The Big Bang, 42 Oxford Castle Quarter

After eight successful years in Jericho, this most British of restaurants was boarded up last summer and we bade it farewell.  But the Big Bang is back.  Oxford’s Sausage and Mash specialist has reappeared in a prestigious new venue in the Castle Quarter.

Owner Max Mason ran the Big Bang on a rolling contract at its former location on Walton Street. This meant that the threat of being turfed out was ever-present. Consequently Max was unable to invest in his business as he would have liked, although the reasonable rates did allow him to create a much loved brand in a city where leases are often expensive. That brand involved high quality British food at reasonable prices, a friendly atmosphere and a determination to source from local producers and support the local economy.

Max, 37, is a restaurateur with a keen eye for the ethics of the industry. The recent Big Bang launch party was packed with hundreds of happy guests not just because they have missed the bangers, but because Max’s passion for localism has obviously struck a chord with locals over the years.

The Iffley village resident told me more about his philosophy for the new venture:  “I drew a 20 mile line around Oxford and all our food comes from within that radius; it’s not only more ethical, it tastes nicer. We use six local breweries, six Covered Market traders and seven local farmers; we make sure every plate of food has less than one hundred food miles,” he said.

Max is also keen to provide some form of counterbalance for the more globalised side of the food industry: “Usually suppliers have to accept reduced prices for their goods in return for becoming reliant upon one giant customer – be that supermarkets or chain restaurants. But I can help forty small producers stay in business. We hope the people of Oxfordshire will recognise this and eat with us instead of going to faceless chain restaurants,” he said.

The entrepreneur stressed that using quality, local ingredients does not need to incur extra cost on the customer. Due to careful management all dishes on the Big Bang menu are under the £10 mark.

As his sourcing of produce suggests, Max is passionate about his county. “For me, everything is Oxfordshire. Even my 45-year-old MG was built in Abingdon.”

The Big Bang uses John Lindsey Butchers, the Hook Norton Brewery and Vicars Game of Ashampstead to name just a few. The restaurant is also involved in some fascinating projects: They stock a coffee that is hand roasted in Witney – with wood from Blenheim palace. They also support a valuable social project by buying from Springhill Gardens Prison, which encourages inmates to rear pigs in the grounds before sending them off to be used as meat.

The Big Bang is now a more complete Great British food experience, the menu has expanded from what was a sausage and mash restaurant and little else in Jericho. Now there are Sunday Roasts, Full English Breakfasts and classics like Toad in the Hole and Fish and Chips.  There is an exciting range of sausages including Wild Boar and Pigeon, Piri Piri, Stilton and Walnut and the historic Oxford sausage. To satiate a sweet tooth you can polish things off with a Sticky Toffee Pudding or a Crumble.

Max told me he had thought of the restaurant’s concept when it struck him that one often goes out for an Indian or a Chinese, but rarely for a ‘British’. The Big Bang helps us to realise that we can and should produce delicious food with our own national recipes and ingredients. It strikes me that we underestimate our own cuisine, in no small part because we rarely do our dishes justice. This is the result of Sausage and Mash, Shepherd’s Pie and many of our other favourites being consigned to the ready meal and freezer sections.

After a packed opening party which fed hundreds of guests with 8,000 cocktail sausages, the Big Bang is open for business. Open seven days a week, it is located at Number 42 in the Castle Quarter.

This article appeared in the Oxford Times magazine ‘Limited Edition’ in October, 2012.

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Dexter Beef at Pegtop Farm, OX3 9RT.

The year 2012 marks the Henman family’s 150th anniversary of farming in Oxfordshire. Crops such as wheat and beans have been harvested by past generations in the Islip area since 1862. The Henmans now oversee their farm from the village of Woodeaton, the main priority being the cultivation of their 1200 acres of arable land. However, the latest scion in the lineage has decided to take the family business down a different path. Anthony Henman, 35, has in recent years set himself a new challenge, taking on a special breed of cattle to rear in his fields. In 2008 Anthony acquired 11 Dexter cows, renowned for their excellent meat, with the ambition of selling superior beef from the farm gate to the local community.

