Katherine MacAlister says we are fortunate indeed to have pubs like The Chequers in tiny Berrick Salome

There’s nothing like someone else’s misfortune to put your own situation into perspective, I realised when spending a week at the seaside.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time: long sea walks, lots of exploring, arcades... but the eating out was the eye-opener. The pubs heaved with greasy lasagne and the Italian restaurant served second-rate pizzas for much the same price as here.

So, while we all like a bit of a grumble from the safety of our Oxfordshire culinary bubble, we don’t know how lucky we are. No it’s not London, and central Oxford could do with a bit of refinement, but take a stroll to pretty much any Oxfordshire village pub and the standards are likely to be surprisingly decent.

This was certainly the case when meeting a friend at The Chequers in Berrick Salome, near Wallingford, which looked like a safe bet on the map, and a halfway house.

We arrived early to find an enormously remote but welcoming pub, gearing up for the day ahead. The fires were blazing, the staff polishing cutlery, the old fashioned interior gleaming, the kitchens in full flow. Sat in the little snug for coffee we waited until noon for the kitchens to open before ordering, but still weren’t expecting anything above the ordinary.

The menus however suggested different. Apart from the astonishingly good value ‘£10 for two course’ lunch which included salt cod croquettes followed by coq au vin, the main menu was equally as enticing. A haggis fritter served with a soft fried duck egg, Scottish mussels in shallots, thyme, bacon and cream, ham hock and black pudding terrine, seared scallops with chorizo salad, for starters alone. We were in for a treat.

And as we were moved into the charming eating area, we began to realise we had struck gold. Nothing fussy or bling, but the kind of food you secretly wish for on a dull autumnal day.

The twice-baked Gruyère soufflé (£6.75) proved my point single-handedly, perfectly cooked, arriving in a tiny pan and served with a thinly sliced green apple and walnut salad which sliced through the light, fluffy richness of the cheese. The warm butternut squash salad came with goats cheese and a sweet chilli dressing for £6.25 and was much more amenable on the plate than it sounded, another tiny black pan, this time of gently stewed veg, framed with a wedge of the baked cheese and a thin slice of toasted baguette. All quite delicious.

Sitting up a bit for our mains, we opted for the pan-fried chicken supreme (£13.95) mainly because of its promise of truffle mash, crispy skin, seasonal mixed greens and roast gravy which arrived neatly laid out on the plate, erring on the side of taste rather than quantity. The sweet chicken was juicy and succulent, the mash everything it promised and more.

The mac ‘n’ cheese, a trendy name I hate for good old fashioned macaroni cheese, came in an oval ramekin with a mix of cheeses in the sauce, a clever touch which meant that one minute you got a gentle mouthful of blue and the next a hit of smoky cheddar. It was topped with a nut crumb which provided a contrasting texture to the silky smooth cheese. Even the pasta was original, canneroni being a short stumpy macaroni, although the dish was so filling we couldn’t finish it.

Now fully converted, despite our afternoon commitments, we ploughed on to dessert, unable and unwilling to spurn the efforts of such a gifted hand in the kitchen. There was again much to choose from, but the treacle tart with ginger ice cream was the only contender for us both, so we shared a portion thankfully, because the sweet, sticky, soft, richness of the pie, combined with the chilled spicy clotted cream was too much to bear for one person alone. Slow solitary mouthfuls were eaten in guilty bliss.

According to our lovely waiter Mathwin, the pub was taken over a year ago by Sandra and Mark Duggan who also run the Three Tuns in Henley, and they seem to be doing a splendid job. As I returned home, I marvelled at these little pubs, beavering away, producing stunning food in the hope that someone takes notice.

And as I raced home, hopelessly late, the spell having been broken as soon as I stepped into my car, I marvelled at these secret little pubs, beavering away in the background, producing such stunning food in the hope that someone takes notice and pops in now and again. The Chequers is another massive asset to Oxfordshire's culinary line-up then, and believe me there's a long queue.


The Chequers Inn, Berrick Salome, Wallingford. OX106JN 
chequersberricksalome.co.uk 01865 891118.

The people: Sandra and Mark Duggan.
Do try: The irritatingly-named mac ‘n’ cheese, which comes with a mix of cheeses in the sauce, and is topped with a nut crumb. Instead of macaroni, they have used a stumpier canneroni.
Also good: The pan-fried chicken supreme is a perfectly proportioned dish of truffle mash, crispy skin, seasonal mixed greens and gravy.
Getting there: Drive or be driven.