Polecat returns: sorry, no (live) sheep

Not a real polecat, I should say at the outset; you can sometimes glimpse polecats in parts of the Chilterns, and our friend Tony Marshall of Prestwood Nature tells us they are now breeding regularly. But in this case I’m referring to The Polecat Inn, just outside the centre of Prestwood.

Back in the 17th century, the building was a hunting lodge; more recently, it’s served as a pub, where you can huddle in front of a log fire while enjoying some skilfully cooked food. The Sunday lunches were excellent. Some years ago when Helen was young, her family had lunch in the garden at the back; Helen felt a nudge at her elbow and found a sheep from the neighbouring field, apparently pestering her for a bite of her pizza.

The pub has recently become the property of Oakman Inns, who now own about 25 pubs and restaurants – many in and around the Chilterns. After a period of closure and extensive refurbishment, it’s now open once more.

There are now four main areas in which to sit: the new glass-fronted restaurant, accommodating an open theatre-style kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven; the bar; the lounge (where we sat the other night); and outside seating. There’s significantly more capacity than before, and the number of parking spaces has increased too. There’s still a garden at the back, though some local residents have expressed concern on social media that the play facilities for small children may not be as good as they were.

Inevitably, as part of a larger group which uses a more or less standard menu, the Polecat feels a little less cosy and a little more corporate than it once did. The only sheep this time round was the lamb on Helen’s plate, accompanied by Greek salad (and the lamb was well done, slightly overdone if anything – although the waiter didn’t ask how Helen wanted it). I enjoyed the grilled swordfish (pictured below) from the specials list. In the interests of research we also tried the desserts; my sticky toffee pudding and Helen’s peach melba panna cotta were both very good. Service was swift and we didn’t feel disadvantaged by being in the lounge rather than the main restaurant area.

So the new Polecat isn’t quite the same as the old Polecat – but it’s definitely worth a try. It competes for custom with the Chequers Tree (formerly the Chequers) at the top end of Prestwood’s high street, which has also gone through a change of management recently. Based on recent visits to both, it’s quite a close call between the two.

20190524_185907

Princes Risborough: half a millennium of markets

The Chilterns region has a number of distinguishing features: its beech woodlands; its chalk streams; red kites and rare orchids; the number of great writers and artists who’ve lived and worked here; and a generous sprinkling of marvellous historic houses and mysterious ancient hillforts. There are also a large number of market towns – and, in Beaconsfield, Wendover and so on, you can sample the wares of independent food and drink producers at regular farmers’ and artisan food markets.

These refreshing antidotes to the blandness of mass produced food and drink have now had another event added to the list. Princes Risborough today launched the first in what is, we understand, going to be a quarterly series of farmers’ markets at the Grade II* listed Market House. Today’s launch was the latest in a long tradition: the town has been holding markets of one type or another since Henry VIII granted it that right in 1523. We enjoyed the jam doughnuts and fresh cherries on offer this morning, and will be sampling some pork and marmite sausages later. Good luck to all the traders on this latest addition to the Chilterns’ market portfolio.

We’ll meet again… and again

The trouble with nostalgia is that it’s never as good as it used to be. As Britain continues its seemingly never-ending agonising re-appraisal of its place in the world, somehow the opening of a café with a World War II theme is not a surprise. The Air Raid Shelter Café and Tea Room has been in the Chilterns Shopping Centre in the middle of High Wycombe since late 2018.

This is not, of course, a unique idea; we’ve come across similar cafes in Hitchin and Stratford-upon-Avon, to name just two examples. And it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the use, even by implication, of tired and rather misleading myths about how the nation came together in the war, the spirit of the Blitz etc. Even that hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers (“Will you stop talking about the war?”) is over 40 years old. Remember, by all means; but try to move on, too.

Still, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, maybe we should just file it under ‘kitsch’. The new café has gone to some lengths to follow its theme. You can have two varieties of all-day breakfast, “Tommy’s” or “Landgirls” – the male version is larger. Or, if you’re there later in the day, some cheese and Marmite bread or a piece of lardy cake will help to take you back to those good old days (that weren’t). Our mismatched crockery included a splendid square-ish teapot depicting the scene in which Hamlet confronts the ghost of his dead father (Hamlet also finds it hard to move on, despite being Danish rather than British). The walls are covered with old photos of Wycombe and its people, copies of ration books and other artefacts. There are three themed areas: a faux living room with piano and a sofa, on top of which sits a stuffed cat with a piercing stare; a small railway carriage; and even (as per the cafe’s name) an air raid shelter, complete with tins of condensed milk, drinking chocolate, beef and onion broth and other stuff to see us through our darkest hour.

It’s all good fun, the food and drink is good and the service is friendly and unfussy. All in all (as Hamlet would say), despite any reservations about the theme, the Air Raid Shelter Café is a welcome addition to Wycombe, and we expect to be back soon.

The sweet taste of success

One of the pleasures of our research in the past couple of years has been discovering local suppliers. Today we were able to put a face to a name by meeting Anton Hazelle at Orchard View Farm, just a few minutes from us. Undaunted by all the food everyone’s been eating over Christmas, Anton was at the café with a selection of his range of chocolate bars.

