Tom finds that simple, local ingredients glow at The Wheatsheaf in Wiltshire.
Saturday night down the pub, pre lockdown. Outside, the weather is not so much foul as utterly deranged, the sky gushing like a great burst pipe. Country lanes become swirling eddies, fields turn into lakes. But in the backroom of The Wheatsheaf in Chilton Foliat, the storm’s rage is transformed into sweet Muzak. The only kind I want to hear.
Because this is the best possible deluge refuge, the quintessence of the local’s eternal appeal. Gleaming pints of Ramsbury Gold are pulled from gleaming pumps, a fire blazes in its cast-iron home. The bar may stand empty, the smiles of the staff muffled in masks. But no one really cares. As long as it is open, we will come.
The back room, our favourite place to be, is shabby comfortable, far preferable to shabby chic. The pub feels lived-in and happily well worn, a provider of succour and joy. A few dried hop shoots hang aimlessly from the ceiling, while the blackboard, where the menu is merrily scrawled, is surrounded by tins of olive oil, old jugs and lanterns.
As the children plot and giggle on the table next door, we pick at charred cauliflower, slathered in labneh. And roasted squash, the edges blackened, with red onion and tahini-spiked yogurt. And homemade hummus stained regal by beetroot, scooped up with fingers of fresh baked flatbread.
Then a quick skip from Middle East to Britain, and a slab of rarebit, the browned cheese thicker than the bread, one of the few Welsh things to escape national lockdown.
Delicately smoked trout sits on yogurt, mixed with truffle-infused honey. The kitchen has the confidence to keep things simple, let the ingredients (local where possible) speak for themselves. Food that complements, rather than dominates, conversation.
There are Cornish mussels, fat as cherubs and gloriously sweet, cooked in cider with a healthy dose of garlic. And homemade pappardelle, with just the right amount of chew, wearing a slow-cooked, red-wine heavy beef ragù. Pizzas are blasted in their woodfired terracotta oven, not Neapolitan-style – with their blistered, puffy cornicione – rather crisp-based, thin-crust beauties that you can eat by hand. The children are in heaven. So are we. Outside, all is cold, black and wet. Inside, The Wheatsheaf glows eternally gold. Definitely one to come back to post-lockdown.
The Wheatsheaf, about £20 per head, Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire; pizza, street food and drink takeaways now available Thurs-Sat evenings; for orders call 01488 680936 from 3.30pm.
Drinks: Olly’s Greek classics
Greek vino is where I spend most on bottles to share with friends. It’s the combination of local grape varieties and small-scale production that keeps me hooked. For white grapes, Assyrtiko is a citrus powerhouse, with Moschofilero and Malagousia also worth seeking out. For reds, I love sumptuous Xinomavro (think Pinot Noir meets Nebbiolo) and Agiorgitiko (think Syrah tussling with Tempranillo).
MITRAVALAS WHITE ON GREY MOSCHOFILERO 2019 (12%), £7.95, The Wine Society. Great value for a lemony scented white with enticing and exotic flair.
LION’S DEN ASSYRTIKO 2019 (13%), £9.99, aldi.co.uk (online only). Peachy and piercing, this is a superb white to pair with a Greek salad.
DOMAINE SKOURAS WILD FERMENT ASSYRTIKO 2019 (13%), £15.99, Majestic. ‘Wild ferment’ adds a rich complexity. Fantastic with fish pie.
TETRAMYTHOS MUSCAT BLANC SEC ORGANIC 2019 (13%), £18, wineandgreene.com. A liquid legend: quince, ginger and apricots with pithy tangerine.
Wine of the week XINOMAVRO JEUNES VIGNES THYMIOPOLOS 2019 (13%), £10.95, The Wine Society. A vibrant, scented red made by one of the greatest talents in Greece.