Richard McComb spends a fruitful night at a genuine country inn.
Strolling through the Warwickshire village of Ilmington, on the northern tip of the Cotswolds, I came across a plum tree heaving with fruit.
The bows spread out over a winding path that leads past cottages with names such as Middle Meadow and Flower to the 11th century St Mary the Virgin Church.
I was sure no-one would mind if I took a handful of the purple-tinged, yellow fruit. After all, food is meant for sharing and there was a profusion of it around here.
There was a time when there were so many apple trees that homes in the village had their own cider presses for domestic consumption.
The church still has an apple map celebrating the fruity heritage, recalling great varieties such as Siberian Crab, Beauty of Bath and Ribston Pippin.
Time may have moved on, but the spirit of good hospitality still reigns supreme in Ilmington thanks to The Howard Arms, which is as fine a country inn as you are lucky to come across in 2011.
There’s a 400-year-old Cotswold stone building, beams, a wooden bar, flagstone floors, a big log fire, proper beers and, crucially, proper food.
It’s interesting to think what Walter Handy would have made of the modern-day menu.
Handy, a local shepherd, had a regal claim to fame, having introduced the Christmas Day broadcast of George V in 1934.
What would he have made of the crispy crumbed calamari, aioli and rocket salad among today’s appetisers? Well, if he was a man after my own heart he would have loved it.
I tried the simple dish from the pub’s refreshingly modern and reassuringly unpretentious dinner menu. Despite being about as far from the sea as you can get in the heart of England, the kitchen is strong on fish and offers a daily specials list.
There was seared fillet of sea bass with a pesto tagliatelle and tomato vierge and hake fillet with a white wine sauce and sauté potatoes.
The young, cheery chef, Chris Cheek, is preparing for evening service, chopping shallots and roasting bones for an overnight stock.
I told him I fancied the wild sea trout. I was out of luck. Four people had booked for lunch but 49 turned up. It happens a lot.
“It’s really busy and that gives you a buzz when you come into work,” said Chris, aged 23 and from Newcastle. The chef has worked in the fine dining end of the industry but found his passion in “good pub food – fresh stocks and fresh flavours”.
Hearty meat suet puddings, re-introduced by Chris on to the menu in the past few months, are proving a big hit.
Due to the run on the sea trout, pan-fried rainbow trout with lemon and chive crushed potatoes and a citrus beurre blanc had been promoted to tonight’s evening menu.
I was tempted but ended up ordering the rump of lamb, served with a warm feta and bulgar wheat tabouleh, aubergine purée and minted yoghurt – a taste of Greece in the heart of England.