Ta­ble talk

Michael Dea­con at Mr Han­bury’s Ma­son Arms

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS - Michael Dea­con

I HAD A DRINK. Yes, af­ter pre­cisely 230 days of iron-willed so­bri­ety, I al­lowed my­self a drink. San Miguel, it was. One of my favourite beers. A glit­ter­ingly cold pint of it. In thrilled an­tic­i­pa­tion I watched the glass fill with gold. At last. At long, long last. What a treat. What a joy. I lifted it to my lips, and sipped.

It was bloody hor­ri­ble. Se­ri­ously. It was hor­ri­ble. I don’t mean there was any­thing wrong with the San Miguel it­self. It was just the strength of it. It hit me like a ham­mer. I couldn’t han­dle it. It was only five-per-cent ABV, yet to me it felt like 15. Those eight months with­out booze had turned me into a scream­ing light­weight.

Per­haps it was just a ques­tion of get­ting used to it again. Grimly I slogged my way through my pint, and or­dered a sec­ond. But no. This one was just as bru­tal as the first. My fa­ther, who rarely drinks, has of­ten said he prefers beers of around two per cent, and finds five per cent too strong. I never used to un­der­stand. I do now.

I’d given up drink­ing to be health­ier, but I didn’t mean it to be per­ma­nent. I thought I could al­ways come back to al­co­hol on spe­cial oc­ca­sions. And since I was go­ing on hol­i­day to Spain for a week, I de­cided there would be no harm in the odd gin and tonic by the pool. Or, to kick off, a pint of San Miguel at the air­port.

Yet, no mat­ter how much I wanted to en­joy it, I couldn’t. I’ll tell you what it re­minded me of: be­ing 16. When you’re

that age, beer tastes foul. You don’t ad­mit it, of course, but it does. On the rare oc­ca­sions you get the op­por­tu­nity, how­ever, you drink it any­way, be­cause you’re so de­ter­mined to like it . You’re con­vinced that drink­ing beer is cru­cial to be­com­ing an adult, to be­com­ing a man – and you aren’t go­ing to let a de­tail as tri­fling as the ran­cid hate­ful­ness of the taste de­ter you from your goal. So you force your­self to try again, and again. And even­tu­ally, once you’ve drunk beer enough times, you do get used to the taste, and you gen­uinely like it. The ef­fort has fi­nally paid off. Now, though, I don’t have that mo­ti­va­tion. I sup­pose, in the man­ner of a sports­man com­ing out of re­tire­ment, I could re­cap­ture my old form by ded­i­cat­ing my­self to a pun­ish­ing regime of train­ing: four pints a night to be­gin with, say, then build­ing up to five, six, seven, eight, un­til, once again, I am fully booze-fit.

But I’m just not sure it would be worth the bother. With­out al­co­hol, I save money, I make less of an id­iot of my­self on Twit­ter, and my body looks less like a de­pressed blanc­mange. Still, it does seem a pity that I can no longer en­joy the odd pint. The plea­sure, I’m afraid, has gone. With booze, it seems, you’re ei­ther to­tally in, or to­tally out.

I can’t be­lieve it. Stop­ping drink­ing has stopped me drink­ing.

And so, even though this week’s restau­rant is a pub, I was back on the sparkling wa­ter. Opened this sum­mer in the depths of ru­ral Ox­ford­shire, Mr Han­bury’s Ma­son Arms is part of a trendy new ho­tel chain called Artist Res­i­dence. Vis­ually, it’s a cu­ri­ous com­bi­na­tion. A 16th-cen­tury farm­house, hud­dled and cosy and dark – yet dec­o­rated, here and there, with kitsch hip­ster art­works: a neon cru­ci­fix, a neon Cupid’s ar­row, a neon sign that in chaotic pink cap­i­tals reads, ‘ WHAT DID I DO LAST NIGHT?’ Framed in the gents’, mean­while, is a mocked-up let­ter from Boris John­son to Ge­orge Os­borne, satiri sing their sup­posed views of the poor (‘Let them eat KFC’).

Still, the staff are ex­tremely friendly – warm and chatty, in that way that is al­ways mildly dis­con­cert­ing to any­one who spends most of their work­ing life in Lon­don. And the food’s not bad, ei­ther. The menu is Bri­tish, with lots of lo­cal in­gre­di­ents (they grow their own veg­eta­bles in the gar­den). I started with the grilled sar­dine: nicely salted, with a crunchy dust­ing of golden bat­ter, com­ple­mented by fen­nel and but­tery sam­phire.

Next came a wob­bling cube of pork belly. The e di­tor of this mag­a­zine

The staff are warm and chatty, in that way that is mildly dis­con­cert­ing to a Lon­doner

teases me for the ma­ni­a­cal fre­quency with which I write about pork belly, but damn it, I love it, and I’ll go on or­der­ing it un­til the day I die. Which, given the amount of pork belly I eat, will prob­a­bly be quite soon. The pork belly at Mr Han­bury’s was all right, but the ac­com­pa­ny­ing bon­bon of smoked hock and foie gras should have been a lit­tle bit hot­ter. (Dear Lord. I’ve just reread that sen­tence. I’m ex­press­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with a‘ bon­bon of smoked hock and foie gras’. What have I be­come? ‘Fur­ther­more, the red car­pet rolled out for my ar­rival looked less than pris­tine, and I was forced to up­braid one of the wait­resses for ne­glect­ing to curtsy.’)

My main was a hearty wedge of grouse, en­livened with pearl bar­ley and co­coa nibs, girolle mush­rooms, lar­dons, and chunky savoy cab­bage un­der­neath. Also a side of ‘game chips’: crisps fried in duck fat. (Bit flavour­less, to be hon­est.) Fi­nally, a lus­cious pud­ding of many flavours and tex­tures: fat straw­ber­ries, cham­pagne jelly, crum­ble, sor­bet and ice cream.

There can’t have been very much cham­pagne in that jelly, though, be­cause it didn’t make me drunk. And these days, I could get drunk chew­ing on a wine gum.

Be­low Straw­ber­ries, cham­pagne jelly, crum­ble, sor­bet and ice cream

Above Grouse with pearl bar­ley and girolle mush­rooms.

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