At college my best subject was art. I could draw and paint accurately and at times I thought about it as a career. And then the conservative side of me stepped in and reminded me of the garret-bound artist trading superb paintings for food. I realised I didn’t love creating art and ultimately I also knew that, no matter how proficient, I didn’t have the creativity to come up with something genuinely different. I wouldn’t be able to sell anything and so it would be a vanity to carry on with it. It would be a vanity because I didn’t have the passion to take it a step further.
I think there are a lot of parallels between creating art, creating furniture, theatre and cooking. The level of skill involved in being great at all of them seems to far outweigh the value we place on them in modern Britain. Despite the emotions they create when done well we seem to have lost the ability to discriminate and reward those people who carry out their craft. As a nation we are really good at all of these things but don’t seem to appreciate what we have and certainly don’t value them enough.
I was reminded of this when I recently visited Wild Thyme in Chipping Norton. We wanted a cosy winter night away and the Cotswolds seemed to fit the bill. There were deals for some of the country manor hotels and spas but the idea of a really good meal with a short hop upstairs afterwards won the day. It’s a small restaurant run by Sally and Nick Pullen. Sally is front of house and Nick runs the food. An indication of just how much this is their life are the two little dogs and their daughter making regular appearances. It has around 30 covers in the front dining room and further room at the back – all in a quirky old, thick-walled, multi-angled building.
I love the menu – changed once with each new season, full of local ingredients and limited to around six options for each course. The winter menu was full of pigeon, rabbit, venison and partridge backed by artichokes, fennel and lentils. To be honest you don’t need to look much further than the menu to see that this is a labour of love.
I started with a twice baked gorgonzola soufflé with nuts and honey. In a shallow ramekin the turned-out dome looked very pretty. I love goats cheese with honey and toasted nuts so I was always going to enjoy but the lightness of the soufflé and the lovely blend of honey and toasted nuts was a significant step up.
I then had a magnificent rabbit dish which was probably the best I have ever had. The loin was wrapped in pancetta and was beautifully flavoured and moist. There was confit leg and what looked like kidney in a fabulous slightly sweet sauce under a delicious puff pastry crust. The whole thing was on a bed of refreshing shredded cabbage. Everything was well seasoned and just smacked of cold and misty winter nights. It was rich and tasty but there was an awful lot of cooking packed into a sensible sized portion so that we didn’t feel over-full.
We took a breather before dessert. I’ve had a couple of outstanding apple dishes this year and the baked apple dessert here is one of them. A peeled apple was poached in cider and then ended up baked perfectly inside a pastry shell. Don’t ask me how because this seemed like a guaranteed soggy bottom recipe. Spiced with raisins and served with creme anglais and a small glass of brandy it was fabulous.
We also had a prune frangipane tart with toffee ice cream. Again the pastry was fabulous and the whole thing was warm and richly sweet. A lovely way to end the meal.
Nick and Sally have been running their own restaurant for 8 years in a pretty Cotswold market town and they should be very proud. They offer a warm welcome to guests and serve excellent food at very reasonable prices. (£37.50 for three courses). The restaurant and rooms are their full time job. Wild Thyme demonstrates to me why I could never have been an artist. No matter how talented you are – unless you are 100% committed – and to be committed you need to have a real passion for what you do – you are not going to be successful. Success is being able to carry on a way of life that you have chosen and be self-sufficient and content in doing so.
We really enjoyed the food, the ethic and the passion at Wild Thyme.