Review: The Swan, Stratford St Mary
Charlotte Smith-Jarvis visits the type of pub beer lovers dream of...
I must confess, beer isn’t usually my bag - I’m a wine and cider kind of girl. But I set out to The Swan in Stratford St Mary to be proven wrong by owner Mark Dorber - lover of beer and co-director of The Beer Academy UK.
“We felt the need for British consumers to have their eyes opened to the range of quality beers from around the world,” Mark said of the ambitious project when I met him.
What he was hoping to create in The Swan, which was in a sorry state when he took it on, was a hub for celebrating the diversity of beer from the British isles, Europe and America.
Indeed, there are over 100 to sample (including one brewed by Adnams from the pub’s own hops) so patrons are spoilt for choice. And Mark intends to double this figure next year.
From thick, sturdy, rib-sticking dark ales, to frothy, hoppy little numbers, Mark has selected quite an array of brews to alight the senses of beer lovers.
How about a bottle of Fraoch Heather Ale, made by Bruce Williams with heather tips and herbs such as meadowsweet for what Mark calls an “other worldly” flavour?
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Or an Orval Trappiste beer?
If, like myself, beer isn’t usually your tipple, maybe try a subtle bottle of Fruh beer from Cologne, whose strawberry aromas may suit your palette better?
While we viewed the menu, I made my way through four of the five ciders available at the bar. The bittersweet Burrow Hill made by Julian Temperley, who Mark says grows some of the best cider apples in the country, sparkling Cornish Orchard, Hex and, my favourite, Hex Kingston, named after the variety of apple it’s produced from. Honeyed, floral and golden in colour, the drink was so smooth and just the right side of sweet – like a less viscous, less sickly version of a muscadet.
To go with my food, Mark kindly opened a bottle of Vinetrail’s Viognier – my favourite. In my opinion Viognier is a wine that’s not celebrated enough. It has a bold sense of stone fruit, light wash of acidity, and burst of soft freshness that works well with so many foods.
While waiting for supper, my hubby Jarv supped on JHB - which he’s told all and sundry about since. A marvellously smooth beer with only a hint of bitterness.
What I found very promising about the menu at The Swan was its length. It’s not a many-paged tome, rather a short, concise promise of good things – Blythburgh pork, red poll beef, East Anglian cheeses. Provenance, as well as quality, it is clear, are of utmost important here.
To warm us up and, quite frankly, begin to soak up the booze, was a cup of spiced pumpkin soup each.
Pumpkin soup can be tricky to get right. Too thick. Watery thin. Under seasoned. I’ve been at the unfortunate end of many a spoonful of bad soups made from this plump gourd.
But the chef here succeeded in a thick, velvety concoction that left a lingering hint of subtle spicing on the tongue and left us wanting for more.
So it’s good that our starters arrived not long after.
From a menu that included oysters three ways and dill marinated salmon gravadlax with fennel and cucumber slaw, Jarv opted for the pig’s head croquette – made by literally rendering down a whole pig’s head in a giant vat, and pulling away the succulent, flavoursome (and some say the best) meat.
Bound in breadcrumbs, the croquette was unctuous and yielding, and its garnishes of apple, raisins and capers added bites of fresh brightness that ensured a balanced finish. Jarv decided to match his food with the recommended beers from the menu, and to accompany the croquette was a glass of Vedett Extra White that even I enjoyed. The beer is apparently brewed with ingredients such as coriander seeds and Cointreau, which lend a special and rather intriguing taste to the finished product.
From the specials menu I leapt at the chance to sample the pub’s salt and pepper squid.
The chef’s hand is clearly a well-judged one. As well as being crisp, with no hint of rubber, the squid was speckled with just the right amount of seasoning, including freshly ground, fruity black pepper berries, to make the mouth water, inciting you to take another bite. The salad on the side was lightly coated in a zingy dressing to cleanse the palette. It was as good as any I’ve eaten in Portuguese and Spanish tapas bars.
Moving onto the main courses, and a read through the menu revealed steamed suet game pudding, sage gnocchi gratin and red poll steak with trimmings.
Wiping from his mouth the frothy, buttery head of a glass of St Bernadus Wit, Jarv set to work on his plate of whole baked plaice with sautéed new potatoes and anchovy butter. The fish flaked in the mouth effortlessly and wasn’t overpowered by the salty, seaside hit of the butter. A complete triumph.
I was in need of something really substantial to bolster me against the cold (and due to the fact we’ve been living on salads and sandwiches while our kitchen is remodelled).
I chose the char-grilled rare breed meat platter.
With my glasses off, I was quite happy to see the quantity of food on my plate – filled to the rim. But on closer inspection I saw nothing but crunchy potato wedges, grilled tomatoes, a field mushroom bursting with caramel-coloured juices, a glossy salad. Where was the meat?
No sooner had I looked up than a wooden board of carnivorous delights was being ceremoniously delivered to our table.
“Is that the portion for one person?” I asked, worried I’d been given someone else’s dinner by mistake. There was a two person version of the dish after all.
But I was assured it was correct.
So, in addition to my potatoes and veg, I had: a 6oz red poll steak, cooked medium and exactly to my liking; a tender fleshed venison chop, the eye pink and butter-soft and the meat around the bone gnarly and delectable; earthy nuggets of chicken livers; two dense sausages; and slices of fall-apart lamb belly, the fat rendered away to leave a delicate veil of ‘crackling’.
Binding it all together was a jug of chef’s jus which was just, wow. What. A. Dish!
I couldn’t finish it, despite the fact I shared some with Mr Jarvis. I’d say get to the pub early, order this and spend a few hours weaving your way through the platter with many bottles of beer.
We considered not having pudding, but I always manage to find room in a special section of my stomach designed to accommodate sweet things.
Jarv picked out the mocha chocolate tart with chocolate ice cream, which was pure, unabashed chocolate heaven with bells and whistles on. It utilised very good chocolate and had a clean, unsickly flavour. To go with it was a treacly thick Brooklyn Chocolate Stout. This is a beefy, rounded, punchy beer that fills the mouth. For both of us it was a tad too strong and bitter, but when drunk with a sliver of tart it was miraculously softened and became a little more gentle.
Treacle tart, made properly, is irresistible to me. But it must have crisp pastry, a filling that has body and texture, and that kick of citrus. It also has to be served warm.
The Swan’s version ticked all the boxes. The sweetness of syrup was tempered by bursts of lemon, with a chewy, plump texture, and perfect pastry. I also really enjoyed the ice cream, which was dappled with malt in homage to the pub’s love of beer. In fact, my ice cream paired beautifully with Jarv’s mocha tart too.
How to sum-up The Swan?
Firstly, the surroundings are unpretentious and unstuffy. There’s no posh Farrow and Ball paint job, and there’s none of that decadent designer paraphernalia so often draped about pubs to turn them into ‘gastro-pubs’. Instead, care has been taken to choose traditionally-made fixtures and fittings that blend into the character of the place.
It’s relaxed and laid back. So much so that when we arrived we were happy to see a family all gathered around a board game at the bar. This is what pubs were designed for – socialising.
My hat goes off to the fantastic staff who were beyond pleasant and talked with passion and genuine interest about the food, as well as rattling off stories on the beer and wine without batting an eyelid.
As for the food. Well cooked. Well seasoned. Flavours that work and do justice to the main ingredients. And prices that more than reflect the ample portion sizes.
If you enjoy beer, cider, carefully chosen wines and good food, do seek this place out. It really is worth the trip.
The Swan, Lower St, Stratford St Mary CO7 6JR
01206 321244. www.stratfordswan.com