You have to love the English and their pubs. It is said that there is a pub on every street corner in British cities and in some parts this statistic is not far wide of the mark! But of course, notwithstanding how many pubs there are, landlords still look to a fairly limited pool of traditional names for their pubs. This means that the most popular names get used over and over again, much to the confusion of recent arrivals (as I once was!). For example, a 2007 survey by the British Beer and Pub Association revealed that Britain rejoices in no fewer than 759 Red Lions; 626 Royal Oaks, 427 White Harts; 326 Rose and Crowns; 310 Kings Heads; 284 Kings Arms; 278 Queens Heads; and 261 The Crown pubs. Which can make things a tad confusing when you want to meet a friend “at the Red Lion”, leading to a 30 minute discussion of which one, and what the best route might be to get there.
If I told you, for example, to meet me for dinner at the White Swan Pub & Dining Room for dinner, you might end up at any of the various (unconnected) White Swans in Blackheath Road, Bayswater Road, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Farringdon Street, Upper Street, Commercial Road, Alie Street, Golders Green Road or Wapping Lane. And that’s not counting the various plain old Swan pubs; variations like the Swan at the Globe; or random Swan Hotels and Inns around the country. All in all, it’s probably a good thing that Andrew and I met at Farringdon station rather than at the pub! The occasion was a wine-matching dinner where exclusively English wines from Chapel Down in Kent would be paired with English asparagus in celebration of asparagus season. Asparagus is one of those notoriously difficult things to pair with wine and we were looking forward to seeing what The Swan came up with. The dining room is an inviting and airy room above the pub, with large windows and a mirrored ceiling that makes it feel doubly spacious – have a look at the end of the post for some pics I took of our fellow diners reflected in the ceiling!
We started with charred Norfolk asparagus, a truffled ricotta tortellini and watercress, paired with Chapel Down Vintage Reserve Brut NV The wine is a blend of varieties and has a very fine mousse. It had a shy nose, something like caramelised apples, and a lovely apply fruitiness on the palate. It was probably my best match of the evening and brought out something earthy and mysterious in the truffled ricotta; and I loved the garnish of shaved asparagus.
Next came the roast fillet of plaice with sprue asparagus, samphire and a lemon vinaigrette. Sprue asparagus, in case like me you didn’t know, are the first pickings of the asparagus field, done to thin the plants out. They are finer and more delicate than fully-grown asparagus – quite delightful with the fish. This was paired with the 2009 Chapel Down English Rose, a blend of Pinot Noir and Rondo. It has a very French, slightly “cheesy” nose, a great deep colour, but did not overwhelm the delicate fish dish – think of it as England’s answer to Pinot Noir.
The meat course consisted of a juicy and perfectly pink rump of Herdwick lamb with Jersey Royal potatoes and minted Lincolnshire asparagus. This was matched with 2009 Chapel Down Trinity, a blend of Rondo, Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Precoce. I have often said that England really is not red wine country and the Trinity has the green stemminess and high acidity that one would expect of a cold-climate red – but it makes up for this with a lovely chocolatey nose. It also has enough body to make it a good food wine, but there certainly isn’t much in the way of lingering fruit flavours.
The cheese course consisted of Tymsboro with white asparagus, rhubarb chutney and buckwheat biscuits. Tymsboro is a fabulous ash-coated unpasteurised goat cheese made in Somerset by Phillis Teale and was dreamy with the rhubarb chitney. The wine provided another spectacular match in the form of the 2009 Chapel Down Bacchus Reserve. This had the most fantastic nose – all passion fruit and elderflower, like a wak through a sun-warmed garden, and these flavours were carried through on the full-bodied palate. If you like gooseberry-flavoured Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll love this, and it was a match made in heaven with the cheese.
For dessert, we had poached English strawberries, Muscat and strawberry jelly, and honey & thyme ice-cream. I loved everything on this plate. The strawberries were oh-so-lightly poached and retained their texture and colour, and the little disc of Muscat and strawberry jelly under the one berry was just marvellous – the perfect blend of alcohol and fruit. But it was the honey and thyme ice cream that had us swooning. It struck precisely the right balance between the musky sweetness of honey and the herby notes of thyme – it was sublime and I would have bought a tub on the way out if they were on sale! All of this was matched with the Chapel Down Brut Rosé NV which had a lovely honeyed nose but some clean acidity in the mouth. I do not think that the wine did much to enhance the dessert flavours though and would have preferred to sip it afterwards as a palate cleanser – but oh, how lovely the dessert was.
In summary, we had a lovely evening in attractive surroundings, while discovering some surprisingly delicious English wines. The portions were not minuscule tasting portions but proper full-sized courses and the wine was poured in proper full glasses, not meagre tasting sips. I thought it represented excellent value for money at just £46 per head for four courses, wine and coffee, and I was interested to hear that these food and wine matching dinners are a regular event at the White Swan. The next one on 29 July matches British seasonal food with French wines and sounds fantastic. Their a la carte menu also looks terribly tempting (starters £6-8; mains £14-£20 and deserts all £5.50) and as it’s close to where I work I suspect I’ll be back sooner rather than later!
The White Swan Pub & Dining Room
108 Fetter Lane
Tel. 020 7242 9696