Helen Peacocke revisits The Old Swan at Minster Lovell where a favourite chef makes the end of summer feel cheerful
The weather forecaster predicted rather chilly, autumnal weather and suggested that perhaps summer was now over. Having just gathered a large container of wild blackberries and filled a bag with ripe crab apples while walking the count-ryside, I didn’t have to be informed that autumn had arrived earlier than usual — I had the evidence of this in my kitchen.
Most people realise the rhythm of the seasons is out of sync this year, which is something that chefs who have planned for their autumn menu to run from September to November are only too aware.
This hasn’t stopped David Mwiti, head chef at The Old Swan, Minster Lovell, from waiting until September before dedicating his menu totally to classic autumn dishes.
The fact that autumnal fruits have flooded into his kitchen several weeks earlier than usual this year, doesn’t really matter as he has been skilfully blending this early autumnal abundance into his summer menu and using some fruits to experiment with new flavours that mix summer with autumn.
David, who comes from Kenya and was taught to cook by his mother on a coffee plantation, rates among my favourite West Oxfordshire chefs.
His cooking is such that I have often found myself suddenly turning off the A40 into the picturesque village of Minster Lovell after an energetic dog walk, just because I fancy treating myself to a well-cooked meal, and ordering Barnaby a home-cooked dog’s dinner.
Yes, David serves up Dog’s Dinners, using the same quality ingredients that he serves his two-legged customers. That means Barnaby gets a free-range chicken breast, chopped and mixed with the very best of Arborio rice and smothered with real beef gravy made from bones. What dog could ask for more?
Last week Barnaby and I were there at the invitation of Lana de Savary, owner of the Old Swan, to witness a groundbreaking moment as the first sods of earth were dug in preparation for installing an Archimedes screw, which will enable this glorious 15th-century inn to be the first hotel in the country to produce its own renewable energy.
The event, which was marked by an elegant drinks reception, took place on the banks of the River Windrush at Minster Mill, but first dog and I were served one of David’s splendid lunches in the Old Swan next door.
Barnaby had the chicken dog’s dinner and I munched my way through baked cod and trice cooked chips. Because the Old Swan is set among acres of restored gardens and wild meadows, through which more than a mile of the River Windrush meanders, much of the food served is harvested right there in the grounds.
As there are trout in the river and the Old Swan keeps its own chickens and has now installed several bee hives in the garden, this hotel could be described as being almost self-sufficient.
The kitchen garden yields an abundance of herbs, vegetables and fruit. There are even some bushy chilli plants, such as the attractive Masquerade which grows stunning long purple fruits that are particularly attractive when they turn from mauve to yellow and then red as they are begin to ripen.
David spoke of the joy he experiences when walking out to the garden to gather a few fresh herbs and produce for the kitchen, rather than unpack them from a paper bag that has just been delivered from a supplier.
Being in touch with his produce informs him of what is ready to harvest and what is maturing – he would have it no other way.
Although David admits that he is particularly fond of creating casseroles, his autumnal signature dish is Oxfordshire farm steak & Hobgoblin ale pie with King Edward mash and seasonal vegetables harvested from the kitchen garden.
Mulled wine-poached William pears from the kitchen garden served with homemade cinnamon shortbread and mascarpone cream is his favourite pudding, though his Egremont Russet apple and blackberry crumble is jolly good too.
As blackberries have ripened particularly early this year this is one of his autumn dishes that has found its way on to the menu far earlier than usual. He said that blueberries arrived earlier than he had expected too and apples are already ripe and juicy.
Surrounded as Minster Lovell is by the English countryside, local game is something that really stamps an autumnal mark on his menu.
Of course, the harvesting of wild game is not dependent on the seasons changing earlier than usual, fixed dates are determined by their breeding cycles. Pheasant and partridge for example can be shot between October 1 to February 1.
Despite the fact he has been cooking autumn produce for several weeks now, David’s autumn menu will officially celebrate the Oxfordshire autumn throughout September.