A retro tour round Bedfordshire

by Simone SekersfoodtravSimone2

ALL our friends have just had, or are about to have, holidays which take them, laboriously, to foreign parts. Jordan for one lot, a tour down the Duoro for another. To their surprise, we have just returned from a five-day trip to Bedfordshire (“Bedfordshire?”’ was asked in the tones of Algy’s aunt Lady Bracknell asking about the handbag).

We went to see the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden – a trip to the heartland of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious and their friends and families we had long promised ourselves. We went to visit Letchworth Garden City, one of the earliest ‘new’ towns where the Spirella factory (which made those corsets whose flattened spirals rather than whalebone stays allowed the New Look to flourish) holds the sort of pride of place occupied by the cathedral in older towns. We went to Bedford itself where the new additions to the Higgins Museum include a wondrous café run by Italians who produced the best caeser salad we’ve ever eaten – after we’d seen another collection of Bawden. We toured Woburn, banjaxed by the glitz and glory, including a whole room of Canalettos bought from the painter himself, rather as we had bought postcards at the Higgins Museum.

foodtravSimoneThe countryside looked glorious in the late autumn sunshine, which shone on the beautiful tiled roofs of places like Thaxted and Saffron Walden, and softened the outlines of stately homes. We stayed a night at the pub in Clavering owned by Jamie Oliver’s parents, and still run by them – we saw his dad behind the bar. We arrived around 5pm on a Sunday afternoon and the Sunday lunchers were still there, grannies and toddlers and every age in between, just as we were used to finding in Italian restaurants. Supper was good, breakfast too (it included Lowestoft kippers).

It has obviously grown enormously since it was a simple village pub, but the locals were still there, and in our room (quiet and clean and with all the right things for comfort) was a little book of local history and walks, with a foreword by Jamie himself. Only the odd plane overhead reminded you that this is ideally placed for Luton and Stansted airports, and that you are in the M11 corridor which on the map looks like a densely built up area that runs from the M25 straight to Cambridge. In fact it’s an area ripe for a good holiday.

We headed west, enjoying a surprise lunch at the Tally Ho in Barkway, before taking in Letchworth. We had booked dinner (not easy on a Monday night) at a pleasant sounding pub in Ivinghoe which Harden’s food guide had listed as being in Leighton Buzzard. It isn’t. We got lost, partly because the Kings Head hides its lights under swags of ivy and Virginia creeper. What we hadn’t realised was that this wasn’t a pub at all but a shrine devoted to the continuation of the Aylesbury Duckling. Georges, the charming grey haired maitre d’, whose good books we’d managed to get into as we chose Punt e Mes as our aperitifs, said that was what we must have, and so overawed were we by his persuasion that we ordered a whole duckling between us. There was no other way. He advised us that he had Arbroath Smokies too, so we began with those, not as a simple dish but one shrouded in cream and creamed spinach and rich cheese. Good, and a meal in itself.

Then came something I haven’t experienced in a good ten years, the intercourse sorbet, this time made with apples ‘from the tree outside’, as our charming waiter explained. He was under the aegis of Georges, who flapped exasperatedly at him when he didn’t remove our aperitif glasses, or take the bread plates away in time for the main course. All this was leading up to the appearance of the Duck, glistening and the size of a small goose, on a trolley. Georges carved it expertly and with appropriate flourishes gave us each our laden plates – the leg, and the breast with the accompanying golden, crisp salty skin – enough for four people, not two, especially two who had just eaten a gratin dish of creamy fish. The accompaniments – apple sauce of course (too sweet for my taste), sage and onion stuffing, the gravy, the light and fragrant red cabbage, roast parsnips, creamed celeriac all came too. We struggled gamely – I saw that our fellow diners, who were used to this place, all got doggy bags, but what could we do with ours? We were staying at an Air B&B of great elegance where I couldn’t imagine picking at cold duck amongst the pristine white sheets of our enormous bed.

foodtravSimone3Georges had urged us to choose the dessert of the evening, a tarte tatin flamed with calvados. It was a fine tarte tatin of course, the apples from that tree outside, resting on a disc of flaky pastry, the butter and caramelised sugar forming a pool around it and blending with the flamed calvados. This restaurant is as traditional a French restaurant as you could imagine were you to pick a place between Leighton Buzzard and Tring. Georges is straight out of central casting, expert, charming, and an interesting painter rather in the style of Paul Klee but too persuasive when it came to menu planning – I’d never felt more in need of a Spirella corset.  We aren’t used to joined up duck, that’s the trouble. Ducks in modern restaurants come in bits, as slivers of breast, or confit legs. At the Kings Arms they take almost all the ducks reared by one of the last breeders of this classic bird, and customers come regularly to consume it, all very suitable as we were within a duck’s flight east of Aylesbury. If we lived nearer we would put in more practice. It was the best duck I have ever eaten.

Next day, home in time for tea, via a quick stop at Stowe to see the new visitor centre, and watch the lucky pupils pass and repass under the oval ceiling of the main hall, a strong smell of school dinners reminding you that this sublime place has a more prosaic use. Lunch in the NT restaurant was an excellent mushroom soup. Bedfordshire and environs may not be everyone’s idea of a good holiday venue, but we saw the full range of English architecture, from Saxon churches to New Towns, from Palladian villas to our b&b, a perfect little Queen Anne house set in its own grounds. Oh, and a rather good stone circle nearer home too. As for the food – a bit of Italy, a lot of France, but all without needing a passport.

Pictured: Aylesbury ducks, the Stowe landscape gardens and ancient cottages in Saffron Walden.