No, not the ill-advised drinking game, but a gastropub with possibly the most interesting menu and tasty food that LAURA ROWE has tasted in the last 12 months
Photos by Anthony Cullen and Laura Rowe
There aren’t many pubs bold enough to start a meal off with pork dripping whipped with spinach and black pepper. But then, there aren’t many pubs like The Fuzzy Duck in Armscote.
It’s the first hospitality venue to be taken over by ‘affordable luxury’ family-run soap brand Baylis & Harding, which transformed it from their family’s local boarded-up boozer into a boutique B&B and forward- thinking gastropub back in July, when it relaunched.
Certain things were always going to be a given. The loos smell lovely, for example. The décor is a stylish mix between country pub – with antique paintings framing duck egg walls, exposed beams and flagstone floors – and a Toast catalogue, with Hunter boots perched outside (they’re available to borrow) and baskets of blankets ready to snuggle under. It’s also family friendly, without feeling like a crèche – there’s a very reasonable ‘Little Ducklings’ menu, with one course for £6 and two for £8.
But then things start to get interesting. Four-legged friends aren’t just welcomed but positively encouraged. Overnight guests (there are four rooms at The Fuzzy Duck) receive a Doggy Welcome Pack, while there are ‘dog parking’ areas in the garden and homemade dog biscuits and crispy pig ears at the bar.
The human offering isn’t too shabby either – that would be thanks to Cotswold born-and-bred head chef Richard Craven (who has worked under Emily Watkins at The Kingham Plough) and wife Solanche.
The pair owned their own restaurant in 2010, The Chef’s Dozen, before arriving at The Fuzzy Duck, but it seems here that they feel most at home. The bar menu features soft-centred Scotch eggs, hand-raised pork pies and house-roasted spicy peanuts – that’s three reasons right there to move to the village – while there are real ales on tap, premium liquors behind the bar and the wine list is pleasingly short, with a mix of Old and New World.
The menu in the restaurant proper is similarly succinct and all the better for it, with just a list of ingredients rather than the family history and vet bills required to create each dish. It’s familiar – seasonal produce abounds – but surprising at the same time. While we ponder, we’re brought out bread and butter. A whole, warm loaf is sliced and served with a pat of unsalted butter from Netherend Farm in Gloucestershire and that whipped pork dripping dip. It was like pork scratching air – a mouthwatering umami start. Inspired.
Starters continued in the same vein. ‘Rabbit ravioli – baby spinach, tarragon hollandaise’ (£8) was expertly crafted: so tender and so savoury. A rich gravy provided depth, while tiny cubes of apple added surprising freshness. ‘Whole roast quail – bubble and squeak – bacon – fried quail egg’ (£8) was my choice, although I could have been just as tempted by the ‘pig’s head terrine with foie gras and piccalilli’. Even the crockery was spectacular, but it was the food that had me cooing. The quail was as succulent as I’ve ever tasted, the squeak was delightful, while dots of a piquant emulsion, a light jus and elderberries brought it all together.
A main of ‘hay and pine-smoked fallow deer – chestnut purée – beetroot – game pie’ (£19) looked like chef had scooped up the best of the surrounding fields. A venison loin had been sliced lengthways, exposing its ruby heart – the smoke penetrating deep within. Dark, bubblewrap cavolo nero was partnered with roasted beets and a whiff of winter from chestnuts. A cast iron pot came rich and sticky with slow-roasted pulled shoulder and leg of venison and the creamiest mash – think the best cottage pie you’ve ever tasted, then triple it.
The ‘local estate partridge’ (£17) looked as if it had come straight from a shoot, with fresh, popping sweetcorn, elderberries resembling shots and a grassy herb-flecked, garlicky bread sauce. The bird was juicy: utilising lots of different cuts and cooking methods, on the bone, off the bone, in breadcrumbs. We really didn’t need, then, the hand-cut chips (£3.50) which rustled, so crisp were they; or the cauliflower cheese and truffle (£4), which I might have requested in a doggie bag to take home.
Puds were just as clever. ‘Granola – Armscote Manor honey – set buttermilk – bee pollen’ (£7) had the wobble of a panna cotta but the tang of a cheesecake. I ordered the ‘stout and chestnut pudding – cherry sorbet – stout ice cream – pork scratchings’ (£7) – salty, crispy bursts partnered magically with the light sponge pudding, caramel sauce, earthy ice cream and sweetly sour sorbet.
My only criticism was that everything was heavily seasoned – even for my palate, which craves salt – and prices definitely lean toward the higher end of the gastropub scale, but neither could distract from the fact this is one of the best places in the Cotswolds that I have visited in the past 12 months. If this is what is happening in the first six months of trading, I can only imagine how exciting The Duck’s going to get for 2014…
✱ THE FUZZY DUCK, Ilmington Road, Armscote, Stratford-upon- Avon, Warwickshire CV37 8DD; 01608 682635; www.fuzzyduckarmscote.com