The largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK, the Cotswolds’ grassy carpet covers nearly 800 square miles. Among the rolling landscape are dotted centuries-old cottages and stately homes, most built from honey-coloured Cotswold stone, mined from the Jurassic limestone that underpins the entire area. As its AONB designation suggests, this patch of English countryside sure is a looker.
Kingham and its surrounds, it could well be argued, is peak Cotswolds: this little Oxfordshire village, just outside of Chipping Norton, seems as if it’s been meticulously designed by an artistic hand, with the intention of staging a fairytale among its oil paintinglike scenery. (Instead of being ‘a land far, far away’, though, it’s actually less than a two-hour drive. Happy days.) The village has quite the food scene, too. It’s here that you’ll find one of the most sustainable and well-known organic farms in the UK – Daylesford – and it’s also where Alex James retreated to, post-Blur fame, to make cheese. (He now also hosts a food fest here, The Big Feastival) And, of course, Kingham offers some stellar restaurant experiences, too…
Wellies in the boot and the hound packed off on a holiday of her own (don’t give me that look – she had more treats in the ensuing 36 hours than she’d had the rest of the year), I pulled out of my street feeling the specific kind of excitement that only comes from a road trip. Of course, said excitement lasts all of 22 minutes, after which impatience sets in and I begin to regret deciding to not bring provisions for fear of ruining my lunch. No matter, there was only 73 minutes left of navigating down country roads, squeezing past 4x4s, and waiting for clearance to overtake tractors. (I actually love the countryside. What? I do.)
Day 1: Lunch
The Kingham Plough is our first stop – and I don’t mean to brag, but I only accidentally drove past it once. (In all honesty, it is quite difficult to miss, housed in a large and handsome stone building, which also contains several guest rooms.) It was opened 11 years ago by former Great British Menu champ Emily Watkins, who’d trained in Florence and cooked at Heston Blumental’s The Fat Duck before deciding to launch her own venture. It’s the kind of place you’d hope to happen upon in a picture-postcard worthy village like this one: relaxed and pub-like in character (everyone is welcome – old, young, four-legged and muddy-Wellie-booted), it has a thoughtful menu that reflects its setting as much as the pheasant-patterned wallpaper in the wooden-beamed dining room. Kicking off, lamb scrumpet hides well-seasoned, flakingly tender meat beneath its crisp outer layer, and is topped with soft, thin slices of pink cured flesh (lamb ham, if you will). A vibrant-green and silky-smooth parsley mayo has just the right amount of acidity and flavour to complement the meat, while cubes of salty, zingy anchovy slice right through the lot.
Plump cod cheeks come in pairs, each encased in white, airy batter, which is delicately flavoured so as to not overpower the mild flesh inside. I mentally slap my wrist for not having had this cut of cod for as long as I can remember. They come with a quenelle of sweet and sticky red pepper ‘marmalade’ – the veg in question having originated just down the road at Daylesford Farm – and sit on a bed of fennel ribbons. The word ‘hake’ tumbles from our waiter’s mouth before we even finish asking what he reckons is the most standout dish right now; the pearly white flesh arrives smothered in punchy gremolata atop a thick and creamy borlottli bean stew, flecked with herbs.
Ginger cake is very much up there in the culinary comfort stakes for me, but instead of the plastic wrapped loaf my mum used to buy me as a kid from the supermarket, I take delivery a slice of moist, dense cake, spiked with warming, autumnal spices and served with a decadently dark and silky blackberry sorbet. Just as we’re scooping the remnants of these puds into our gobs, someone who looks very much like Vivek Singh strolls past our table. I automatically count the number of wines I’ve had (it’s two, so the process doesn’t take long), but before you can say ‘The Cinnamon Club’ our server is explaining that it is, indeed, Vivek – he’s guest cheffing with Emily that evening. Turns out, these guys plan regular dinner events like this one.
The food here is really nicely pitched – it plays to the tune of both the destination restaurant that you’ll pen in the diary, as well as the relaxed boozer you might drop into spontaneously for a pint with the pooch. Menus are the same for lunch and dinner too, meaning you don’t miss out if you visit during the day, as opposed to later in the evening
The Kingham Plough, Kingham, Oxfordshire OX7 6YD; B&B from £145 per couple, per night; starters from £7 and mains from £16; 01608 658327; thekinghamplough.co.uk
Day 1: Dinner
Luckily, after lunch we needed to roll no great distance to our digs for the evening; The Wild Rabbit is about four minutes by foot from The Kingham Plough. The creation of Carole Bamford (and sister business to Daylesford), this place, on paper, has a similar concept to the venue we’ve just come from: a pub – if a fancy one – with a restaurant-style food offering and accommodation. But don’t think that means you need to choose between the two: they’re rather different beasts.
Throughout its bar, restaurant and guest rooms, The Wild Rabbit is all about rustic chic: exposed stone and raw wooden beams are enhanced by a neutral colour palate of whites and greys. It’s like each little corner of each handsome room has been meticulously styled – styled, though, in a way to suggest there’s been no styling at all. You know the style, right? Shall I stop saying style now? (It’s just too stylish.)
Even so, upon being let into our rooms for the night I bypass cooing over the luxuriously thick curtains or voicing my delight that we have a log burner, kick off my shoes and walk purposefully up the stairs to the first floor, where I assume starfish position and throw myself on the perfectly dressed bed. It’s like getting the top of the milk (in the old days, mind; a carton of semi-skimmed won’t do the same job). Or walking on fresh snow. I must be the one to feel the taught bed sheets crinkle under me and report just how fluffy the pillows are. (Very, obviously.)
