Restaurant review: The Wheatsheaf in Northleach
- Credit: Archant
Katie Jarvis: I’ve been taking tea with Jordan. No, not that one - I mean the magical and mysterious Middle Eastern country. But never forget that you can find an equally exotic experience at the excellent Wheatsheaf
I’m at the airport, buying a magazine. The woman at the WH Smith counter reeks of something hard-to-define. Possibly medicinal. Possibly as the result of dosing herself up to combat some kind of new but deadly flu that will make the Daily Mail tremendously happy over the next few months.
“My goodness!” I rasp to Ian, reeling. “Did you catch a whiff of that?” I notice that Ian is strangely silent on the subject. At around the same time, it dawns on me that the smell is now walking alongside us, like the third man in Ernest Shackleton’s Elephant Island near-death experience. Only less spiritual. More pungent.
Ian stops. The smell pauses. He moves on. The smell edges nervously forward.
“It’s you, isn’t it!” I gasp, in the sort of moment Alfred Hitchcock would have played with a shower curtain and a jumpy BBC orchestra particularly grounded in the violin section.
He smells as if he’s been in some sort of industrial accident. It’s hard to describe but best illustrated by imagining Ian jumping into a lake and fish floating to the surface. Or the miracle of a woodlouse being born in his vicinity, but with three legs, a preference for travelling by horseback, and an enhanced appreciation of the power of satire.
“Testers,” he explains, wearing his 30-ft ring of confidence with quiet dignity. “Duty-free.”
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Later, high up in the mountains of Jordan, chasms open around us, yawning with infinitely dark depths like the open mouths of giant baby birds. Salem, a Bedouin whose face is lined by desert tents and burning suns, fashions a circle of stones, before collecting dry juniper branches, which crackle and burn with a dancing light around the ancient silver kettle. He pours sugar into the brew, before crumbling in a cinnamon stick, leaving it to boil and bubble. “This is my special tea; it will be the best you’ve ever tasted,” he promises. Meanwhile, he uses rocks to break open walnut shells, pouring pieces of expensive nut into the bottom of cups for us, his ‘honoured guests’. Then he adds a special ingredient: a yellow teabag with a suspiciously Lipton’s-like aura.
But the brew, supped over the walnuts that we dig out and munch when the last drop has disappeared, tastes sublimely of a thousand and one Arabian nights. And - a million blessings! - Ian’s smell is joyously modified in the vast open air.
Exotic, I often think, is right on our doorstep; but we look under, over and around it. If I were a Bedouin, used to a life on the move (warm rock caves in winter; summertime, up on the high, cool slopes, full of grass for the animals whose milk becomes rich yogurt and cheese; and, in the middle seasons, the stony village houses, where watermelons grow), there could be nowhere more mysterious than – I don’t know – say, Northleach. Nothing more wonderfully strange than the Wheatsheaf, with its Portland pearl oysters, and its Cotswold Curer charcuterie with pickles and toast. (At breakfast in the Middle East, ‘beef’ bacon is served.)
We sit at the bar before dinner, chatting with the lad pulling beers, whose sense of humour alone is worth a visit. “You can go and sit at your table and wait, if you prefer,” he says. “Are you trying to get rid of us?” we ask. “Yes. For goodness sake, go now,” he says. It’s enough to make us forgive him when we ask him to recommend a cheap red and he opens one that’s steepish - £28. But, then, it is a pretty good wine list and we are plebs.
The service is good and swift, the food undeniably excellent, but the table sticky. (Oh, how I hate this – such a big no-no; in fact, we watch them fail to clean tables galore as we dine.) We try smoked mackerel with pancetta, radishes, new potatoes and saffron crème fraiche, plus a gorgeous earthy risotto of ceps, Parmesan and English truffle; followed by rabbit pie, and a delicate cod with lentils and root vegetables. We finish with a Marathon pudding (which is a bit more Marathon-y than ideal, to be honest). The rest, however, is unfailingly good, the menu interesting. As to prices - not at all bad on the Hobbs House sourdough and Netherend Farm butter, which is pretty sound value at £1 per guest; the rest of it par for a gastro-course at around £7/9 for starters and an average £16-18 for mains.
Would I recommend it? Yes, for sure. This is a pub/restaurant with a well-deserved reputation for good food. They know what they’re doing and they know their worth – a bit of a treat pub, in other words. As our Bedouin tea summed up the rocky Jordanian hills, so the Wheatsheaf sums up the Cotswolds: quality, style, history and agricultural heritage. Exotic, in other words.
Value for money 7
The Wheatsheaf Inn, West End, Northleach GL54 3EZ; 01451 860244; www.cotswoldswheatsheaf.com