
Oh, I nearly forgot about the side trip to Canterbury, which is on the eastern side of London (Cotswolds are on the west). Take the train to Canterbury West (there are two train stations), and when you walk out of the station, look immediately to the left. You will see an old train shed turned (six days a week) into a local farmer’s market called The Goods Shed. Sample the smoked haddock, made just outside of town, and note the smooth, non-fishy, salty-sweet flavor. Try the fruit-enhanced Florentine cookies. Taste the apple cider, also from nearby. Then, do the cathedral and your shopping, and return for dinner (here’s the spring 2012 menu). Mine included perfect scallops. The restaurant menu is built from produce available at the market.
Me, I’m just back, ready to write some more about British food (a topic I never thought I would ever write about), this time from Cardiff and Pembrokeshire. More later. Meantime, enjoy Bourton-on-the-water in the photo below.
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