Sure, you could call The Wild Rabbit a pub – but it’s unlike any boozer I’ve ever been. The bar is at the front, filled with locals and their four legged chums, and the large dining area is found around the back, beautifully decked out, of course, and with crackling fires a-plenty. It’s buzzing: we hear a pair of apparent residents on the next table hurriedly ask the waiter if they can book for the following evening, having noticed that the restaurant was, in fact, completely full at 8.30pm on a Wednesday.
Alyn Williams (who worked as head chef at Marcus Wareing’s two-Michelin starred kitchen and also has a Michelin-starred restaurant at The Westbury), is chef patron these days, having hopped (honest accident, that one) aboard in May. The Wild Rabbit had a brief fling with a Michelin star back in 2017, so it’s likely the intention with Alyn’s appointment is to win it back.
The tasting menu could be the way to go if you want to try a few of the chef’s favourites, but we go straight-up a la carte. First, wedges of sweet heritage tomato arrive on various points of the traffic light colour spectrum, and lay on top of, as if protecting, a mound of soft white crabmeat and oozing heap of loose, milky burrata. Thai basil leaves, peppered around the plate, fill the mouth and nose with their heady fragrance. The natural wine that the sommelier has chosen to match (he has some really intriguing vinos to choose from) is red in colour but not in style; it’s made by fermenting the grapes whole, with the magic happening to each individual fruit inside its skin, resulting in a juicy wine that’s easy on tannin. Across the table, little chunks of rabbit, subtly charred but still juicy, share their plate – available, like much of the dinnerware, in the Daylesford shop – with delicate mustard mousse, fresh fennel and carrot, and a seeded shard of ‘pie crust’.
It’s very much the ideal season and location for grouse, and the kitchen team here are using pretty much the whole bird in their starring main: the breast cuts, crimson pink throughout, are warmed in a beurre noisette bath to keep them moist and impart a caramelised flavour; the legs are slowly cooked in fat then the meat picked and rolled into a ball with a spinach leaf shell; and the bones are boiled up for sauce. Juicy little hunks of yellow pickled plum bring the exact sweet, tangy relief that the decadent richness has you craving, and thin discs of potato, joined in pairs around the circumference, are fried until they puff into crisp bubbles and then perfectly seasoned.
The beef rib-eye really is insanely good (as far as I could deduce – I only managed to steal a scant mouthful from across the table); the crust deliciously caramelised, and the meat certainly not requiring the sharpness of the impressive steak knife, complete with bone-look handle, that the table is laid with. A small mound of beef tartare with flavours of gherkin sits atop a mini sesame seeded brioche bun, to form a decadent kind of Big Mac from an alternate reality.
A pumpkin pie soufflé is impaled at the table with a knife by our waiter, to allow warm butterscotch sauce to be poured inside. From this core, it spreads out into the airy, savoury soufflé, and I know rather early on I will be thinking about that finale for days. There’s a hearty selection of British cheeses to be had after pud but, despite having eyed them up for most of the night, we relinquish our table on account of being – how shall I put it? – chuffing full.
The Wild Rabbit, Kingham, Oxfordshire OX7 6YA; B&B from £140 per couple, per night; starters from £13 and mains from £22.50; 01608 658389; thewildrabbit.co.uk
Day 2: Lunch
Having voted in favour of a pre-lunch reccy, we pop over to neighbouring town Chipping Norton and take the long route (totally on purpose, I absolutely did not miss a turning) to the culinary Mecca that is Daylesford Organic. We pass little honey cottages with Farrow and Ball-green front doors as we dodge pheasants which run across the rust-coloured leaves lining the roads. On noticing an impressive, stately looking building in the distance we Google it – a former tweed mill, natch. (Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Bristol anymore.)
Daylesford is far from quiet at noon on a term-time Thursday, and I pat down my fluffy hair and straighten my coat as I climb out of the car (which I’ve parked as far away from the glossy 4x4s as I can manage). People mill around the shop – which sells everything from organic fruit and veg to pots and pans, spirulina kefir to recipe books. I buy a wooden spoon; I can’t waste the discount card from The Wild Rabbit, but can’t quite manage a Vitamix this month. There’s a cookery school, spa and clothes shop here too, as well as the The Old Spot restaurant and a café.
Lunch at The Old Spot begins with a Green Garden mocktail (because someone has to drive home): a crisp, tangy muddle of elderflower, cucumber, apple and mint. Opposite is a Daylesford IPA. Mains come with a choice of salad and vegetable sides; we buddy the succulent lemon and thyme chicken with the broccoli, sesame and chilli, and crispy Tuscan potatoes. The meat comes resting on a nutty romesco bed, and the greens look full of goodness. The burger is rather unlike the ones back in Bristol, ever-jostling for the meaty crown. This is a straight-up, classic-style number, with a thick patty of grass-fed beef, subtly blushing pink inside. It’s topped with creamy and pokey Bledington Blue, which is made on the farm, and truffly fried potato slices hit a sweet spot between crisps and chips. Crumble topped apple and blackberry tart signals the end of lunch and, with a pot of silky vanilla-laced custard, is about as comforting and fitting a conclusion to this fine little jaunt as I could have asked for.
Staff here are all perfectly polite and smiley, although thankfully with a bit of a down-to-earth edge – which, just for a second, has me forgetting that I don’t actually belong to the lucky group who shop for their groceries here on the regular.
It’s a good job there’s so much square meterage of shop to walk off that lunch in. (Yes, we bought a few more things we didn’t by any stretch need – but I dare you not to.) If it’s fresh air that does it for you after a good feed, though – as opposed to a retail sesh – get yourself among the 2,000 acres of farmland, gardens and orchards. Stroll through enough of them and you might even work up the appetite you need to go back inside for a snack.
The Old Spot at Daylesford, Gloucestershire GL56 0YG; main courses from £14; 01608 731700; daylesford.com