Anthony’s project is particularly intriguing given the nature of the breed in question. Dexters are of Irish origin and are the smallest native breed in the UK. Traditionally a smallholder’s cow, the animals are of such modest frame that they are often not considered commercially viable by farmers. While steak lovers swear by the succulence and flavour of a Dexter, the low volume of meat produced means it is not the obvious choice for economic gain. I therefore found the Pegtop project an endearing one, a challenge to the common conception and a commitment to an exceptional end product at the potential sacrifice of profitability.

What started as an expensive hobby has now grown to a much larger scale. The 35-year-old now owns 110 cows, with his stock likely to rise to 150 after the spring-summer calving season. His reasons for starting this venture were simple. Anthony told me that he loves to eat out but more often than not is disappointed by the mediocre beef on offer in restaurants. He therefore set out to create the best possible conditions to produce high quality meat. Anthony said that he was originally drawn to the flavour, physical definition and fat marbling of the petite Dexter, and that the results have been excellent. “Now I never eat beef when I go out for dinner because I can’t get it as good as I make it,” he said.

At Pegtop Farm a dedication to exceptional beef and animal welfare leads to a strict adherence to a number of principles before slaughter. They are all totally grass fed and ‘extensively reared’ and Anthony believes this makes a big difference to the flavour of the meat. “You can tell the difference between intensively reared and grass fed. [Grass fed] has a fantastic flavour, cooks beautifully and doesn’t dry out. From birth until slaughter you’re looking at 24 to 30 months with my cows, whereas an intensively farmed one is usually between 15 and 24 months,” he added.

The actual slaughter is also a point of great significance to the Woodeaton farmer. “We use a local abattoir, Long Compton, who butcher and pack the meat for us. It’s a very peaceful abattoir. Animals aren’t stupid and they can sense stress, but when they arrive at Long Compton they’re in a peaceful environment with no fear, and that has a knock on effect on the meat,” he said. Anthony hangs his beef for a minimum of 21 days, another fundamental in the creation of flavour and tenderness.

After I had enjoyed a peaceful stroll with Anthony and his amiable cows, it would not have been right to leave without picking up some Dexter beef to sample for myself. From his small shop I took home a few sirloin steaks, a packet of minced meat and a silverside joint. While each had their merits, the mince was particularly special. I treated it very simply, making an uncomplicated burger mix with a few shallots and a handful of herbs. I chargrilled the burger to medium-rare, devouring the beef in a brown bap with cheddar cheese, crispy bacon and a little lettuce. There was a good fat content in the meat but the burgers managed to retain a superb plumpness in the pan, instead of shrinking down and producing a spitting pool of rendered oil – a great sign. The finished burger was one of the best I have every eaten; succulent in the extreme with a deep, mineral flavour.

Anthony said that he manages to shift everything he produces, but as his herd grows, he will need to sell more meat. He faces the same predicament as many other local food producers – the struggle to persuade locals to sacrifice the practicality of supermarket shopping. “It’s so easy for people to do all their shopping in one place; obviously we are less convenient. People live hectic lives so it’s not easy, but once you’ve tried our beef, you’ll come back,” he said.

After two years the project is just now starting to yield some profit. Anthony told me that there were no guarantees when he started. “I took a massive risk starting from fresh. I didn’t know if rearing Dexters could be profitable and how it would pan out, but you have to be passionate to succeed,” he said. And passion is certainly not something that he seems to be lacking: “Nothing motivates me more than a challenge like this. Another farmer who intensively rears his cows once questioned my methods and said to me – ‘beef is just beef’.” With that, Anthony turned to me with an earnest expression and finished, “Not to me it isn’t.”

This article appeared in the Oxford Times magazine, ‘Limited Edition’, in July 2012.

Pizza Artisan Oxford, St Giles.

A traveller returning from abroad will often recall the street food from their holiday with great enthusiasm. Authentic cuisine cooked up with crude instruments in the open air can be very special. Weary businessmen perch on stools outside portable noodle stalls in Japan, sticks of Satay sizzle on open air grills on roadsides in Thailand, while in Europe the French flip Crêpes on street corners and Germans cook up hearty Wurst with sweet mustard.

Let’s blame the weather for the lack of traditional street food culture in Britain. Our moderate temperatures and plentiful rainfall are, for most of the year, certainly not conducive to ‘al fresco’ eating. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I need at least a couple of pints before I can contemplate tackling most of the things cooked up in the food vans on our streets. Rubbery Doner kebabs with meat content of unknown origin, gristly burgers, and grease-saturated breaded chicken sitting in heated glass boxes – it’s not great is it?

