Daniel Clifford’s newly annointed Essex eatery is well worth the pilgrimage, as Emma Hagestadt discovers…
Even on one of the hottest days of the year, The Flitch of Bacon, a wattle and daub hostelry near Bishop’s Stortford in Essex, is packed to the rafters with lunch-time diners. A largely middle-aged crowd, they look happily ensconsced for an afternoon of merriment and Chaucerian indulgence. If you’ve studied your Wife of Bath, you’ll know that the Dunmow Flitch was a side of bacon awarded to any couple who could prove they hadn’t “wisht themselves unmarried again” for a year and a day.
Nods to medievality aside, the Flitch has recently been made-over for the 21st-century by its owner Daniel Clifford, the Michelin-starred chef of Midsummer House in Cambridge. A local resident in search of a good place to eat, he bought up the pub and transformed it into a eatery with rooms. Heading up the kitchen is Luke Finnegan, formerly of Arbutus. About to depart on honeymoon, he might be a strong contender for next year’s flitch.
Visitors are welcomed by a cosy bar area, but it soon becomes apparent from a perusal of the menu that the Flitch is no ordinary gastro-pub. This is an upmarket restaurant with prices to match (main courses start at £20). The small dining room reflects the dress code of its guests – smart casual – and incorporates the open kitchen, which operates in full view of the diners. French windows open out onto a pretty courtyard, ushering in the merest suggestion of a breeze.
As we’d hoped, our meal got off to a promisingly porcine start. A generous serving of pork crackling and smooth apple puree was swiftly produced by the efficient young waiting staff. With appetite whetted, my companion decided to segue to more hog, plumping for a starter of pressed terrine of pork, apple and black pudding. In view of the weather, I opted for the more lady-like Cornish crab salad. Both choices proved indecently good. The terrine was firm and generously meaty, offset by artful dots of English mustard, more apple puree and sage. My serving of pale crab, modestly hidden under a canopy of peppery nasturtium leaves and toasted sour-dough, was immediately christened my favourite dish of the summer.
Yet in our greed and excitement, when it came to the main courses, our judgement went hay-wire. Braised ox cheek probably wasn’t the best choice for a hot July afternoon , and although the meat was cooked to perfection, the rich dark sauce was more suited to a chilly evening in November. My friend’s well crisped stone bass proved a more sensible option – though didn’t quite hit the heights of the memorable starters. Both of us suffered a brief pang of menu-envy watching a nearby family group tuck into the Flitch’s much rated rib-eyed steak, triple cooked chips and sauce Béarnaise. It did look good.
Pudding? How was this even going to be possible? Our neighbours, a couple from Cambridge and regular visitors to the restaurant, recommended the tarte tatin for two – a dessert whose molten sweetness could sustain a family of five for a week. Instead semi-sanity prevailed and we opted for an elderflower yoghurt with strawberry salad, strawberry sorbet and elderflower gel. This delicate confection was up there with the crab-salad. As exquisitely fruity and refreshing a summer dessert you could wish for.
Staggering out into the blazing sun, we left the Flitch and its clever and accomplished cooks feeling as content as those proverbial pigs in clover. It had been well worth the pilgrimage from London to rural Essex – just the place for a celebratory meal or weekend treat. The restaurant’s week-day set menus are well worth investigating, and judging from the Twitter feed, overnighters at the Flitch can expect a breakfast nonpareil.
Wine List: Extensive (28 whites and 25 reds) and varied in price from £21 for a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc to a Chateau Montrose St Estephe 1985, £295. As aperitifs we chose a well-chilled Arcobello Prosecco (£7) and a glass of rose (Melope de Gavoty Provence, £5.50)
The Flitch of Bacon, The Street, Little Dunmow, Essex CM6 3HT. Tel: 01371 821660, www.flitchofbacon.co.uk
Lunch for two, including drinks and service £100-120
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