2:53pm Wednesday 29th February 2012
By Christopher Gray
I write this on a date that occurs only once every four years. This is appropriate since it is likely to be at least another four years before I am able to sound off as enthusiastically again about a meal enjoyed in the service of The Oxford Times. The venue was the Fallowfields Hotel in Southmoor, an idyllic 17th-century property set amid 12 acres of gardens. It belonged once to the Begum Aga Khan. I doubt if even she ate so well as customers do today. Probably not; she did not have chef Shaun Dickens to cook for her.
Anthony and Peta Lloyd, the hotel’s proud owners for nearly 20 years, have what they call a “fetish for freshness”. Early on, they established an orchard growing apples, plums, greengages and the like, in classic British varieties. From their kitchen garden come asparagus, salad leaves, carrots, strawberries, rhubarb and herbs in bewildering variety. Down on their farm are Dexter cows, Tamworth pigs (including a quintet known as the Jackson Five), Sussex chickens, ducks and quail. No mere menagerie, these are destined for pot, grill and oven — while they’re young and tasty.
Shaun’s delicious food, served in the grand manner in the sumptuous restaurant, can be enjoyed for as little as £23 for three courses (£18 for two) at lunch time. This might be Jerusalem artichoke velouté or pheasant terrine, say, followed by roast cod with white bean cassoulet or locally shot partridge, with a choice between white chocolate rice pudding or Ameretto crème brûlée to finish.
There is an extensive carte, too, which at night offers many dishes that also feature on the bee’s knees Tasting Menu. This is priced at £65 — not bad for seven courses of impeccable food. Greedily, we plumped for this with no thought — since we had wisely travelled from Oxford on the 66 bus that stops at Fallowfields’ gates — of forgoing the matching wines available for £35 a head.
Greeted by Anthony at the entrance, as we were saying hello to a venerable cat, we were at once wafted into the lounge and offered glasses of champagne (yes please!). With these came a plate of tasty nibbles — little fish cakes, blue cheese doughnuts, cracked wheat biscuits with ham terrine.
Soon we were called for dinner to a candlelit table on which was promptly placed the Chef’s Appetiser, a crouton bearing slices of red pepper, black olives and parmesan panacotta.
Passion fruit cured seabass was next. That’s it pictured over on the right; note Shaun’s delight in the look of the thing, with the coriander, chilli and a cellophane-like film of orange (wine: Valdivieso, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, 2011).
Terrine of foie gras with roasted pineapple chutney, pineapple jelly and a toasted brioche (wine: lightly sparkling Moscato D’Asti) was followed by a sizeable chunk of pan-roasted halibut imaginatively teamed with confit chicken wings, sauerkraut and a braised shallot (wine: Journey’s End Stellenbosch chardonnay, 2011).
Next an encounter with those Tamworths in various forms (see picture) including roast belly, confit shoulder and black pudding, with banana chutney and confit potato (wine: Navaherreros Garnacha, 2008).
The cheese course, for an additional £7.95, brought Wigmore brie, Montgomery cheddar, Windrush Valley goat’s and Bassett Blue stilton (wine: Argentinian Malbec Trivento, Golden Reserve, 2008). A fried-egg-like frozen lemon possett placed within a large sugar hoop was the Chef’s Pre-Dessert offering. It left room, just, for the closing glory of chocolate and espresso mousse with praline, chocolate sponge (wine: Chateau Loupiac, Bordeaux).
Throughout the meal were displayed cooking skills of the highest order, with smiling, seamless service to match. This was a huge treat. Back to lentils tomorrow!
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