Restaurant review: William’s
14 February 2014
"We kicked things off with a dozen oysters (£23) – and it’s here we made our first mistake. They were so good we wanted more. Served simply on a bed of crushed ice, with wedges of lemon and a shallot vinegar, each smacked of the sea – fresh, succulent, salty and addictive."
Just as Stroud has its famous farmers’ market, Nailsworth has its own institution – a fishmonger, deli, greengrocer and café all under one roof. LAURA ROWE discovers why Mr William Beeston was named one of Rick Stein’s food heroes
There are few places in the Cotswolds that I have long wanted to visit quite as much as William’s Fish Market & Foodhall. After all, I’d heard so much about the famous ‘William’ behind it all.
He’s inspired some of my favourite chefs in the area with his enduring passion for food and his fearlessness with ingredients. His foodhall, which has been an institution in Nailsworth since 1975 – before that William was chef at Gwynfa House (now Cotswolds88) – enjoys regular custom from the likes of Matthew Fort and Dame Judy Dench. And it’s little wonder, as there’s plenty to tempt them here, from an extensive fish counter – which is stacked high with seafood plucked from British coastlines – to crates of fruit and veg delivered direct from the Parisian Rungis food market. There’s local produce too, all in tune with the seasons; cheeses, terrines and delicious deli products stacked high on every shelf; and the most decadent chocolate truffles, the best arborio rice and the plumpest, juiciest olives. All in all it’s a foodie’s paradise, and the Cotswolds should count itself lucky.
William’s is open Monday to Friday 8am till 4pm, or 3pm on a Saturday. There’s an oyster bar opposite the fish counter and an unassuming café area at the back, which is dressed simply, like a traditional French bistro with gingham tablecloths. Expect to see William bouncing between the sections – this man is a serious workaholic. He’s in six days a week, and has been for nearly 40 years now.
I’d sat down for lunch with one of my aforementioned favourite local food heroes, Chef Birch, who regularly used to help out in William’s kitchen before he became busy cooking banquets for his own local catering company. We kicked things off with a dozen oysters (£23) – and it’s here we made our first mistake. They were so good we wanted more. Served simply on a bed of crushed ice, with wedges of lemon and a shallot vinegar, each smacked of the sea – fresh, succulent, salty and addictive. I could have spent all afternoon working my way through William’s oyster stocks.
I would even have offered to shuck them myself. The menu proper changes every day, working with the daily fish deliveries and William’s fancies, although you’re likely to see old favourites – such as beer-battered cod (or plaice) and chips and spicy crab soup – on there regularly. One day there might be traditional Normandy dish tripes mode de caen (a dish of tripe, hoof, bone marrow and Calvados) and the next braised shin of veal with dumplings. Few dishes reach above the £15 mark, and if you’re just after a quick bowl of fish soup with French bread it’ll only set you back £3.50. And in the unlikely event you don’t see something you like on the menu? Then you’re actively encouraged to take a look at the slab and pick a fish that takes your fancy.
While waiting for our main courses I couldn’t resist sneaking a taste of a squid stew; it was rich with peppers, onions and herbs, the squid soft and milky. It’s the sort of cooking you don’t often see in these parts, but instead have to hunt out on holidays in the Med – usually in those little fishing villages the locals duck into to avoid the tourists.
Next up was a fillet of sea bass topped with a vibrant herb crust, sitting on a bed of melting braised fennel, flecked with scarlet saffron strands. The mellow aniseed paired perfectly with the tender fish, yet it still didn’t stop me thrusting my fork towards Chef Birch’s bowl of boudin noir (that’s black pudding to you and I) and beautifully crusted scallops from a hot grill. Buttery leeks and a smooth lemon butter emulsion brought it all together.
The latter was a special created by head chef Robin Oakley, who cut his culinary teeth with Michael Bedford at Trouble House and The Chef’s Table in Tetbury, back before Michael and wife Sarah moved on to the Butcher’s Arms on the outskirts of Stroud.
Between Robin and William they have created a menu that is neither showy nor overly complicated but celebrates the best ingredients with classic cooking techniques. It’s honest food. Slow food. Damn good food. And it’s all for a very reasonable price, too. Some might call it ‘well Dench’...
✱ WILLIAM’S FISH MARKET & FOODHALL, 3 Fountain Street, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0BL; 01453 832240; www.williamsfoodhall.co.uk