Headline : The good things about the Bear at Home
Distribution Source : Oxford Times
Date : 5:16pm Wednesday 22nd April 2009
Author: Christopher Gray
I was first made aware of the good things about the Bear at Home in North Moreton – some of them at least – through an article early last month in The Times.
In it, the landlord Tim Haworth described how he and his wife Alison, tired of the many deficiencies of their local, decided to take the place over and see if they could manage it better. So well did they do, that very soon they found themselves in charge of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Oxfordshire pub of 2007.
Tim is an antique dealer by trade – he has stuff on sale at the Bear, besides running a shop in Wallingford – but he clearly has a gift for landlordship, if such a word exists,. He said: “Seeing people having a good time at your establishment is incredibly rewarding.” I fancy he has quite a lot of opportunity for doing just that.
Twenty-seven years ago, when I was interviewing the licensee of what was then called simply The Bear she, too, spoke of her happiness in the pub trade. “It’s just like having a party every day of the week.”
Since the licensee was Tracy Reed, a former actress once a darling of the gossip columns, it must be presumed that ...
partying was a subject she knew a lot about. Tracy could boast a considerable theatrical pedigree as the granddaughter of Fay Compton, step-daughter of director Carol Reed, cousin of the infamous Oliver Reed and wife to four husbands, including Edward Fox and Bill Simpson, TV’s Dr Finlay. It seemed strange then – and indeed now – that she should have adapted so well to pub life. She put in four years at The Bear, during which time I used it regularly, before moving away from the area. In the years since, I have visited the place perhaps three or four times under various licensees, and never found much about the place to commend it.
It seems reasonable to suppose, in these days of massive pub closures, that The Bear might not have lasted long but for the Haworths’ takeover. It is commendable, I think, that they have managed to make their place all things to all people “good for families, dogs, hikers, bikers, whoever,” as one regular put it.
What it is perhaps not good for, quite deliberately. is lovers of fancy food. Tim and Alison instead aim for simple home-made dishes (some of the puddings excepted, we learned) produced from best quality ingredients.
It is the sort of food that might have been expected everywhere when I was in my teens and twenties, before the invention of cook-chill and the proliferation of ‘gastro-pubs’. Twice a week, there is a delivery of fresh fish from Cornwall. The Haworths urge on their website that anyone wanting to enjoy this at its best is advised to book for Friday, Saturday or Wednesday. We took them at their word and went for Saturday.
When Rosemarie phoned to make a reservation, she was told that haddock would be available, and that we could put our name on a portion of it if we wished. We did this at once.
The following evening, at 8pm as arranged, we presented ourselves at the bar, to a very warm welcome from the young man working behind it. Initial impressions, so important in this sort of situation, could hardly have been better. We discovered later in the evening, that the barman was Tim’s godson, Richard Webber. Recently qualified from drama school, he is now beginning to make a name for himself on the stage as Richard Holt.
Charming service, some of it supplied by the daughters of the house, was a feature of the evening. We could have been more fortunate in our table, since this was in a side annexe away from the buzz of the bar. Within minutes of our arrival, the people on other tables had gone, leaving Rosemarie, Olive and me in solitary splendour, with no one to look at but ourselves.
This was fine viewing, of course, as were the succession of dishes which arrived with pleasing speed from the kitchen where Alison was in charge that night.
First for me was a starter of carrot and coriander soup. I went for this in place of smoked salmon and crème fraiche, which had been struck from the menu, presumably because it was sold out. This was a rugged, robust bowlful, with a slight crunchiness to the carrots, rather than their being puréed to a even smoothness, and bags of that delicious coriander flavour. It came with chunks of crusty bread and butter, not as much as I would have liked, but Rosemarie generously gave me a slice of the brown toast that came with her potted shrimps. These were given a definite thumbs up, with a good flavour of nutmeg especially welcomed.
Olive was pleased, too, with her starter, a slice of smooth country paté with toast and onion marmalade. Like Rosemarie’s shrimps, it was served with a nicely dressed leaf salad. Other starters included prawns in their shells with garlic mayonnaise, baked boxed Camembert (for two to share) and a blackboard special of mussels. The prawns, which can be ordered by the pint or half, figured again among the main courses, along with a range of steaks, vegetable lasagne, ham, eggs and chips, chicken salad, burger and a changing curry (red Thai tonight). Not a massive choice, but as I said they like to keep it simple.
It was the haddock for me, a big chunk, beautifully fresh. Lightly grilled and served with butter, parsley and a wedge of lemon, it could not have been improved upon. With it came mange tout, diced carrots and unpeeled new potatoes in their skins.
There was an option, had I wished, to have the fish served battered with chips and mushy peas.
Ever a burger fan, Rosemarie ordered the Big Bear, a 6oz job, made from 100 per cent meat (very good meat, she thought) and served with bacon and (more unusually) onion. For an extra 50p, she added cheese. The chips were judged particularly good. They are properly home-made, by which I mean cut from potatoes in the kitchen.
Olive ordered a 4oz rump steak, which her daughter and I both thought sounded rather measly, with no prospect of any at all going home for Billy the Jack Russell. In fact, it looked surprisingly generous on the plate, well-cooked as specified and served with a big grilled mushroom, onions, tomato and more of those excellent chips.
As usual, I withdrew from the pudding stage, leaving my companions to make their choices. It was here we learned that most of the puds are bought in, though the gooey chocolate spoon cake and deep-filled apple tart seemed none the worse for that. Forgetting old enmities, we drank a bottle of Argentinian wine, Alto Pampas Viognier in which was displayed the maker’s definite talent to amuse with this increasingly popular grape. The last drops drained it was across to the bar for real ale (Rosemarie), coffee (Olive and me) and conversation with Tim and barman Richard.
Friendly and fun, this was very much a place for us.