Photo Gallery - Best of 2017

Giles Coren reviews the Bell Inn, Oxfordshire (extracts taken from the Times on January 13, 2018)
‘On the final day of 2017, I had not just the best mouthful of the year, but the best mouthful of my life’

......which is what happened the other weekend at Langford in west Oxfordshire, where we had parked for lunch at the Bell Inn (newly taken over by chef Tom Noest and manager Peter Creed, formerly of the excellent Chequers in Churchill, not far away), and were just coming in sight of the pub on foot when Sam and Kitty shouted out, “Churchyard!” And then, being four and six respectively, they shouted, “Churchyard! Churchyard! Churchyard!” until we promised that, yes, we could come here as soon as lunch was done and play hide-and-seek and climb the trees and read all the names on the graves. Esther and I were as glad as the kids were, frankly, because we always need a good exit plan when eating out as a family. To get through any meal without tantrums or iPads involves ordering everything to come at the same time, eating at breakneck speed and then having somewhere nearby the children want to go, towards which they and Esther can set out, while I settle the bill, thank people, tip heavily to compensate for spillages, all that caper. And this one looked a corker. “Norman,” said Esther, regarding the square bell tower, clad incongruously in pinkish plaster. “Or possibly even Saxon,” I said, getting slightly Saxon vibes. (Wikipedia says that it “may postdate the Norman Conquest but is high-quality work by Anglo-Saxon masons”,so it’s honours even there.) But first, lunch, which was a triumph. The pub is old and small and cosy. Sixteenth century, in fact, so built halfway between the foundation of the church (called St Matthew’s, Langford) and now. In fact, very possibly by the same guys who put the two flying buttresses against the north side of the north aisle at the behest of some long-dead Tudor benefactor. Looking at those buttresses now, leaning hard against the bulging Norman stone like two grizzled gatekeepers trying to hold castle doors shut against a slavering mob, you get an urgent sense of the very moment in 1574 when they first went up. You feel that if the masons had left it even another week, all those years ago, the whole thing would have come crashing down.

And then, no doubt, they repaired for lunch to the pub they had just built. But they won’t have had a chance to eat the best thing I ate in the whole of 2017 (on the last day of that year, as it happens) because it came out of the pizza oven that Peter and Tom had only just had put in. And it wasn’t either of the wonderful sourdough pizzas that Kitty and Sam devoured, crispy and thin but also chewy and ripe, blistered like the moon, nutty and dense, with superb tomato sauce and excellent mozzarella. No, it was the garlic, parsley and bone marrow flatbread the kitchen sent out with a few slices of the roast dry-aged sirloin, which I had wanted to try alongside my healthier-sounding fillet of bream just because, you know, roasted dry-aged sirloin.

The bread was crisp and chewy like the pizza but running with buttery bone fat and verdant with chopped flat parsley. It was so pure, so honest, so tear-jerkingly real and true that I wasn’t surprised when my eye, once it had dried and looked up from the plate, focused immediately on the spine of Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating, on a shelf behind Esther. For this heartbreaking celebration of all that is right in the world was nothing more nor less than Fergus’s roasted marrow bones with parsley salad and sourdough toast … turned into pizza!

But perfection can always be improved. This happened when I took a sliver of the fat, gamey sirloin, which was one of three roasts they had on (along with Kelmscott pork loin & apple sauce and roast chicken, pig in blanket & bread sauce), and spread it with fresh horseradish, then laid it into the garlic bread, folded it over and dipped it into a little steel pot of the sticky veal reduction they use for gravy, then bit and swallowed. Best mouthful of the year? Best mouthful of my life, more like.
Hats off also to the half-pint of shell-on prawns the kids snarfed down with the pizzas, the “lentil vinaigrette, goat’s curd, beetroot and green sauce” (a healthy option that, Esther said, “they have managed to make taste sinful”), the Tenderstem broccoli with chilli and garlic and my dazzlingly crisp and succulent fillet of bream over a fragrant stew of red peppers, chickpeas and chorizo.

This guy Noest can really, really cook and the balance of pub classics (fish and chips, cheeseburger) along with pizzas and proper post-Henderson British cooking (I’m having the boiled ham in parsley sauce with carrots and spuds next time) is the perfect recipe for a destination restaurant that also wants to feed hungry locals four or five times a month. At prices that are two or three pounds a dish below what you might expect for food of such quality, this beautiful little restaurant hard by the best 1,000-year-old church in Oxfordshire is my gift to you for 2018. If it doesn’t win a hatful of prizes this year I will eat that hat, with parsley sauce. And I tell you who agrees with me: the Christ figure on the famous 8th-century rood relief, mounted on the east wall of the south porch at St Matthew’s, Langford. He appears to have loved it so much, his head has fallen off.

The Bell Inn, Langford, Nr Burford, Oxfordshire (01367 860249; Cooking 10 Location 10 Service 10 Score 10