There are something like 150 flavours in all, which isn’t bad going for someone who only started his business in 2008. Like many small business, it grew out of a hobby, passionately pursued, and a growing number of friends and acquaintances who asked Anton if he could make some chocolate for them.

Until 2016 there was a café in Princes Risborough, but now Anton concentrates on supplying retailers, farm shops and cafes. We thoroughly recommend his chocolate – and today’s display included a seasonal milk chocolate bar with a citrus and mince pie flavour. (No, you can’t have some of ours – buy your own, online or in the shops…)

Avocado, or call the whole thing off?

One of our great local cafes has been making social media waves recently – and has even been noticed by the might of the national press. A recent Telegraph article has focused on a recent decision by the Wild Strawberry Café in Prestwood to stop featuring avocados on its menus.

The article explains the rationale behind the decision, which essentially amounts to a defence of the role of ethical and sustainable principles in sourcing food. It’s hard to disagree that, in cases like these, we should travel to try the food, not vice versa. In the UK, now and in the foreseeable future, we shan’t be short of options for interesting and healthy eating (regardless of apocalyptically hysterical speculation about the effects of Brexit on the supply of Mars bars…) Most of us are extremely spoilt for food choice, unlike the post-World War II generation which had to suffer rationing, lest we forget.

So why not try smashed peas or vegetable dips instead, as Katy Brill from Wild Strawberry suggests at the end of the article?

Image: Valeria Boltneva (Pexels.com)

 

Gazumptious: two Missenden openings

After a summer break, the most distinctive building on Great Missenden’s High Street re-opened. A few doors down, an old building began a new life. Both got an enthusiastic reception from families warming up for half-term.

The re-opening was at the Roald Dahl Museum. All the features which have made this such a firm family favourite are as popular as ever: the doors to the first room, which really do smell of chocolate; the original hut in which Dahl wrote, complete with items such as the rolled-up ball of silver wrappers from all the chocolate he used to eat (one bar a day); and plenty of opportunities for young budding writers to get creative. And, for the next few weeks, the courtyard is hosting something special for the 30th anniversary of the publication of Matilda – a new statue of the eponymous heroine standing up to President Trump, the public’s choice of public figure as a 2018 equivalent to the book’s Miss Trunchbull. One other thing to mention: you can now use your ticket to return to the Museum for up to 12 months.

“Do we really need another café?” asked a local lady, watching with me in amusement as her sons jumped up and down outside the Old Post Office building to get a glimpse of what is now inside. It’s a fair question. I’d happily swap the large branch of Costa for the return of the extremely good Chinese restaurant we used to enjoy or, failing that, a good Italian restaurant. The latest café to try its luck in the village is the appropriately named Stamp. There are one or two traces of the building’s former use – our table mats had special issue Roald Dahl-themed stamps in their centre. It’s a bright space in which you can stop for a quesillada, a salad or even a pizza, along with some single origin tea and specially curated coffee (yes, I know you can’t “curate” coffee, but there’s no accounting for pretentious use of language). To help make ends meet, the café also sells some sweet handmade cotton products; cushion covers, coasters and multicoloured elephants which we predict will be in much demand. It remains to be seen whether The Stamp survives and thrives. Its one obvious drawback is a lack of space; it’s postage stamp sized, but we squeezed onto an extra table at the back, where we enjoyed our harissa chicken and nduja sausage and chilli pizzas. If you’re in Great Missenden, do give The Stamp a try. (If you are visiting the Museum with small children who can’t wait for something to eat or drink, there’s a very good café there, too.)

The cherries return?

Time was when cherry orchards were a common feature across the Chilterns; fresh fruit in many varieties, providing local employment as well as healthy eating, not just in the immediate locality but also for London and other nearby towns. Sadly, the orchards have all but disappeared… but there are signs they may be making a comeback.

One example is the work being done at Mongewell, just south of Wallingford in Oxfordshire. There’s a wider project to build an earth sheltered home, a passion of Anna Batchelor, the owner of the orchard at Mongewell: “As an environmental scientist, I was looking for the most sustainable for of construction.” Anna is currently in the third year of a seven year project to re-establish the cherry orchard (Mongewell has a history of cherry growing, as far back as 1877). Over 40 varieties are involved, and during the establishing years local residents, as well as walkers on the nearby Ridgeway, will be able to see the trees as they change with the seasons.  Anna says she has three aims:

“1. To bring back the culture of cherry growing to the area.
2. To create space for wildlife
3. To be a repository of cherry varieties that are lost in commercial settings.”

Meanwhile, the Chilterns Conservation Board is hoping to obtain Heritage Lottery Fund support for a major project Chalk, Cherries and Chairs. As the title suggests, the project aims to bring new life to three elements which have helped to define the Chilterns and to shape the region’s development. The “cherries” element involves investigating the history of Chilterns cherries, and training local communities to restore and manage old orchards, while helping others to set up their own community orchards. The outcome of the funding bid should be known by early 2019.

Thanks to Anna Batchelor and the Chilterns Conservation Board for speaking with us about their projects. We wish them both the very best of luck!