Old business, new cafe: bear with us

Hildreth’s in Prestwood isn’t quite as old as the dinosaurs, even though a model tyrannosaurus rex used to adorn the entrance to the garden centre. These days it’s reproductions of a boar, a couple of chickens and a bear whose beady eyes are on visitors to this 400-year-old business. It’s like a mini-shopping mall: an ironmongery and hardware shop (the original Mr Hildreth was an ironmonger), a garden centre and two gift shops, all on the same site.

For many years there’s also been an unassuming small cafe. As the gradual easing of Covid-related lockdown continues, this has now re-opened under new management as ‘The Limes’. (I’m not sure of the reason for the new name; lime isn’t a conspicuous element on the menu, so maybe it’s a subtle tribute to Delia Smith, whose name is an anagram of ‘It had limes’).

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In terms of decor and layout, not much has changed. Some decluttering has taken place, though this may have been driven in part, at least, by the social distancing requirements of placing tables further apart. Some of the props from the cafe’s previous incarnation are still in use, such as the cherry-picking ladders in the ceiling and the suit of armour on which an exit sign sits at a jaunty angle.

The two most obvious differences are that The Limes operates table service rather than counter service (again, no doubt this fits in with social distancing needs), and that there is a new menu. The management say they want to get away from the ‘old hat jacket spud and pre-made carrot cake to something inspiring and creative’.

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That’s maybe a little harsh on the old menu – there’s nothing wrong with a good jacket potato. But Helen enjoyed her duck and orange salad (the orange may have been mango), and my steak and ale pie was a well-made pleasure.

The Limes looks like a promising addition to the local cafe scene, a worthy competitor for The Pantry at No 51 in Prestwood’s high street. It should help the current Mr Hildreth (the 13th) and his successors to keep attracting customers for a few more generations yet.

Local returns: three small steps

Unlike the Moon landing, there was never going to be one giant leap back to normality. A series of small steps will be the way out of lockdown. Yesterday we took three, in and around our home village, supporting local businesses.

Step one: a trip to The Framing Gallery in nearby Cryers Hill, to select and order frames for five pictures. We’ve made a habit of buying locally-created pictures on our holidays over many years, usually without frames for ease of transport home. The Gallery provides an excellent service and we’re glad it’s still around.  At the moment, an appointment booking system ensures that the Gallery can limit the number of customers on the premises at any time.

Step two: return to Prestwood and pop into Hildreths. This friendly local business traces its history back over four centuries, having started as a blacksmith’s. There are four main parts to Hildreths today: a hardware store, a garden centre, a gift centre and a cafe. The first three have remained open during lockdown, relying on their staff and customers to maintain social distancing. We bought several heavily discounted cache pots, as well as one of their irresistible lardy cakes.

Step three: like many people across England, we visited one of our local pubs. The Polecat was a part of Helen’s childhood, as she and her parents would sometimes eat lunch here. Oakman Inns have redeveloped and reopened it, not long before the start of lockdown. A little tradition has gone, but there’s no doubt that a modern pub-restaurant is better placed to adjust to unexpected circumstances.

The tables, as far as we could see, were further apart than normal, but not dramatically so. Hand sanitiser was available at the entrance, and a sign advised us of the new working conditions, including an app which we could use to order our food. Visiting the toilets – and leaving at the end of the meal – involved taking a one-way system through the rest of the pub.

In other respects, everything seemed normal. Perhaps because we were there at lunchtime and it wasn’t quite so busy as the pub tends to get for dinner, we didn’t need to use the ordering app. Table service was available and prompt. Nobody was wearing masks, including the staff. Everybody behaved sensibly, observing social distancing. It helps that the Polecat has a substantial outside space at the back, enabling small children to run around to their hearts’ content. Oh, and the food was excellent!

I must admit to a little trepidation before we went out yesterday. We’ve been in shops during lockdown, but strictly for essential (food buying) purposes. And, to use that dread phrase now in vogue, there may well be a ‘new normal’ in future, that isn’t the ‘normal’ we had before the virus.

Still, we enjoyed the morning out: three small steps out of the dark…

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.

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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)