SOPHIE RAE returns to the Cotswold town of Winchcombe – but this time there isn’t a tin of baked beans in sight
A few childhood memories instantly spring to mind when I think about Winchcombe. Our family camping trip in the rain usually takes top spot, followed closely by the year we finally upgraded to a caravan, only to be rewarded with the unforgettable ‘Sophie lost the keys’ saga of 1998.
It’s been well over a decade since I last visited the town, so as I drive through the narrow High Street (yes, I’m all grown up and have my own keys to lose now!) I notice that not much seems to have changed since we used to squelch around the surrounding Gloucestershire fields of nearby Sudeley Castle and eat cold baked beans straight from the can.
One landmark that has remained unchanged at the heart of this ancient Anglo-Saxon town is Wesley House. Sitting perfectly snug on the High Street, this 15th-century merchant’s house has been owner Matthew Brown’s pride and joy since he first bought the premises almost 25 years ago. Within a few years the restaurant had built up a clientele of loyal regulars, charmed food critics and intrigued tourists, cementing its name as a local treasure and gaining entry into the Waitrose Good Food Guide for 20 consecutive years. I kid you not: 20. Two AA rosettes soon followed for the restaurant, along with four stars from the AA for the five boutique rooms upstairs and an AA breakfast award. Matthew even has a finger in another local pie, The Royal Oak at Gretton.
Then eight years ago, when the neighbouring premises to Wesley House came up for sale, Matthew and his team took on the challenge of adding a wine bar and grill to the mix. Now the two stand side by side: silver cutlery, folded napkins and candles to the right, and comfy benches, funky bar and chunky chips to the left. Combine the two, and that’s one heck of a wedding venue. (Actually, it’s regularly hired out for such merriments, and there’s a sun-filled atrium out the back with pretty special views.)
Tapas sharing boards, beef burgers and steaks make up the grill menu next door, but it’s the fine dining I’ve come to sample this time. (I told you, I’m all grown up now.)
General manager Matthew Jones is in charge today, and so it’s with his recommendation that we take our seats in the cosy, timber-beamed restaurant and eye up the menu. It’s the goat’s cheese and beetroot soufflé with apple purée and walnuts (£6.50) for me, and cured and seared salmon with wasabi, apple and cucumber (£8) for my fellow food fanatic, S. Cheerful murmurings come from the opposite side of the table, so I’m guessing S is happy with her salmon (“It’s perfectly cooked,” she whispers) and my soufflé, though a little deflated on arrival, offered a billowing cloud of cheesy goodness once sliced open. Indeed, the perfect mouthful comes once I coax morsels of soufflé, earthy beetroot, tart apple and candied walnut onto one forkful. Bliss.
A quick sip of 2012 Louis Pinel Cinsault Rose to tickle our tastebuds in between courses, and mains arrive promising the same pleasing execution.
My Madgett Farm duck breast (£21) showed the full extent of head chef Cedrik Rullier’s skill: crisp but tender, the slivers of meat were perched on an autumn riot of colour made up of a silky smooth pumpkin purée, ruffled kale and al dente carrots. A crisp-coated patty (called ‘almond potato’ on the menu) added a nutty texture, and was the perfect mopper-upper for the sweet honey and apricot glaze. Possibly the finest plate of food pairings I’ve had all year.
My attempts at urging S to order the Cotswold venison with potato fondant, celeriac, kale and chestnut sauce (£26) went unnoticed when a craving for the playing- it-safe veggie option of wild mushroom risotto (£12.50) took hold. She had little to say when asked for her verdict. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” were her only words of wisdom, and, after a forkful of the creamy pearls, I had to agree. When a dish as simple as risotto can be done this well, I hope it’s never taken off the menu.
Lemon meringue tart (£6.50) for S left her in a haze of bewilderment as she tried to work out how the marshmallow-like meringue could remain so gooey inside but still offer the perfect crunchy shell, while accompanying cubes of lime jelly and a melon and mint granita were practically licked off the plate.
Slow-cooked peaches in white wine with white peach sorbet and baby basil (£6) filled my boozy quota for the day, and cleansed my palate beautifully. Matthew tells me it’s been the hit pud of the season. I can see why.
It’s a real treat to have a local as much-loved as Wesley House and, as we leave – blissfully content and ready for a nap – I’m just a little bit jealous that I don’t live closer. I wonder if that caravan is still around?
✱ WESLEY HOUSE, High Street, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire GL54 5LJ; 01242 602366; www.wesleyhouse.co.uk