The day my side order of veg cost me ten bob a bean
It was the beans; seven green beans to be precise that sent me into a spin. It was at a Cotswolds gastropub where I ordered the verdant veg. I wanted the roughage to complement the meal. It is true the dish arrived on time, and was perfectly cooked, but there were just seven of the knobbly fingers. The price for this ‘side’ was £4.50. That is over 64p a bean; more than ten shillings in old money.
I had asked for the vegetables to accompany my steak (£24), Bearnaise sauce (£2.50) and French fries (£4.50). If you include my glass of Cote du Rhone and the 12.5% service charge, that is almost fifty quid for steak ‘n chips. You’ve got to be a Cotswold weekender to afford that sort of price. The Wolseley in London’s Mayfair, for example, which according to The Times is one of the top 25 restaurants in Britain, charges £20 for steak and that includes the fries.
I was still smarting over the ten bob beans when I dropped in at another local hostelry. It is under new ownership. The new landlord told me he is importing a fancy chef because he too hopes to make it a ‘destination pub’. The Cotswolds, I thought, needs another destination pub like it needs another dry stone wall. What we do want, however, are old-fashioned boozers.
Earlier this year Clive Watson, executive chairman of the City Pub Company, was reported to be turning his 34 pubs in London into what he calls ‘wet-led’ businesses. In other words, focusing on beer not food. Britain’s oldest brewer Shepherd Neame has stopped selling hot food at many of its pubs and other pub groups are following suit. “The pub business is going back to the future,” says Watson. “What customers want is an honest pint, a good old chat and a bit of blotting paper.” And the latest figures bear this out – last year drinks sales in pubs rose 1.8% while food revenues declined by 1.4%, according to Coffer Peach Business Tracker. Meanwhile the Good Pub Guide 2019 has railed against fancy food in pubs and says customers want a return to “good honest pub grub”.
I do accept however that a Cotswold country pub is a very different beast to a city, town or suburban tavern. The rent, or lease, for a pub in our area of outstanding natural beauty is frequently exorbitant. Furthermore, there is rarely the footfall to make a living solely from beer and peanuts and there are problems with staff, as most cannot afford to live in the area. The result has been, at least for the last 20 years, to turn our pubs into middle-ofthe-road hotel restaurants.
Many years ago, on a wet Tuesday lunchtime, I dropped into a pub, the Queen’s Head, in a hamlet a few miles from Cambridge. It offered only one dish – Brown Windsor soup. The delicious soup, which one served oneself from an urn, came with homemade bread and a chart that allowed customers to judge the quality of the broth according to its shade from dark brown (“hits the spot”’) to greenish (“usually contains peas”). The pub was jammed with customers. I have often thought since that the Queen’s Head had found the solution to the economics of running a country pub – no fancy kitchen, no chef and no waiters or waitresses. Why I wonder don’t Cotswold pubs serve British pub grub that requires no kitchens and no staff? Why not produce wonderful soup from an urn? Why not buy pies that just need heating up from the excellent pie companies in our area? Why not offer proper cold sausages, hand-made Scotch eggs and Ploughman’s Lunches?
There are some excellent gastropubs in the Cotswolds and my green bean purveyor is amongst them. It has a great atmosphere and good food. But it is not a pub. Nor is it an inn. It is a restaurant. We need restaurants, as surely as we need butchers, bakers and gift shops selling candles, but we’ve got too many of them, most of them masquerading as pubs. What we need are bars where, without being charged like wounded bulls, without damask napkins and absurdly fancy wine lists, we can settle in for a pint, and a pie… and hold those beans.