I was therefore pleased to find out about Pizza Artisan, a pizza van complete with an internal wood-fired oven that parks up on St. Aldate’s most evenings. Paul Tong, 44, stopped driving taxis and started dishing out roasting hot discs of artisanal deliciousness from his custom-made van in 2010.

We all love this emblematic Italian dish, but pizza from a wood-fired oven is especially good – great pizza needs extremely high temperatures. Paul feeds his blistering furnace until it reaches 320ºC, when it will be hot enough to properly caramelise the cheese and crisp the base. The Pizza Artisan owner and his team make fresh sourdough pizza dough each morning, also preparing a homemade tomato sauce and a selection of tasty toppings. The range of pizzas on offer is not extensive, but each involves a very attractive combination of ingredients. The finished pizzas are garnished with whatever the customer could desire – rocket, parmesan, fennel seed, basil, chilli, oregano or balsamic vinegar. I took home a ‘Madonna’, involving caramelised onions and chilli, perfect with an ice cold Nastro Azzuro lager. The pizza was full-flavoured and extremely satisfying. The dough had an indulgent sponginess to it, while managing to retain a crispy exterior.

Paul was inspired when he noticed a wood-fired pizza van in France. “I saw someone doing a similar thing in France in the 1990s, but he wasn’t doing it well. I thought that not only could I do it better, but that this is the kind of thing that would do really well in Oxford. I then learnt to make real homemade pizza from a lad from Naples,” he said.

Pizza Artisan is open every night apart from Monday until midnight, although Paul was keen to mention that they stay open later if the customers keep coming. You can ring ahead to place your order and even eat your pizza in G&D’s, just over the road. You pay a small charge for a sticker that allows you to scoff your food while it is still hot in Oxford’s own ice cream café, while getting 50 pence off an ice cream if you want to finish your meal with something sweet.

Paul and his van are a very welcome addition to Oxford’s limited street food scene. Let’s hope that others follow suit and allow us some respite from the chips and cheese merchants. Pizza Artisan shows that speedy, convenient street food can be of high quality, crafted with skill and passion.

This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian in June, 2012.

North Aston Organics, OX25 6HX.

It is springtime in North Aston, a little village about eight miles to the south of Banbury. Fierce rain showers pelt down from changeable skies, while florescent yellow rapeseed glimmers in the fields around Mark and Ginny Stay’s vegetable farm, North Aston Organics. Mr. Stay, 49, took me on a tour and explained in great depth the methods and principles involved in their organic business.

Mark, from Sevenoaks, developed a rich horticultural knowledge in Kent before starting up his dream smallholding in 1998 with wife Ginny and third partner Jeremy Taylor. The farm covers about 12 acres, consisting of three sites: a market garden, a field scale area, and a large polytunnel just down the road from the main farm. North Aston Organics grows a wide range of seasonal produce, all the British staples such as potatoes, cabbage and lettuce, but with plenty of surprises too. I saw spring shoots of the humble carrot, but also areas for aubergines and peppers, the germinated seeds of eight varieties of tomato bursting upwards through the soil, and even the robust stalks of an exotic lemongrass plant.

Mark was keen to explain that they try to stretch the seasons as little as possible. No unnatural heating is used so that things grow when they are supposed to grow; he spoke passionately of “the magic of the first taste of the first ‘fruits’ of the season.”

I was told that at the North Aston farm they are not concerned with just being organic for organics’ sake, but with fully embracing the concept for better tasting vegetables, sustainability and the maintenance of natural ecosystems. Certified organic by the Soil Association, Mark wants to convince people of the importance of organic food production. “The perceptions are that organics is an expensive fad. Supermarkets have turned organic food into a niche product. But the price gap is getting smaller and we are trying to get the message across that there are great benefits to organic food. Conventional farming yields to the supermarkets’ demands for long lasting vegetables, while taste is way down the list. Meanwhile, wildlife suffers and water companies have to remove pesticides from the water we drink,” he said.

Mark and Ginny sacrifice one sixth of growing space for cultivating their own green manure. In addition, a range of environmental methods is used for pest prevention. Verges grow tall with nettles, attracting ladybirds which in turn will feed on crop-damaging aphids.  Mark told me that he tries to stay close to the forefront of organic developments and is always striving to find new methods of self-sustainability. He is experimenting in his polytunnel with a ‘No Dig System’, relying on worms to drag fertile green compost down and produce water efficient, rich organic matter.

