Michael Deacon at Mr Hanbury’s Mason Arms
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.