Helen Browning's Royal Oak

by Emma Dance

10 November 2017

You can't help but embrace the farm to fork ethos at this pub...

There’s a saying that ignorance is bliss. Maybe it’s true in some instances, but it’s not a school of thought that I can subscribe to when it comes to food. In fact, I feel completely the opposite. I get a strange satisfaction from ordering pork when I’ve just been watching pigs frolicking in mud, or chowing down on a steak after admiring a magnificent herd grazing in the field. Some people (my mother-in-law, in particular) find my attitude slightly perverse. “How can you eat that when you’ve just been looking at them outside? They’re so cute!” they wail.

But the fact that I have seen first hand that the animals have led happy lives, and been well-cared for, is exactly why I can take such pleasure in the eating. And, by contrast, I find it hard to fathom how they would rather eat a piece of supermarket-branded chicken that’s been kept in God-knows-what conditions. I guess we’re back to the ignorance is bliss thing again.

At Helen Browning’s Royal Oak, it’s all about the provenance. Not that pigs are paraded around for you to pick the one you’d like to munch on that evening, or anything. Obviously. But the pub is actually located right on the organic farm that Helen works; there’s a chalkboard to tell you how many piglets have been born that week; and if, like me, you want to see exactly where your dinner is coming from, there are regular farm tours, too.

The menu is full of ingredients from the farm, and from neighbouring producers. And because what they offer is pretty much completely governed by seasonality and local availability, it changes on an almost daily basis.

Having visited the latest litters of piglets earlier that afternoon I was keen to try the pork, so dived straight in with a starter of Porco Alentejana – a stew made from pork fillet and clams. The little morsels of pork were wonderfully succulent, the clams bringing a sweet and salty taste of the sea, and there was a rich, smoky undertone from paprika too. Across the table, I envied a colourful mezze starter full of tasty little things like a sweet and earthy beetroot dip, salty tapenade, sharp pickles and a creamy Mozzarella made from milk produced on the farm.

The portion of spare ribs that arrived for my main was enormous. The meat practically fell off the bones, moist from the melting fat and with just a hint of a crunchy crust adding texture. It was all smothered in a tangy barbecue sauce that cut through the richness but didn’t completely overpower the flavour of the meat.

My husband has a mistrust of pork (too many experiences of badly cooked roasts), but I persuade him to try the pig cheek ragu with penne and Parmesan. After tasting the juicy, well-seasoned meat he was forced to admit that he may have been wrong about dismissing a whole genre of meat quite so readily.

I just adored my pudding of sweet arancini. The little balls were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, creamy and comforting and oh, so more-ish with a sharp, juicy plum compote to balance the sweetness. Husband’s vanilla pannacotta with poached rhubarb and granola was another triumph: not too sweet and not too sharp, with the crunch of granola adding an extra texture dimension.

They say you can taste the love in cooking. At Helen Browning’s Royal Oak, I think you can taste the happiness. All bliss. No ignorance.