Most of the farm’s trade comes from a home delivery food box scheme. While they believe that the heyday of the food box has come and gone, the couple have been able to diversify and now supply produce for pubs and restaurants. They are also ever-present at the Deddington farmers’ market, and this year they have decided to sell their fresh vegetables outside official market dates. “The market is only on one Saturday per month and it’s hard for our customers to do their weekly shop from this, so we have started setting up in the market square every Saturday. We are trying to meet customers half way and make it a little more convenient for them,” Mark said.

A small, unmanned hut of a shop sits by the entrance to the farm. Bags of newly harvested vegetables nestle inside, and one simply puts the appropriate cash in the tin provided. In many ways this store is representative of what the place stands for – small, local and fresh. On the farm Mark and Ginny aim to sell their produce on the same day as it has been harvested. I took a bag of vibrantly coloured mixed leaves home and can vouch for their quality. The leaves included mustard greens and red chard, powerful flavours that reminded me how much more there should be to our everyday salads than the drab supermarket iceberg.

Mark told me that the vision for the future simply holds a devotion to the same set of principles, with North Aston Organics remaining a proud part of the local economy: “While we want to grow food more efficiently and convince more people to eat fresh, tasty vegetables, we don’t want to expand into the biggest organic farm in Oxford. We want to continue to provide for our local area and grow vegetables in the best way possible. Always wanting everything bigger and better seems just to lead to mass unemployment; we believe small is beautiful.”

This article appeared in the Oxford Times magazine, ‘Limited Edition’ in June, 2012.

XT Brewing, Thame, HP18 9ER

Oxfordshire now hosts a number of independent breweries but few can claim to be applying as much forward thinking to the real ale market as The XT Brewing Company, one of the county’s newest additions. Gareth Xifaras and Russell Taylor both ditched careers in IT and finance in favour of starting their own microbrewery on the eastern border of Oxfordshire near Long Crendon. The lease on their unit at Notley Farm, deep in the picturesque Chilterns, started in July of last year and the first brew was finished by mid November. XT already have 100 pubs serving their beers on rotation, while Russell and Gareth hope to have bottles in Oxfordshire off-licenses in the near future.

The microbrewery is confident that a dedication to quality will aid its development. All equipment was custom-made in a workshop in Burton as specified by the two entrepreneurs, who both accrued a number of years of brewing experience before starting this enterprise. They also resolved not to cut corners when obtaining raw ingredients, the finest of which are sourced from all over Europe.

The XT team have already notched up some notable plaudits for their ales – ‘Number Four’ won the ‘Best in Festival’ award at the Aylesbury Beer Festival late last year. Gareth believes that they are not alone in committing to excellence, and consequently the British beer industry is becoming progressively healthier, making it a great market to be setting up in. “There are more smaller players now and more competition, which means higher quality products. People are interested in quality nowadays, the big breweries charge more and their ingredients cost less, so people are losing interest in them,” he said.

I sampled a number of XT’s beers, poured straight from the cask. The moreish ‘Number Two’ is fruity and aromatic, with a bouquet of melons and peaches which hints at long English summer days. ‘Number Three’ is a more adult brew with a strong hoppy finish. But the highlight for me was the award-winning ‘Number Four’; it has a comfortingly deep and familiar ale flavour but also displays elements of something more aromatic and Bavarian, a hint of intense maltiness which gives the beer a lift.

The pair are approaching the business from a unique angle. Firstly, while many of the more established breweries emphasise variation in the use of hops, at XT, having taken inspiration from brewing techniques in America and continental Europe, they are developing beers with the focus on malted barley. A recent one-off concoction named ‘Number Nine’ was brewed with nine different specialist malts, while the flagship pint, ‘Number Four’ also displays experimentation in the use of barley, its distinctive tang being down to a specialist European malt called Melanoidin.

This creativity is due to a broad minded and outward looking approach to brewing and this points to XT’s other main focus – bringing real ale into the 21st century and escaping what the brewery’s owners see as the suffocating grip of British beer’s past. Gareth and Russell are striving for modernity and progression in a market which they believe is synonymous with syrupy nostalgia. This is evident throughout all of XT’s branding. There are currently nine beers brewed on rotation, each is simply named by a number, with the palest being ‘Number One’ and the darkest ‘Number Nine’. The logo is bold and clean – a British flag manipulated to spell ‘XT’.

