When my husband announced that we were going on a 10-day hike (approximately 102 miles) through the Cotswolds, I trembled. It wasn’t the hiking part that scared me; it was the thought of English food (insert horrified scream here). More specifically, English countryside pub food, since it’s nowhere near the well-run and tasty places to be found in London. Ten days without good food and with only beer to drink would have any self-respecting oenophile shaking in their boots.
Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. countryside has the same deficit of good eateries and drinks, so I’m not just picking on English cuisine. The Cotswolds is one of the more affluent regions in England, which tends to lead to nicer dining establishments, so I had high hopes when we set out. The first pub in Chipping Camdem was outstanding; the meals we had there were skillfully prepared using fresh ingredients and properly seasoned, AND we had our first encounter with Sticky Toffee Pudding—which quickly became our obsession. The second night in the village of Stanton was also very good. Sadly, after that we had a few decent meals, but there were some definite lows. The night I ate a cardboard hamburger, I wished I just ordered a salad and chips. It was such a shame since we were surrounded by fresh produce, diary and livestock galore. And to add insult to injury, an average meal per person was around $33 for entrée, dessert and a pint of beer. Ouch on the palate and the pocketbook.
I do have to mention vegetarian food in England (shocking, I know). Beth, one of our traveling companions and a vegetarian, actually did very well for her dietary restrictions. If I were a vegetarian, I would give England a closer look as a place to live. Of course, Beth would argue that Sticky Toffee Pudding, candy and toffee were her vegetarian favorites. I was thinking more along the lines of potato jackets with cheese with a side salad. Also amusing were England’s labeling laws where the line, “Suitable for Vegetarians,” is actually included. This takes the guesswork out for vegetarians, for sure.
What was it that so disappointed me about pub food? Was it a case of “grown together, go together?” In the food and wine pairing world, this concept exists for a reason. The food and wine from an area generally evolve together, so they pair well together. My biggest complaints about the food were that it was under seasoned, and there was a general lack of excitement on the palate. Was this due to the fact that England invented refrigeration, and also being in a northerly climate did not need spices and salt to preserve their food? The flavors were on a constant plateau, it rarely went up or down. The same goes for the drinks. The beers are awesomely smooth, and depending upon your choices of a lager, ale or bitter, can be very refreshing with smooth bass notes or a deep baritone that holds the food up. Beth and Laurence, my traveling companions, were cider connoisseurs—and Laurence was constantly on the look out for Scrumpy (a form of cider, more akin to moonshine). For my palate the tartness of Scrumpy wasn’t refreshing after a long day of hiking. Laurence says, “Black Rat was the scrumpiest Scrumpy but Thatcher’s was probably a bit more drinkable.” And on the cider front, Beth recommends, “Weston’s Organic Pear Cider aka Perry.” I didn't drink any wine in the Cotswolds because it was very overpriced, and frankly not worth it. Why would I spend $8 for a glass of wine I could get at Trader Joe’s for $5 a bottle?!
When we found ourselves in civilization again (defined as a place where there are more than pub fare), we devoured French food in Bath and our palates were delighted. I mean, come on, a person can’t subsist on chips alone. And then our palates leapt for joy with the Thai food at Busaba Eathai—a multi-unit, hip and flavorful restaurant in London. I actually almost cried over the intense flavors. Then, miracles abound, we found Galvin Bistro de Luxe. We went off on a trek to find a different restaurant in the Marylebone area and literally stumbled upon this bistro. EVERYTHING WAS PERFECT. Masterful execution of service, food, ambience and yes…I finally had some quality wines to quench my palate.
The upshot for anyone wanting to try this vacation, my twisted version of a pub crawl, really should—don’t let the food and beverages deter you. If you go, you will see some gorgeous countryside, meet fun and chatty people and get a lot of exercise. Wow, a vacation where you actually come back a few pounds lighter! There are many books and web sites that can help you with your planning. Just Google the Cotswold Way and you will find more information than you wanted to know. Just remember that London is just a few hours away and eventually your palate will be rewarded for its patience.
Angela Camacho, a certified sommelier and author of a best selling wine tool, The Wine Wheel®, shares her obsession with wine and food.