Gareth explained their philosophy, “We are trying to take away some of the complexity and elitism that surrounds real ale. We wanted to do something a bit modern, get away from the steam engines and goblins. Sometimes you have no idea what a beer is, the imagery is so old fashioned. What can put off people is that they have no idea what they will get so they might go for a safe choice with a continental lager” he said. XT are even hesitant to use traditional terminology in reference to the different kinds of beer. “We don’t like to use words like stout or mild, it’s a beer so we call it a beer” added Russell. XT are aiming to create beers which clearly display their characteristics to the customer, stripping back all excess imagery and concentrating on colour, flavour and strength.

At a time when British drinking establishments find themselves in an evolutionary period, attempting to find a solution to the conundrum that is pub survival in a tough modern era, XT’s direction appears both shrewd and refreshing. Their eagerness to break ties with Britain’s time-honoured brewing traditions is surprising at first, but XT are pulling the pint out of the past and into a present where real ales are both more accessible and exciting.

This article appeared in the Oxford Times magazine, ‘Limited Edition’ in May, 2012.

The People’s Supermarket, Oxford.

The four largest supermarkets now own an 80 percent stake in the British grocery industry. We should not underestimate how wide-ranging the damage of this is, how deep a wound this is tearing into our food culture. The industrialisation of the food industry, in no small part down to the demands of the all-powerful supermarkets, is draining the environment, destroying agricultural diversity, erasing past artisanal traditions and drastically lowering the quality of humanity’s lifeblood – our food.

Carlo Petrini, the founder of the great and indispensable Slow Food movement, spoke at the Oxford Literary festival this March at Christ Church College. I was stunned by some of the information he presented in his talk to emphasise the need to deindustrialise food. His voice quivering with passion Petrini told us that since the start of the twentieth century the planet has lost 75 percent of its agricultural diversity, while just thirty plants now feed 95 percent of the world’s population. Petrini was also adamant that in the future our wars will not be over oil, but water, as the mammoth inefficiency of its use for agricultural mass production is bleeding the world dry.

Surely if interest in what we feed our bodies with is on the up, self-proclaimed ‘foodies’ are everywhere nowadays, we also have an increased responsibility towards the sourcing of our ingredients and opposing the harmful processes happening on a broader scale to satisfy our craving for convenience.

Not two days after hearing Carlo Petrini’s inspiring words I stumbled across an internet link for The People’s Supermarket in Oxford, finding what seemed to me to be a project that Mr. Petrini himself would have been proud of. The principle is a not-for-profit food co-op, a supermarket run by its members, for its members, sourcing its produce locally and selling it on at affordable prices. The organisation is currently undergoing the process of securing a lease in East Oxford and is holding a series of meetings to invite potential members to understand the aims and purposes of the project. The People’s Supermarket is now fully established in London and Oxford is to be the first of its kind outside of the capital

I spoke to Chris Waites, the man in charge of the Oxford Venture. “Lots of aims come together in ‘TPS’. Most important is to bring good quality affordable ingredients to local people. Our other main aim is minimising food waste – so much gets thrown away in supermarkets it’s almost criminal”, he said. “In supermarkets quality is irrelevant, the shape and size of a vegetable for example, must be standardised and perfect otherwise it goes in the bin. If it’s a bit small or curvy it gets chucked, regardless of taste” he continued.

Mr. Waites, 24, who graduated from Oxford University in 2008, wants to cut out the middle man and take produce straight from the tree and onto the shelves, proving that good food should be inexpensive. “The big supermarkets can basically do what they want. They manipulate their prices as a monopoly to screw over their customers and there is nothing anyone can do. So we are trying to take grocery shopping back. We are conditioned to think that the big supermarkets are cheap when they really aren’t” he said.

The People’s Supermarket will charge 20 to 30 percent less on general dry groceries and up to 70 percent less on fruit and vegetables. The organisation demands that its members work four days every four weeks thus only requiring a paid workforce of around one percent. Any profit will be reinvested back into the community, the local suppliers or the supermarket itself. Chris used one of the London branches as an example: “The surplus can be reinvested into anything dependent on the members, the members decide everything. At the Hackney ‘TPS’ they have set up a crèche with reinvestment. We want to be a focal point in the community, almost a big family, bringing people together for a good cause. This is what has already happened in London.”

A good cause indeed, and one with great potential to help spread a mindset that could halt the ever expanding and seemingly unstoppable corporate supermarket snowball. Chris told me that the response in Oxford has been very positive and that they already have a committee and a number of potential members in place. He hopes that the Oxford branch could be the start of something much bigger. “Oxford could be a trailblazer, it could see the scheme go national and not just stay a nice idea. I would love to see lots of communities across the country doing a similar thing and adopting the ‘TPS’ model”, he said.

Projects such as this really are a breath of fresh air. We must look beyond our personal concerns and embrace organisations like The People’s Supermarket as a way of wider preservation. Not just a preservation of our individual health and enjoyment of food, but of our artisanal and traditional producers, of our perishing environment and ecological diversity too.

This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian in April 2012.

The Blue Boar, Witney, OX28 6BH

The Great British pub, that most celebrated of institutions, has clearly not been faring too well in recent times. Tax rises, a decline in traditional community, competition from supermarkets and suffocating beer prices from the corporate breweries all play a part in boarding up the two pubs that now close in Britain every day. Such statistics are hard to digest, but it is not all doom and gloom as we also see a number of old boozers reinvented and brought into the contemporary market as something more palatable. While you may reminisce dreamily on the times when a pub was a ‘real pub’, with jukeboxes, dart boards and at least one token violent drunk propping up the bar, a conversion to something more modern  and more gastronomic may well be essential if the pub is to avoid extinction.

We have seen successful makeovers in a number of locations around the county, and it is great to see dilapidated public houses and coaching inns developing a good trade having taken a different direction. Oakman Inns have been doing some good work around the south of England in creating restaurant standard food in historic locations. They now have six sites and one of them, The Blue Boar, opened in December in Witney.

The Blue Boar is situated in the historic centre of an historic town. Witney has been on records since the 10th century, and is notable for its industrial past in blanket production. The final production site was closed in 2002, but before this blanket mills had been churning out quality textiles since the 13th century in Witney. The building that houses the Blue Boar also enjoys a proud heritage. The site had operated under the name The Marlborough Hotel since 1819, but some 30 years before this the original title of the Witney establishment had in fact been The Blue Boar Inn. Oakman Inns are harking back to its distant past in its recent renaming; a fact that implies that new owner is committed to treasuring its long history.

Unfortunately, as soon as I walked into the dining room, it became clear that the renovation had been undertaken without tastefully tipping its hat to the past whatsoever. Modernisation was clearly essential, but the interior looks more like a spread from a budget modern interior design catalogue. Overly gleaming imitation wood covers the walls while unsightly semi-circular green sofa booths border the room. £3 million has been invested in the renovation of this historic site, yet we could have been in a much humbler building without being any the wiser.

While I don’t start on the most positive of notes, the restaurant was definitely busy on the lunchtime when I decided visit. I suppose on the surface there may be something chic about this new eatery, the nature of my role demands that I look around a little more closely than most otherwise would and besides, we all have different tastes.

Luckily, the food and the service were both very agreeable. The floor staff were all smiles and the place exuded a warm informality. I must say that I do take issue with any menu that covers the food of more than five countries. Add the specials options to the à la carte and you are taken on a whacky world tour through a rather large menu. There needs to be some refinement here, but as each plate came out, my experience continued to improve. The Chef knows what he is doing and my starter of chicken livers with pine nuts and a balsamic reduction was swiftly gobbled up, while my lunch companion enjoyed a bowl of fragrant mussels. We continued with a hearty dish of slow cooked lamb shoulder and a delicious crab, fennel, tomato and chill tagliatelle. The lamb shank was perfectly cooked – collapsing chunks of succulent goodness, but perhaps lacked a slight oomph, unlike my partner’s pasta which was one of the best I have tried on this island. Al dente egg noodles dressed with sweet crab, a hint of anise from the fennel, and enough garlic to make an Italian housewife blush came together to create a fantastic pasta plate. Our desserts were good too; a super sweet treacle tart and a creamy lemon crème brûlée both rounded things off nicely.

So while I entered the Blue Boar with one acutely raised eyebrow, I left smiling. A large glass of Malbec had even helped those green booths appear less offensive.

This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian on March 22, 2012.